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Silent Word Ministry’s Annual Sign Language Class Helps Improve Communication Between Deaf and Hearing

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For over 25 years, Silent Word Ministries (SWM) has hosted a free beginning sign language class to offer the community the chance to learn a new skill while also promoting deaf awareness. This year, the class took place from April 24-28, led by Jon Barr, president of the ministry, and Tabitha Beam, home office missionary.

Barr explained, “When Ted and Carlene Camp started Silent Word, the Lord provided for the ministry. The Camps wanted to give back to the community, and at that time, there were several deaf people in the area. We wanted them to be able to talk with people in town.”

Barr began teaching the class in the early 2000s, but others have also taught it over the years. Aside from a $5 fee for materials, the class is free to all ages.

Photo by Lydia Berglar – Led by Tabitha Beam, participants practice the American Sign Language alphabet during Silent Word Ministry’s annual beginning sign language class.

Some participants take the class so they can better communicate with deaf people, while others simply want to learn a new skill. As for Barr, his interest in the deaf world began in childhood when he became friends with a deaf boy.

He recalled, “Our families became close, but I didn’t learn sign language then. When I was a senior in high school, a man came to teach sign language at my church. I didn’t plan to enter deaf ministry then; it was just curiosity at that time. When studying music in college, the Lord made it pretty obvious that I should work with the deaf. I changed my major, and my college didn’t have a sign language class, so I asked if I could teach one. I was able to teach there for seven semesters.”

Beam’s interest started in her teen years when she met a deaf man at her church. She learned sign language from the interpreter at her church and took sign language classes throughout high school and college. She learned about SWM while on a mission trip, explaining, “I took a mission trip to the Philippines to work with a deaf camp there. Brother Jon was the speaker for the camp that year, and that’s how I learned about Silent Word. That whole time, the Lord was directing me towards deaf ministry.” Beam joined the SWM team in 2011.

In the late 90s, Barr created the American Sign Language video vocabulary for SWM. They are currently in the process of remaking the films. Barr noted that while there are some online resources available to learn sign language, such as, it’s difficult to learn the language without someone to talk with in person.

Therefore, deaf people from the community join the class on the final day so participants can practice their newly-learned skill.

Barr explained that while sign language is not universal, (for example, the United States uses American Sign Language, Brazil has a version called LIBRAS or Língua Brasileira dos Sinais, and Mexico has several versions of Mexican Sign Language), deaf people from different countries have an easier time communicating with each other than speakers of different verbal languages.

Barr explained, “Even though they’re using different signs, visual stimuli are easily understood. We point a lot and negotiate what signs to use.”

Barr noted that when meeting a deaf person for the first time, hearing people often don’t know what to do, so they tend to disengage or avoid. He noted, “Deaf people are normal people. They don’t view themselves as handicapped. You can wave, smile, use a thumbs up, and still communicate.”

He continued, “One thing deaf people will watch is your eyes. They appreciate your eye contact, and it sends a negative message if you avoid eye contact. They’re used to communicating with hearing people who don’t know sign language.”

Barr explained that historically, misunderstandings between deaf and hearing people were (and still are) significant. “Paternalism, like hearing people telling deaf people what to do and assigning them menial tasks, has happened throughout all ages. Deaf people have all kinds of knowledge and understanding, but the language barrier creates [a stigma].”

He continued, “The World Federation of the Deaf reports that today, 80% of deaf people worldwide have no access to education because of finances or the stigma associated with being deaf. Many religions believe that having a deaf child means you offended the gods. It’s a crime here in the United States, but worldwide, deaf people are still sometimes locked in rooms and kept hidden.”

In part because of historical isolation, deaf culture has certain differences from American cultural standards. Beam explained, “Historically, deaf people grew up in families that did not know sign language. They become united with others who know the language. Those became their mentors and the people they rely on and can trust.”

One example of cultural differences is how deaf people say goodbye. Barr said, “In the deaf world, we ask permission to leave. We make sure everyone knows we’re leaving, when we’re going to be back, or when we’ll see each other next. It’s a long goodbye, instead of just saying ‘see you later’ and taking off.”

Photo courtesy of SWM – This year’s participants in Silent Word Ministries’ Community Sign Language Class were, from left, Tabitha Beam (instructor), Michael and Sandy Ronan, Helen Chappelear, and Ashlynn Brainard.

Beam added that deaf and hearing people emphasize different features. She explained, “Hearing people value their ears. Deaf people value their eyes. Anything that is auditory is worthless to them. Also, they hug a lot, even when meeting for the first time.”

She explained that deaf people value information and communication. “Think about all the things we hear every day [that they don’t]. They can’t turn on the radio to hear the news. They can’t watch TV if there are no subtitles. They can’t walk into a church and listen to a sermon. If someone walks into a room but they’re not looking, they won’t know unless someone tells them. They strongly value people letting them know what’s going on.”

SWM is also hosting a two-part conference on July 13, 14, and 15. For the hearing, they offer an American Sign Language Institute particularly designed for church interpreters and signers, and for the deaf, they offer the Deaf Bible Conference.

For more information about the summer conference or the ministry as a whole, visit, email, call 706-657-8000, or video call 706-956-0485.

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