Everyone Spoke Sign Language
In her 1988 book Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language, Nora Groce details a study made of the historic community of Martha’s Vineyard that had a high incidence of deafness due to genetic factors. When the community came to the Massachusetts island in 1690, they had already developed their own form of sign language which eventually became one of the predecessors of American Sign Language (ASL), widely used today.
What is interesting is that the whole community learned this sign language, essentially becoming bilingual. So persons who couldn’t hear were not thought of or treated differently, but could function the same as everyone else in the community.
Meanwhile, on the mainland of Massachusetts, the state had what was considered the finest program of services in the country for persons who were deaf. Yet persons who were deaf were poorer by every measure used. They had a much lower high school graduation rate, lower marriage rate, fewer children if they did marry, and more limited work options.
A story from the church
Mike and Elaine are the parents of a 14-year old daughter, Susan, who has Down syndrome. Susan is polite and friendly and desires to be accepted and included by her peers. She has been integrated with minimal support into the church and its various programs since she was 5 years old.
However, in the past year, Susan has been restricted from a key component of the youth program because of her disability. While she is allowed to participate in a large youth group gathering once a month, she is not permitted to attend a girl's small home fellowship group because the other girls felt uncomfortable and the leadership felt Susan was unable to engage in meaningful learning and discussion.
While the youth leadership proposed a "special needs" home fellowship group, there is currently no such group in existence, nor is it clear to Mike and Elaine who would form such a group.
Community trumps specialized services
John McKnight of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University used the Martha’s Vineyard example at the outset of his 1989 article, "Why Servanthood Is Bad."
He calls the church to task for buying into a secular model of delivering specialized services to “needy” persons instead of demonstrating a Christian hospitality which makes the necessary accommodations to include everyone in the life of the community.
McKnight’s critique is radical, but one which the church should take seriously. When we focus on “serving” the “needy” we are, in effect, actually becoming their “masters” by relegating such persons to a lower status and pretending that our professional services are the answer to their needs. This is particularly the case where such persons are taken out of the community and isolated in institutional settings.
Such actions, argues McKnight, are actually destructive in the long run because they create dependency on professional services and take away from the community the ability to welcome, adapt, and accommodate--in short, to become a community!
Implications for the Church
The story of Susan and her parents illustrates the subtle way in which the church can further disable persons who are different because of physical, developmental, or cognitive disabilities or mental illness. Out of our own fear and discomfort, we rationalize our isolation techniques by appealing to what is supposedly best for the person involved and which allows the rest of the community to function smoothly.
This is not to deny that there are tough issues involved when the life of a community gets disrupted. Neither is it to disparage the expertise of professionals. It is to suggest that all of our efforts should have the ultimate goal of integrating persons back into the life of the community.
Suggestions for action
- Start with abilities, not disabilities. What can the person do? What are interests and capacities in that person that may be overlooked?
- Ask how the person already connects with the community? How can that be strengthened?
- Ask “experts” to teach others in the church how to best interact with the person.
- Never underestimate the capacity of a person with seemingly limited abilities to use those abilities to ignite the capacities of others.