Deaf People in China

I remember very few things from my early school days, but have a vivid memory of a lesson about Helen Keller and how to sign the alphabet using British Sign Language. Jump forward 20 years and I am living and working in China. I have learnt Chinese and teach English, a normal route for Christian workers in that country.


However, I then sensed God had something else in store. I began to pray about various avenues of service and, as I did, I happened to meet Chinese deaf people on the street near my home. My childhood memory came flooding back. I remember being fascinated at the time, thinking, 'One day I'd like to learn to sign', and to my surprise God challenged me to pursue this thought. I contacted the local deaf school to find out whether there was someone who could teach me to sign and in turn they asked me to help with the students' English classes. That is how I began working with the deaf.


There are 21 million hearing-impaired people in China, many of them young people. When you ask why they are deaf, sadly you get a common response. That as children, just two or three years old, they contracted a high fever and were taken to a clinic. They were given a strong injection of antibiotics that brought down their fever, but left them with permanent hearing loss. The government has tried to do something about this, but there are so many clinics across China with poorly trained 'practitioners' that it is hard to control. Following this shock, parents spend a lot of time and money trying to find a cure - unfortunately, there is none.


Generally speaking, the deaf and blind in China have more opportunities than people with other disabilities. In Britain, with our Christian heritage, people are valued as being made in God's image, whereas in communist China, what matters is what you contribute to society. Therefore, as they are mentally able, the deaf and blind have state provision of schools and access to education, unlike a child with autism or Down syndrome. In recent years, many universities have also woken up to the financial benefits of providing courses for deaf students. However, there are only a limited number of programmes to choose from, and they rely more on visual learning than on language skills: for example Art, Design and IT. Once they leave university it is difficult for the deaf to find meaningful work, as employers feel they are just 'too difficult' to communicate with. While this may be a challenge, there are state-run factories that offer employment to deaf people.


In terms of family life, the deaf often feel lonely and on the fringe of society. Their parents do not learn to sign and simply strive to 'rescue them from the silent world' and make them 'normal' - make them speak.


Over the past decade, the Chinese church has not only grown in numbers but in maturity, and it is seeking ways to reach out to those who are marginalised within the community. I have had the privilege of working alongside one such church.


This particular church started a campus ministry and discovered that the university had over 300 deaf students. The church, therefore, began a specific meeting for these students. When I joined, I found that the leaders were all young people, eager to share God's Word and faithful in prayer. However, they lacked the experience of working with the deaf and did not realise how a deaf fellowship would need to differ from a hearing one. For example, during a service a preacher would often jump backwards and forwards through the Bible, reading a verse here and there and, in the process, totally lose the deaf students. A deaf person's reading ability is often lower than a hearing person's, especially with something as unfamiliar as the Bible - this teaching style did not work.


Previously, I had spent a year with a deaf-led church in another city, so I was able to offer some suggestions. A simple change, such as focusing on one passage, makes all the difference. Deaf people understand the world through their eyes, so making services as visual as possible, by including images when telling a story, or a skit or video to illustrate your point, has more of an impact.


Using sign language has strengths and weaknesses. As the deaf depend more on what they can see, it is difficult to express things that you cannot see in sign, such as abstract ideas or theology. Instead, as a fellowship we chose initially to focus on biblical narratives, rather than on the detailed arguments of Scripture.


I and the Chinese church leaders do not have hearing impairments. Although we do our best, we cannot fully understand what it is to be deaf, nor express ourselves in sign as well as they do. From an early stage, I felt it was important to encourage the deaf students to participate more in the services and for those without hearing impairments to do less. It has been a great encouragement to me that, through training in how to lead worship and teach the Bible, we have seen the young believers growing. When I first joined this group the deaf were only responsible for background tasks. Now, they are the ones who lead the praise time, the prayers and the mid-week Bible study. One day I hope we will have a full-time deaf church leader who can lead the fellowship and preach. This is my dream but it is not quite yet a reality.


The fellowship faces the challenge of only new or young believers attending. In their three years at university, they grow in their faith and are able to do more in leading and serving. However, when they graduate and move away we have to start all over again. For the deaf graduate, the challenge when they return home is to find a deaf fellowship or a church with sign language. Without this they can fall away or end up in a sect. In recent years Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) from overseas have become very active among the deaf. Attracted by the chance to have a foreign friend, the deaf attend the group and lack discernment to see the difference between the JWs and a true Christian fellowship.



- for more deaf churches to be planted across China

- for the provision of good theological training for deaf believers and for an increase in the number of deaf church leaders

- for protection against the influence of Jehovah's Witnesses

- for the hearing churches to explore opportunities to reach the deaf and to make their services deaf friendly, such as having a translator or using visual aids

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