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Heart Language

Heart Language

“Oh no, I forgot to turn on the light switch for her!” I thought to myself as I shut the bathroom door. Then I remembered–wait, she’s blind! So does it help if I turn on the light? I didn’t know. I had very little experience working with the vision impaired, but I was learning a lot.

That Saturday I had volunteered to help escort my new friend Linda around campus. She had come to proofread a new Braille book and I was her seeing-eye person for the day.

Other volunteer students came by in shifts to read aloud for an hour at a time. As they read to her from the original book, she ran her fingers quickly across the large Braille pages and made notes of any mistakes. My job was to come get her at the meal times to lead her to the cafeteria and eat with her. It was a pleasure, because she was so sweet and extremely patient with me (which was a necessity considering how often I’d forget to tell her something important, like “watch out for the uneven sidewalk here.”)

At dinner she felt her food with her hands as she cut it with her fork and knife. I remember that very distinctly. I never realized how much I look down at my food as I eat it. Nor had I ever thought about how many books have yet to be translated into Braille. I discovered that I couldn’t possibly understand all the disadvantages of living without sight.

That same kind of epiphany happened a few weeks ago when I met a Wycliffe Bible translator named Wes. He stood quietly by his booth at a missions conference as I read the material on his display board. Initially I wasn’t going to say anything to him (for fear of accidentally making a lifelong commitment to Wycliffe), but something I read on the board made me too curious.

“I’m amazed by your list of the thousands of languages that have no translation of the Bible. But on the list, I keep seeing different kinds of sign language. So why do you need to translate the Bible into different kinds of sign language? Can’t the deaf read?”

Not in their heart language, he said. His fellow linguists, Albert and Paul helped explain it to me. The deaf who can read a written language have learned it as a second language, and that written language is worlds apart from the sign language they know. American Sign Language, for instance, is by no means “English for your hands” like most hearing people think.

I’d never thought about that. But it makes sense. As they explained, in most written languages, the written symbols correspond to sounds that many deaf have never heard. So naturally, the sign language develops independently from the written language. Thus learning to read can be very difficult for the deaf, just as it was trés difficile for me to survive two years of French in high school. (I had to look that French phrase up.)

There are a thousand more things that you never would think about unless you yourself were deaf. Or blind. Or unable to walk. I think many of us could never fully comprehend what it means to be disabled. We can’t conceive of all the implications of losing what is so fundamental to our function, and conversely, we can’t imagine all the advantages we enjoy.

I think it bears mentioning because it’s easy to exist with this limited understanding of disability, and, even if only subconsciously, assume the problem has been rectified by advances in technology, medicine and awareness.

We have closed captioning. And Braille. And prosthetics. And the handicapped parking spaces. And we all go out of our way to make it easier for them.

As I discovered, it’s not that simple. Step back for a moment and realize what you have. Be grateful. You have been blessed beyond measure if you enjoy a fully able body today. (Still not convinced? Read Dr. Paul Brand’s Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants.)

So thank Him.

Next time the sun shines through your window in the morning and makes you hide your head under the covers, thank God you can see. Next time the neighbor’s dog won’t shut up, thank God you can hear. Next time you’re exhausted after a long day of being on your feet, thank God you can stand.

Step back and take stock of your blessings. You’re lucky, you really are.

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