Paganism and the Deaf Community
by Matthew Finnemore
The deaf community is as wide and highly diverse as the hearing community. In fact, most deaf people (as with many sub-cultures and minority groups) view themselves as members of one large deaf family. Members of the deaf community often write Deaf with a capital as they see that as meaning a member of the deaf world. They wear it (quite rightly, in my view) as a badge of honour and try to make the hearing world understand that this involves more than a lack of ability to hear. The deaf community has its own culture, own ways of doing things and, as most people know, their own language.
Sign languages themselves, even though they are specific to each country – most of the time even to each region with signs differing greatly from one place to the next – most signers can make themselves understood to quite a remarkable degree by avoiding use of certain regional and country specific signs and using other more iconic signs (1). However, although many hearing people have heard of sign language and are aware of its existence, as a signer, I regularly am asked why sign language is not international. There is indeed ISL (International Sign) (2). However, this is used for lectures, events and such and not all deaf people can understand it. Indeed, a few months ago, I attended a weekend long workshop on Deaf empowerment which was in International Sign and it required simultaneous interpretation into German Sign Language (3). During the course of this essay, I hope that it will become apparent why International Sign is merely a means of communication between deaf people and not the overall lingua franca of the deaf world and why there are country specific sign languages.
The main point also of my essay is to show how the deaf community is facing change in its religious thinking and how we as pagans, with a little preparation and forethought, can be prepared for members of the deaf community. Generally, we pride ourselves on the inclusive nature of our religious view (4) and in my opinion, as part of this inclusivity, we need to be aware of people who are possibly within our local communities who would greatly enjoy seeing a ceremony, or talking about nature etc. I will attempt to offer a small insight into how sign language works and how it is possible, again with a little preparation, to sign certain elements of ritual using some basic functions of sign language and show how the Deaf also would progress in “creating” signs. I will then attempt to show based on members of the pagan community here in Berlin, what basic rules can be used to communicate with the Deaf if a signer is not available.
I must however stress that the information and sources that I use in this essay are mostly centred around Germany and DGS, because that is the country I live and work in and where I have access to
the most information. I also use DGS so my knowledge of sign language is limited to that. However, with a little research, the names and addresses of signers can be found out and the information in this essay applied to the relevant area.
In Germany today, there are around 80,000 deaf people. They make up roughly 0.1% of Germany’s 80 million strong population. As with all deaf communities in the world (with the possible exception of Sweden and the USA – this will be explained in due course), the deaf communities have been largely suppressed and operated underground until very recently. Generally speaking, in Europe at least, the religion of choice of the Deaf is Christianity. However, among Germany’s Deaf there are up to 3000 Muslims (5), 600 Jews (6) and (X) Christians.
Currently, many of the aforementioned religions have taken it upon themselves to create YouTube videos explaining different festival, passages of the bible, or surah. Having spoken to a number of deaf regarding their religious views (I have to say that I am rather vocal about being pagan, so it does crop up in conversation), I have noticed that a number of younger deaf people are starting to question the traditional religious choices of their parents, if any were made. Many deaf, especially those from the former GDR, were not raised in a religious context. However, it needs to be stated that for many deaf people, the Christian church was the running institution behind their schooling and indeed their lives. There are indeed many stories of how members of the church defended the Deaf during the second world war and many who saw it as their remit from God to take care of the Deaf. The stories are heart-warming and greatly positive.
I credit this sudden critical thought to the advancement in deaf education made, in Germany at least, since the recognition of the DGS as a language in its own right in 2002. I think that it is important here, to describe the situation of deaf education in Germany (and indeed most of Europe) as this will serve to explain a great deal.
One large name in German Deaf education is Samuel Heinicke. He was a pioneer of the so-called German method. Around the same time, there was a French method that made its way to America and Sweden and was used by those two countries.
Samuel Heinicke’s method was to teach children to speak and interact orally. It became known as the oral method as it mainly focussed around the use of lip-reading and articulation. Heinicke’s ethos was that the deaf were valuable cogs in society and needed to work as such. This came under great scrutiny from the church as the church believed that God had made the deaf mute and unable to hear for a reason and Heinicke was interfering in God’s design. The truth of the matter is that the deaf are anything but mute. If one uses a language that is not based on hearing, the use of the vocal chords becomes somewhat superfluous. Many deaf are therefore silent when they sign, but they are anything other than non-communicative. Heinicke taught that children should not be taught to sign and he only used the finger alphabet as a last step to help the children understand the differences between letters such as K, R, L, D etc.
The French method had the opposite approach. They taught that deaf should learn to communicate at all first, before learning to read lips and deal with hearing. The approach was first pioneered by a monk called L’Epée and continued by Gallaudet, who also travelled to Germany in collecting information about deaf education. The Germans, however, were more secretive about their methods.
While both methods were being taught, there was no definitive consensus regarding which was the preferred method. This then resulted in the Congress of Milan in 1881. The congress was attended by the worlds deaf teachers and educators. The decision was made that Heinicke’s method of oral education was the preferred and best method. The two countries who did not join in that vote were, again, the USA and Sweden.
As of that point, sign language was systematically driven underground. People were taught in school that signing was a bad thing. Hearing parents who gave birth to deaf children were taught that in teaching their child to sign, they were stunting their child’s development. All of this sounds very arcane, but one only has to find a member of the deaf community who is around 80 years old to hear the worst stories imaginable. Schools for the deaf were set up away from the general public.
The USA and Sweden took a more inclusive route and now have sign language education and tuition in state schools that leaves their European counterparts miles behind.
Even now, there are educators and teachers in schools for the deaf who still see their pupils as cognitively stunted and backward. It was not until 1989, when sign languages were recognised by the EU as languages in their own right, did things start to move for deaf education. If we were to take a small step aside and look at the age of enlightenment around 18th Century. This was a time of huge flux when the authority of the church was greatly challenged by the hearing world who had started to make huge leaps forward in scientific and rational thought. To come back to the deaf, it is my thought – this is merely a hypothesis and has not been proven or disproven – that the slow shift in the deaf community in terms of religion stem from the changes in education. Teachers no longer see their pupils as cognitively unable to comprehend complex thought, therefore the Deaf are now being taught to think critically and to examine evidence and where there is none, to make up their own minds. This has indeed led to many people becoming atheist, as in the hearing world.
Whilst researching this paper, I spoke to four Deaf people two Christians and two pagans about their religion and how they came to it. In general, all parties said that they had come to their faiths by questioning the world around them and the world they were raised in. I was greatly encouraged by the fact that all four parties had been questioning as – being a druid – I see this type of questioning as paramount to life itself. In fact, the two Christian Deaf did indeed complain quite at length that their Deaf brothers and sisters in Christ just followed the religion, because “it’s what we’ve always done” and upon being questioned, for example, about the meaning of the pentacost, they had no idea and did not seem too interested in the answer.
The two pagans that I approached equally stated that they had difficulty marrying the world around them to the religion they were being taught. One of the two was also the son of a priest and felt that his religion was too constrictive, however, it must be pointed out here that any religion (even paganism) can be experienced as constrictive in the wrong hands and many Christians have defended their faith as non-constrictive. However, in his subjective view, the young man said that he was seeking a much more liberated and nature based path that also was pertinent to the world around them.
Again, I credit this shift in thinking to advancements in deaf education as a whole and many Deaf that I speak to take more of a spiritual approach to their religious beliefs (be they Christian, Muslim or Pagan) questioning why they are doing a certain action. This is something that as pagans we should be able to identify with and even agree with.
This then potentially sets us all before a rather strange problem. It is not too far-fetched an idea to imagine that you are sitting at a moot, or at a gathering, or indeed just under a tree and a deaf person starts to ask questions about the different rites and rituals in your belief system. The deaf community itself is also standing before the same problem. So how exactly do they address this? This is where the monotheistic faiths seem to have come up with a solution. Whatever their motives may be, they have recognised that minority groups react far more openly and are more trusting when “one of their own” tells them something. The same applies to members of a different linguistic community. Since I have been in Germany, I have noticed this phenomenon. If I address an English speaker in English, their reaction is far more open than it would be had I addressed them in German. The same applies to the Deaf. If they suddenly notice that you can speak their language, then they are far more open to what you have to say (7). While I am aware that we are not “allowed” to convert people and do missionary work, I still feel it important to be able to convey the meaning of certain things in sign language in order to make our world accessible (or rather more accessible) to the Deaf and encourage the two parties to come together.
To return to my point as to why sign language is not an international language, I would like to digress ever so slightly into spoken languages and, at a basic level, how languages develop. If you imagine a desert island with two people on it. They will start to communicate, as people generally do. They will start to find words for certain things and then start to develop ways of explaining to one another what they intend to do with the implements they have created or found.
Let us assume that one person leaves and moves to another area in the island. They are likely to encounter roughly the same challenges as the person they have just left, however, as they no longer talk to each other about them, there is every chance that each will develop his or her own terms for certain things. Here, we have the birth of an idiolect. If, somehow, these two people were to procreate and pass on their words, terms etc to their children, spouses etc., their use of the language will grow and develop in such a way that it is more than conceivable that in our wonderfully made up world, when the two original characters meet, they can no longer understand each other.
That taken, it now seems a more than reasonable fact that a language which has been driven underground and existed in isolated, insular communities will develop in this way. This happened to sign language. The individual deaf communities had their own signs for certain things – which then became their dialect word.
The next phenomenon I would like to address from spoken language is phonology. As a signer, I am regularly made aware of the fact that we all have two hands, so why, again, is sign language not international. My answer is always the same. We all have the same set of vocal chords. Why is spoken language therefore not the same? Each individual language has its own set of phonemes or sounds that are used to make words. This makes each individual language unique and enables us to recognise the languages we use (among other factors, of course). To use German and English as two examples, there are various sounds in English that do not exist in German. German for example does not have the J sound in jungle (which is why it is written “dsch”). Of course, each language group (English is Germanic after all) has similar sets of phonemes and similar ways of putting the words in the correct order to make sense. One only needs to look to a non-related language. The Celtic languages are full of phonemes that don’t exist in English (the Welsh ll is a famous example).
The same applies to sign languages. Only here, the phonemes are the hand shapes, or the movement of one’s hands when signing. DGS, for example, has 31 different hand shapes. There are, however, 6 different hand shapes that exist in all sign languages.
These hand shapes are like the sounds that each person makes when they speak. Certain sign languages allow certain hand shapes and others do not (8).
Another important phoneme to mention in sign language is a classifier. All sign languages have classifiers. They are used to substitute certain signs. In DGS, they can be split broadly into two groups, manipulators and substitutors. The former group is used to handle objects, e.g. a knife, a razor, a cup, etc. The hand then is seen, for example, to lead a cup to the lips, or to cut bread. The same action can be done with the latter group. These are when your hands “become” the object they are describing. This can be a cup, a knife, or indeed an individual (9). Most sign languages have similar classifiers for use in similar situations.
One common misconception among the hearing about sign language is that is merely pantomime. However, the difference is that in pantomime, the mime uses his or her entire body to convey a message and is allowed to walk around. A signer remains in one place and uses a so-called sign space around his chest area running from his stomach to just above his head.
This area is then used to place objects or people who then remain there happily until the subject is changed or they are moved. This enables a signer to refer to that person or object minutes later, whereas in spoken language the time of referral is much shorter. The sign space is also used as a timeline both over the shoulder (the past being helpfully placed behind the signer) to horizontally in front of the person. These are used to specify points and periods in time. The question then often arises, how on earth the deaf can take in all the information involved in one sign. One sign alone can contain up to 7 pieces of information, being not only portrayed by their hands and the movement of their hands, but also their facial expression, lip patterns, head and body stance (11). The answer is simple: the deaf look into the eyes of the partner. Their peripheral vision then takes in all the additional information needed.
When it comes to “inventing” signs, I spoke to many deaf teachers (as in those who were deaf and not those who taught the deaf) and asked how one would create a sign. To their detriment, I should say that their answer, simple as it was, is not very easy to implement for people who have no idea about sign language. The deaf always say: “Just look at what you need to sign, and describe that”. I decided to test this theory and, as easy as it sounds, if you have no idea about sign language, you also have no idea about sign space, or what movements, hand shapes and classifiers are available to you in your local sign language. Therefore, you are left with pantomime. It would be just like asking someone who has no idea how to speak Welsh, to just “use Welsh words” when speaking. When it comes to language, there is always a little more to it.
Using the above information (among other things), a deaf person would then look at an object and use different classifiers and the phonemes that his country sign language allows for, to describe visually what she or he has just seen. This can be seen, for example, in the different signs of tree. When researching this essay, I spoke to various students of deaf studies, who were hearing, but also to many deaf students and asked them to describe a sign for certain trees and plants. One student in particular has seen it as his mission to teach survival courses to the deaf and those who use sign language, so he became a veritable encyclopaedia of information and signs regarding different plants and anything that can be found outdoors. As an example, when describing a birch tree: he used his passive hand (12) to show a tree (merely bent upright at the elbow) and then used his index finger of his dominant hand to describe the lines of the birch tree. Another student drew attention to the fact that a birch tree is distinctively white, before using his index finger to describe the lines on the tree.
The problem then arises in what would happen when one has to describe, for example, calling an element. This then would require a slightly more in-depth knowledge of the language, as one then has to be able to describe an abstract idea. However, this is not an insurmountable task as many deaf in the USA and indeed all over the world have more than likely solved the issue, we just need to go out into our communities and ask the Deaf who are right under our noses.
Another issue that the hearing world has yet to see is the issue of the one of finger-spelling. Most countries in the world use a one-handed alphabet. The exception being the United Kingdom and the members of the commonwealth, who use a two-handed system. In the hearing world, we have largely forgotten, for example, that our names once carried meaning. We may know the meanings of our names, but through linguistic mutation, or merely fashion, they have fallen out of use as words to use in the general conversation. One sentence I get confronted with a lot when telling people about how I introduce myself to the deaf is “oh is that what Matthew is in sign language”. My response is often to attempt to explain to the listener that the deaf use sign names. I do not know, if anyone who learned the finger-alphabet as a child has ever tried this, but just for fun, I would urge you to attempt to finger spell an entire sentence. I am quite sure that you will quickly realise that this is not an efficient method of communicating. Therefore, the deaf use a sign that either describes one’s personality, or a physical feature that sets one apart. This point becomes very prominent when one is telling stories. The bards reading this essay will find this incredibly useful. Indeed story-telling in sign language is something that I would urge everyone to investigate as I have never seen stories told in such a poetic and moving way. If one were to look at a YouTube video by a Jehova’s witness, or by a Muslim group, you will seldom see them finger-spelling. They have used sign names to describe the various people that they then “set-up” in their sign space and refer to (cf. my point earlier on sign space).
The church has also taken the time to translate certain prayers, songs and biblical texts into sign language, alas their attempts contain a lot of Signed Exact German; many do not, but there is no consensus. This is because of two things: one, being their adherence to the original text; the second being their use of Signed Exact German. In sign language, there are three levels of language that have established themselves over the years of hearing people using sign language. The most basic level is Signed Exact German (or English, or French). This is where for every word, there is a sign. The sign language still has spoken language sentence order, uses prepositions, does not use any of the other parameters that make up sign language (13). The next step above that is what the Germans called “Lautsprachunterstützenden Gebärden”, this would equate to Signed Supported English (or in this case German). Here, the speaker still uses spoken language, but also uses the odd sign to support what they are saying so that both hearing and deaf can follow. This use of language is incredibly difficult as both languages have their own grammar. So, while it may seem the best idea and the famous middle of the road, it is not the case as many hearing find it distracting that the person also signs and the deaf are also then required to piece together the content of the conversation. The final and best version is fullblown sign language. This then uses all elements of sign language; it uses sign language grammar and structure and is much easier to understand and also is able to transfer information much quicker and more efficiently.
The problem that the deaf face is quite simply a lack of information about any religion, especially one such as ours. Until fairly recently, a deaf person would have to find someone sufficiently fluent in sign language to answer their questions. Now, also thanks to the work of the Jehova’s witnesses for example, but also to smaller Muslim groups and indeed pagan groups across the waters in America, all a deaf person needs is a good internet connection. There are a number of videos online where the bible is signed, or the significance of Ramadan, or Lughnassadh. Unfortunately, the pagan communities in Europe have not yet jumped on the band wagon, which I view as a great shame.
During my research, I asked leaders of groups in the Pagan Federation in Berlin Brandenburg to describe to me what they would do to if a deaf person were to attend one of their rituals. When asking, I originally asked them to imagine what would happen if the person came unannounced. However, this is a somewhat unrealistic question, as most of the deaf I know will find a signer on the one hand (usually, if one cannot be found, then they simply will not attend); on the other hand, most of the pagan groups here in Berlin/Brandenburg have learned to screen members. This has resulted from the groups being over-run by members of the political far right, or by other people wanting to push their own agenda and who are not willing to work in a group. This works as an advantage for the deaf, as the method of communication can be ascertained and indeed questions asked – this generally applies to anyone attending. We all know that nothing disrupts a ritual more than an inquisitive person wanting and explanation for every move that we make.
Nonetheless, the general consensus was not a bad one. The groups themselves generally felt overwhelmed with the idea of having to communicate with someone who cannot use spoken language. The majority said that they would work with a piece of paper and a pen before the ritual and try to include some kind of pantomime in order to convey what they were doing in the ritual so that the deaf attendee would feel welcome and would take something from the ritual. One leader suggested that the deaf person find a group of deaf people to work with. This is not as bad an idea as it seems as an increasing number of pagan rituals are now being done in the open, this would not only raise awareness for the deaf community, but also show the hearing community another way to connect with the divine. Indeed, as I have been told before by people who have deliberately done ritual in sign language, the depth of the connection alone made it worth the effort.
Generally, however, as I regularly tell hearing people, when communicating with the deaf and hard of hearing is simple if a few easy rules are adhered to:
1.Remove everything covering your mouth. The deaf/hard-of-hearing person needs to read your lips, therefore they need to be visible. If you have a beard, make sure that your lip patterns are nevertheless visible.
2. Speak clearly, not necessarily slowly. Most people in order to speak clearly do indeed slow down, which is fine. However, speaking in an exaggerated way merely makes the person you are speaking to feel small, which is not the goal here.
3. Use short sentences. This is especially prevalent in Germany, where sentences – especially uttered by government officials – can be anything from two words to a whole paragraph. If you are reading lips, this takes a huge amount of effort. The effort is made even worse, if the person has to keep track of what you were saying at the beginning.
4. Make sure you look the person in the eyes. As stated earlier, when people sign, they look into their partner’s eyes and not at his hands, lips or anywhere else.
If these basic rules are adhered to, then the lines of communication are open, at least. A former partner of mine worked in an elderly home with deaf residence. He does not speak a word of sign language, but managed to communicate perfectly, merely by observing the aforementioned rules. The deaf then used iconic signs (signs that usually display the object they mean – e.g. cup, or book) more than they would use other signs. The conversation was not very profound, of course, but communication was possible on this basic level. However, it must be mentioned that expecting a Deaf person to read from ones lips is asking a lot from them as there are many words that have the same lip patterns (e.g. cook, book, look, took) and it is nigh-on impossible for someone to read that so a lot of meaning has to be inferred.
The deaf, as with all minority and disabled groups, merely wish to be included. They also live on this planet and have a much greater awareness of what is happening around them. Indeed, an American blogger described her Deafness (14) as a gift that enabled her to see and experience nature and the Goddess at a much deeper level. Indeed, as described earlier with the Birch tree, the detail that a deaf person is able to see and describe is amazing. I often notice myself when asking one of my hearing friends to fetch something, or find something, I often have to go to great lengths to describe its position and what it looks like, where is in sign language through the use of classifiers and sign space, the job can be done in a matter of seconds.
By including the deaf in our groups, rituals or moots, we are not only being true to our inclusive statement, we are also forcing ourselves to learn to see beyond the world that we know. We are all raised as hearing people and learn to focus on only that. However, the world is far richer than that. Indeed, according to Caeser and Pliny the Druids themselves used sign language to convey secret messages to each other.
As part of Germany’s implementation of the UN human rights convention, all governmental websites must be in simple language, sign language and in audio format. I believe that we should take this as an example and indeed ensure that, at the very least, websites of the main groups, e.g. OBOD, BDO, PFI have their websites in their local sign language and in simple language so that the information is made accessible for all. This is not to be seen or used as an offensive, but, as I have shown in the case of the monotheistic faiths, their time and effort spent explaining parts of their faith and sections of their holy books has led to information being available to the deaf community. The Deaf want access to the same information as the hearing have, they can then make up their own minds as to what they think and feel about it, without that information, they are reliant on what various people tell them.
To use an example from a darker part of Germany’s history, in the records, one can see a remarkable amount of deaf people joining the NS and even agreeing with the compulsory sterilisation dictated by the regime. The main view here is that this is down to the fact that the only information they were privy to was that given by members of the NSDAP and they did not have a full view of the facts, which made them unable to draw educated conclusions. Today, the situation is slightly different. I can remember being overwhelmed that the German TV Show for the Deaf Sehen statt Hören held an entire show on terrorism after the attack in Munich, 2016 where members of the Deaf community were trapped in the mall itself and were in awe and praise that the hearing manager took the time to explain what was going on. During the course of the show, the presenter made a concerted effort to give the viewer as much information as possible about why these people become terrorists and what the current situation is. They also made an admirable effort to state very clearly that this is not the fault of a religion, but merely the way that certain individuals understand that religion or use it to their own end. This shows me that the Deaf have very much learned from history. Maybe it is also time that we as hearing did the same.
By using the information presented above regarding how visual signs are created and how sign language generally is used, I hope to not only have shown how signs can be used in ritual to support the transfer of meaning, but also to waylay any fears had by people who are suddenly presented with the challenge of having to think up a sign or gesture on the spur of the moment. I also hope to have shown how diverse and interesting sign language is. Our world is focussed around what we hear, even if we are unaware of this. Using sign language is generally an enrichment for all of us, either for religious purposes or otherwise. The native American Indians used sign language to communicate between tribes that spoke different languages. This led to many NI signs being adopted by ASL. The deaf community has been suppressed for such a long time that I think it is time that we as hearing started to approach them and show that we can be inclusive and we can work together. Using the guidelines on communication, the door is at least open. If we as hearing were to go out and learn to use their language and see the world through their eyes, we would not only contribute to making the world a more inclusive place (which is what we as pagans strive to do anyway), but also enrich our own experience of the world and of the divine itself. In the next few years, I hope to see more and more pagans coming forward being proud of their Deafness and their ability to sign. They, as all minority groups, make an immense contribution to the rich colourful natural world that we venerate.
1 Iconic here refers to the pictorial element of signs, for example “book”, or “bicycle” etc.
2 The L at the end does indeed refer to language, but merely, because of the problematic nature of using the abbreviation IS
3 For the purposes of expedience in reading, I shall use the German name for German Sign Language Deutsche Gebärdensprache (DGS).
4 I will attempt to refrain from using terms such as religion, or philosophy as the court is very much out as to whether we follow a religion or a religious philosophy
5 Source: Aktion Mensch https://www.aktion-mensch.de/magazin/leute/ege-karar.html
6 Source: http://www.igjad.de/deutsch/Ueberuns.html
7 I urge anyone to try this. Simply go out into your communities and see what linguistic minorities are there. Then all you need to do is merely say “hello”, “please” or “thank you” in their language and just note the response.
8 Deutsche Gebärdensprache by Daniela Happ and Marc-Oliver Oberkörper
9 Grammatik der Deutschen Gebärdensprache Papaspyrou/von Meyenn/Matthaei/
11. Deutsche Gebärdensprache Daniela Happ, Marc-Oliver Vorkörper
12 Dominant hand: the hand one writes with; the passive hand is the other hand (so for a right handed person their dominant hand is their right one).
13 The parameters that make up sign language are fairly universal and are: hand shape, hand position, movement, facial expression, lip patterns.
14 Deafness with a capital is used by pioneers of deaf rights, whereas deaf in lower case is used to describe the fact that the person cannot hear.