FirstLife Blog

A Different Community: An Interview with Arthur Clayton

Posted by Josh Durham on with 7 Comments

Over the past few years, I have collaborated with Scot Claybrook on developing various Young Adult Ministry projects, such as the Lent and Advent Devotional Guides. One of the greatest challenges developing themes. The theme must be relatable on a personal level but must also express theological principles and human spiritual realities. In short, we try to trick you into learning something about yourself, God, and how those elements interact.

In searching for a theme for the 2016 Advent devotional, Scott Claybrook and I arrived at Silence. I love silence. I seek it out. One of my favorite children’s book characters is Ferdinand the bull who, “liked to sit just quietly…” We (Scott and me; not Ferdinand.) discussed perceptions of Silence; ours, the World’s, God’s. We asked why modern culture seems at times hostile toward silence. Why does God so often seem silent? Do we really need silence? Then we realized that we have access to an incredible resource for learning about the way humans experience silence: The Deaf Congregation.

I approached Arthur Clayton about the subject and he was excited for the opportunity to bring Deaf culture to the attention of the larger hearing congregation. Unfortunately, due to time constraints on both his and my part, he was unable to set aside enough time to be present with Deaf members of the congregation who would have written for the Advent devotional. It was necessary for him to be physically present with the potential writers so that he could explain the theme and writing process, answer questions, and interpret their writings in a way that would make sense to the hearing congregation.

Please understand, the need for Arthur to explain and interpret has nothing to do with capacity or intelligence and everything to do with communication and psychology. Consider (part of) what I was asking of the Deaf: Please explain how the absence of sound effects you as a person that has never experienced sound. Imagine if you went to a restaurant in New York and ordered an ice tea and after the first sip you immediately knew something was horribly wrong. No sugar. The person you ordered the tea from, having never had a properly made glass of tea, would have an incredibly difficult time understanding what was wrong with it and might even go as far as to say that it’s just as good, better even, without sugar. Bless their hearts. The thing to overcome in this situation is the idea that there is a single ideal or standard for what makes a decent glass of tea. This means having to admit that unsweet tea isn’t less good, it’s simply different.

Perhaps you noticed that I have been capitalizing “Deaf” as it references a people group. That is highly intentional. I began the conversation with Arthur by summarizing the discussions Scott and I had had on the subject of Silence and then expressed an interest in involving the Deaf congregation in a meaningful and respectful way. Very early in the conversation Arthur used the phrases “big D Deaf” and “little d deaf.” The following is an extremely condensed version of the conversation that followed:

What is your history with the Deaf community? Am I right in thinking one or both of your parents is deaf? 

Both my parents are Deaf, big D. My father lost his hearing at age 2 and my mother’s hearing never fully developed as a child. I grew up in a Deaf community and learned sign language before I could speak. I consider Sign as my primary language and spoken English as my secondary language. I have interpreted for either my parents or others in need all my life. I have been able to serve the Deaf community in different capacities and be involved with different Deaf organizations on and off all of my adult life. In 2011 I began serving at the IMB as the communications liaison and traveled the world working with and interpreting for Deaf missionaries. Now I am the Minister of the Deaf and actively involved with the Deaf community at large.

What is the difference between “big D” Deaf and “little d” deaf?

“Big D” Deaf refers to a person who was either born without the ability to hear or lost their hearing very early in life…let’s say, before age two or so. This is important because Deaf people belong to a group that has its own culture. They have never known hearing, exact English as taught in hearing schools, and never grew up in a hearing culture. They grew up in a Deaf culture – Deaf school, Deaf church, Deaf friends, etc. “Little d” deaf refers to someone who might have either lost their hearing later in life but could also refer to someone who was born without the ability to hear but they might have been afforded the opportunity of a hearing life by way of cochlear implants, attending hearing schools and having hearing friends – all despite the fact they cannot hear. These are not necessarily negative factors, but deafness is simply the inability to hear and not necessarily a condition that needs to be fixed. (Big D) Deafness is an identifying factor to a culture that holds its own worldview.

Why is that distinction important?

The distinction is important for many reasons. It would be similar to a Chinese couple having a child born in America. Is the child (Big C) Chinese or (little c) chinese? The child was born in America and will most likely attend an American school and learn American traditions and culture. The child will be exposed (mostly) to the American way of life and by most measuring factors would be, in fact, an American who held physical appearances of Chinese heritage. This example is a little hard to process but one could say the parents were Chinese and the child is chinese.

How do the two groups (Big D and little d) differ in the way they view being deaf?

Big D Deaf mostly think nothing of it. They were raised in an environment where the inability to hear was never looked upon as a disability (the kind with negative connotations). Deafness is all they know. ASL (American Sign Language) is their primary language. Their friends are Deaf (and maybe deaf). They were educated in a Deaf system. Many have successful careers surrounded by hearing co-workers but never felt the need to be “hearing” in order to function. Little d deaf perspectives vary greatly for many reasons: did the person lose their hearing at age 5 or 15? 25? 35? Age 5 might think nothing of being deaf but losing hearing at age 25 could tend to cause anger and bitterness because of their newfound deafness (or disability). Completely different worldviews evolve depending on when a person loses their ability to hear.

The Deaf obviously don't encounter silence in the same way we do. What would be equivalent for the Deaf?

Some equivalents could be meditation, loneliness, solitude, exclusion. But, think about this; even hearing people don’t encounter silence the same way across the board. For example, when I’m working- reading a commentary or answering an email- I might really need the radio on in the background whereas it might drive you crazy to have any background noise. The Deaf are the same way but their “background noise” might be looking around at everything or picking things up or playing on their phones.

So, “silence” for the Deaf has more to do with a lack of active communication and “noise” might be anything that is distracting, like movement?

Right, so the idea of “silence” or “noise” isn’t really that different from hearing to Deaf.

In what ways is "Quiet time" the same or different for the Deaf?

The concept of “quiet time” is similar in both cases. Quiet time is a time away from any distractions. Hearing will turn off the tv, radio or any other devices that make noise. They will also remove themselves from external noise distractions such as children, spouses, or anyone else engaged in verbal conversations. Deaf will remove themselves from such distractions but the distractions are slightly different. For example, a Deaf person will not have to go to a different room in order to not hear a child making noise. However, they might have to go to a different room to avoid the many instances of heightened visual distractions a child can impart.

What attitudes from the Hearing are harmful to the Deaf community?

Some common attitudes are viewing Deafness as a disability that prohibits a Deaf person from being just as “able” as a hearing person. I do realize a Deaf person cannot hear, but a hearing person that does not know ASL – are they “disabled”? Maybe they are to a Deaf person. The assumption that Deaf are not as capable as hearing is very harmful to any Deaf community. The most common misconception among hearing regarding the Deaf is that Deaf need hearing folks to help in more areas than are actually needed.

Are there things the Hearing do with good intentions that are actually harmful to the Deaf?

Many times, hearing folks tend to take over or take control of a situation, event or program to help “expedite” matters or “make it less stressful” for the Deaf person. Many times, hearing folks will step into situations when not necessary. They are just trying to “help” but “help” is not necessary.

Other than speech versus Sign, what is different about the way Hearing and Deaf communicate?

For the most part, Deaf seem to be more direct in their communication. This is oftentimes perceived by hearing as rude, short or even curt. Hearing folks are acutely aware of how their words can be perceived by others. Will it offend someone? What will they think of me? Deaf, in general, are just direct and usually don’t mince words.

So, would actual word choice be different?

Not necessarily, but Deaf usually communicate by using fewer “words”. For example, a typical question after a church service in the hearing world might be “Hey, do you want to go out to eat with us?” Eleven words. Deaf sign “You come eat?”. Three words. Words used to express feelings are fewer but used with body language and facial expressions. Body and facial expressions are an exponentially greater part of Deaf communication than the actual “words” (signs) used. Another example might be a hearing person saying “Man, I really enjoyed worship today. It was very inspiring.” Whereas a Deaf person could sign “Wow! Worship awesome, inspired!” Both spoken and signed expressions are equally accurate, just in different languages.

What is the most important thing the hearing need to know about the Deaf?

That’s pretty difficult to answer but I’ll try. Just as there are white communities, Muslim communities, African American communities and Latino communities…there are Deaf communities. Not better or worse. Not smarter or less educated. Not more or less skilled. Not more or less needy. Deaf communities are just that – a different community.


to leave comment

Linda Walsh Feb 7, 2018 5:44pm

Very insightful!

Susan Higdon Feb 8, 2018 3:57pm

Thanks very much for taking the time to share such an insightful and informational review .....

Dianne Forry Feb 8, 2018 5:29pm


Scott Bailey Feb 9, 2018 11:44am

Thanks for the interview! Arthur, thanks for sharing about the D/deaf community!

Nancy Markham Feb 12, 2018 8:00am

Thank you for sharing and inspiration! I really THANK the LORD provide Deaf service at FBC. That help me understand about Good News! If the FBC not provide Deaf Service. I would not be unfaithful go Church.

Lynn Beam Feb 12, 2018 9:10am

Thank you for the Tips for Communicating with Deaf and deaf People. Terrible!

Lynn Beam Feb 12, 2018 9:32am

Missed word while typing! “Interview” Sorry!

Thank you for interview the tips for communicating with Deaf and deaf people. Terrible!


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