Imagine being at a community gathering with your family. The gathering lasts for hours. Everyone is laughing, clapping and seemingly enjoying themselves, but you have no idea what’s going on. You are isolated, despite the fact that you are in a room full of family and friends. This is the reality for many deaf people, including deaf Muslims.
How many Deaf Muslims are there, and how many of them are able to practice Islam to as full an extent as the rest of the Muslim community? How many have left the faith due to a lack of accessibility to the mosque and other resources?
Deafness by itself is not a barrier to learning one’s faith. Deaf people in North America communicate using their own language, American Sign Language (ASL), which is often their first and only language. Deaf Muslims are also often unable to socialize with hearing Muslims due to the language barrier. Communication with English speakers requires the assistance of an ASL interpreter, which can be difficult to arrange for events and is not readily available during the normal course of the day. For Muslims, sign language interpreters are very rarely available at Jumah prayer, Sunday school, Islamic conferences, Muslim student organization meetings, Eid prayer or other gatherings.
Closer to home, Deaf Muslims are often unable to communicate with their own families. I once met a 13-year-old Deaf Muslim child who could not tell me the names and ages of his siblings because he had never communicated with them. This young man was born deaf and had no ability to communicate his wants or needs with members of his own family because his family never learned sign language. Imagine the mental health issues one could suffer while not being able to communicate with one’s own family. It would be helpful if hearing Muslims could learn ASL in order to break down barriers of communication. Sign language classes are offered at many community education programs and Deaf schools, free of charge, and fee-based classes can be taken at local colleges and universities.
Global Deaf Muslim (GDM), an international advocacy organization for the deaf is working to improve the situation for Deaf Muslims by educating the Muslim community on the needs of Deaf Muslims.
GDM works with Muslim organizations to facilitate the provision of sign language interpreters at Mosques and Islamic events. The hearing Muslim community can support this by making donations to their local mosques or Islamic organizations, and should specify that their donation should be allocated only for sign language interpreters at events. GDM is also working to provide free sign language classes for hearing family members of Deaf Muslims in several states throughout the country.
One of GDM’s priorities is to make the Quran accessible to Deaf Muslims by translating it into American Sign Language. Though many deaf people can read English, it is often their second language and they are often not fluent and can only obtain a limited understanding of the Qur’an. In order to fully understand the beauty of the religion, Deaf Muslims need to see the Quran in sign language.
The hearing Muslim community has the power to open doors of knowledge for Deaf Muslims and the ability to alleviate frustration and isolation, and make the ummah a reality for a group of people that have been excluded from it for too long.
Valerie Shirley is the mother of a deaf child and is the founder of the Minnesota chapter of Global Deaf Muslim. She holds a Masters degree in Deaf Education from the University of Minnesota. For more information, visit globaldeafmuslim.org.