Embracing the Deaf Community

What ASL is teaching a Wheaton freshman about deaf culture and worship.

A joyful chorus rises from the lips of 504 first-year students as they face the Wheaton College undergraduate student body, singing the Class of 2026 Class Song. It’s a Wheaton tradition, but on this occasion there’s something new: one student is on stage signing the song in ASL. 

Imani Coleman and friends after she signed for the first All School Communion of the 2022-23 school year. Photo submitted by Imani Coleman.

Coleman was exploring downtown Chicago with her Passage group when she learned that her freshman class would perform their class song at All School Communion. She immediately asked herself, “What if I sign the song?” After proposing her idea to the Orientation Committee, they agreed, and she quickly translated and memorized the song the night before, signing alongside her class at All School.

“Whenever I am signing, I center myself and say ‘This is for you [God],’” Coleman said. “This is for your glory. This is your story. Use me as you will.”

Coleman said she was motivated to worship through sign by the fact that a staggering 98% of deaf people have never ‘seen’ the gospel in their native sign language, according to the Deaf Bible Society. That’s approximately 68 million people worldwide. By many definitions, the Deaf are a largely unreached people group. Coleman wants to be part of the effort to communicate the gospel to the Deaf community. 

Coleman has lived with impaired hearing for most of her life. Born in Ohio, Coleman passed all of her initial hearing tests as a baby. It wasn’t until she turned four that her mom, Donnett Bowman, began to notice a problem. 

While her daughter could speak, she was having trouble with her pronunciation and when people would talk to her she often answered with a confused, “Huh?” Coleman’s mother took her to see a doctor who recommended that the 4-year-old get cochlear implants. Unconvinced, Bowman took her daughter to see several other doctors, but all of them agreed that she needed some kind of hearing aid. Coleman got her first pair of hearing aids when she was 5 years old. 

According to the National Institute of Health, one in eight people in the United States over the age of 12  have hearing loss in both ears, and two to three out of every 1,000 children born in the U.S. have a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears. But only one out of every five people who could benefit from hearing aids actually use them, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. 

Coleman is one of the four out of five. Because she was already speaking by the time she was diagnosed, Coleman did not grow up with ASL in her home, since the hearing aids allowed her to hear artificially. She was immersed in hearing culture throughout her life. She learned how to speak in a hearing home, attended public schools for hearing students and went to hearing churches. Regardless, she felt a connection to the Deaf community, her “second culture.” By the time she was in middle school, she was becoming passionate about exploring this aspect of her identity.

“I grew up in the hearing world,” she said. “I had to take time to learn [the deaf] side of me and learn about that culture before I could step into it.” 

The first time Coleman encountered hearing aids or deaf culture was while watching the show 

“Switched At Birth” on ABC around the age of 12. She was inspired to learn more, and in eighth grade, Coleman and some of her friends checked an ASL book out of their school library and started teaching themselves to sign during their lunches. 

“Finding sign language helped me realize that there are other ways that we can worship God,” Coleman said. “I can worship him through sign, and it’s really become part of my heart language. I love it.”

Coleman began formal ASL classes during her senior year through a club at her high school. Though Wheaton does not offer ASL classes, she plans to continue practicing sign language by translating songs and hopes to find an independent teacher. 

Coleman is part of a growing Deaf and hard of hearing community at Wheaton. According to Joelle Merrifield, accessibility specialist at Learning and Accessibility Services (LAS), which helps accommodate the academic needs of students with disabilities, five first-year Wheaton students have reported being hearing impaired, but Marrifield suspects there are most likely more hearing impaired students that haven’t yet been diagnosed or reported. 

For students that have reported their disability, LAS has provided FM systems, which contain a microphone to amplify a speaker’s voice and a receiver that syncs to the hearing aids. Using these systems, hearing impaired students can cut out ambient classroom noise and listen to their professor just like their peers. 

“I never considered it a weakness,” Coleman said. “I considered it something that made me stronger.” 

Since Coleman’s translation project for All School, Donté Ford, assistant professor of music and associate chaplain for worship arts, says he is open to exploring more opportunities for ASL translated chapel services.

“I want to reach out to students who use ASL to see that [goal] come to fruition,” Ford said. “We desire to reach those who might think or assume that coming to a place like Wheaton and experiencing worship might be hard.” 

Ford’s vision is to create a space at Wheaton College for everyone, including the Deaf and hearing impaired community.

“There are many in the body of Christ who worship and express themselves in many different ways.” Ford said. “Let all the people praise God. Not just the people that do the same things that we do, but all the people.” 

Coleman is excited to see her culture represented in worship. “I would be more than happy to [sign in chapel] again,” she said. 

By virtue of belonging to the 2% of deaf people who have seen the gospel in their own language, Coleman has experienced firsthand how the church has, or has not, reached out to the Deaf and hearing impaired. Often she sees the Deaf community adapting to a hearing world, but not the hearing community adapting to the silent world. 

“People from the Deaf community walk across the bridge to the hearing world every day, but hearing people rarely walk over to us,” Coleman said. “I think Christians can tend to put people with disabilities in this box of  ‘Oh, I have to help them.’ As if they have to be our saviors and advocates.” 

Merrifield agrees that the hearing community has a lot to learn from the Deaf community. 

“It helps us to learn from [the Deaf community’s] experiences and really be shaped by them,” said Merrifield. “Then we’re able to learn what interdependence is and sometimes just do things differently. I think it’s just a good reflection of the diversity of God in this community.”

As Coleman begins her time at Wheaton and continues learning more about the Deaf community, she has confidence that God plans to use her deafness for his glory. 

“Just because someone has a disability doesn’t disqualify them from life’s race,” Coleman said. “And it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have a plan and a purpose and a ministry for them.”

Noelle Worley

Noelle Worley

Noelle Worley is a freshman planning to major in communications and international relations. While she was born in Chicago, she spent most of her life in the suburbs. In her free time she enjoys hanging out with friends, longboarding, and trying new food.

Emily Cooper

Emily Cooper

Guest Contributor

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