Why is it so hard to get statistics on Deaf communities and sign languages?

International (MNN) — Getting statistics on the Deaf community is like nailing jelly to a tree. That’s what JR Bucklew with Deaf Bible Society says.

When Deaf Bible’s ministry began a few years ago, there weren’t adequate statistics available on how many Deaf people and sign languages are in the world. Some sources identified around 200 sign languages. Some said there are over 400 or even 800 sign languages. But nobody knew for sure.

One issue is a lot of countries even don’t recognize sign languages as official languages and they don’t include Deaf identification in their censuses.

(Photo and header photo courtesy of Deaf Bible Society)

Other countries that do recognize sign languages sometimes require formal self-identification by the signers. But not all Deaf communities know they need to formally register their sign language or why that would be beneficial.

Another problem that comes with identifying the Deaf population is even the definition of ‘deaf’. “How deaf is Deaf? Uncle Bob who turned 85 and lost his hearing? Well, that’s not exactly who we’re talking about, is it? We’re talking about native sign language users, people that grew up in a more core Deaf environment, whose thought processes have been developed differently because of their visual nature.”

The best data on the global Deaf population comes from the World Federation of the Deaf. According to their estimations, Deaf people who use sign language for primary communication make up at least one percent of the global population.

“One percent may not seem like much, but that puts us at over 3.5 million people here in the US. That is a ton of people.”

Bucklew says the statistics or lack thereof affected their ability initially to pursue Bible translations for sign languages.

(Photo courtesy of Deaf Bible Society)

“We sort of entered into this movement in the Bible translation world where our partner organizations that are focused on spoken languages have really, really solid numbers that tell them how many languages are left in the world that need a Bible, that don’t have any Scripture, and so they’ve been able to formulate some really awesome goals. Wycliffe and their affiliates have a goal of starting Bible translation in every language by 2025. The Every Tribe, Every Nation movement wants to have certain completion goals done by 2033.

“Where sign languages came into the mix, we said, ‘Well, hey, wait a minute. None of those lists included sign languages.’ And a large reason for that was people really just didn’t know how many sign languages were out there.”

So Deaf Bible Society set out to nail jelly to the tree.

“About a year ago, Deaf Bible Society commissioned a team of people and we said, ‘Look, we know that this isn’t going to be the final number, but get us as close as you can. What sign languages are out there? Put together a list, put together some data that ties number to language. So when we say there are ‘x’ number of sign languages, we can say here’s where they are and what we’re talking about.’”

Today, Deaf Bible has compiled a list of approximately 382 sign languages. They follow a scale that measures language and estimates the overall development versus endangerment of the language. The scale looks at the language users and generations and how much it is used for communication.

When they took out the languages that are dying out, they were left with 355 vital sign languages that need the Bible.

“So today, we’re able to say, ‘If we’re going to have [Bible] translation in all 355 sign languages by 2033, what is it going to take? How many people is it going to take? How much money is it going to take? How much collaboration is it going to take? Now we can actually count the cost because now we actually have a solid vision. Now we actually have real data for what we want to build and where we feel like the Lord is taking us.”

(Photo courtesy of Deaf Bible Society)

They know this list is still changing as they discover new Deaf people groups and new sign languages.

For now, Bucklew says, “The best numbers we’ve ever had are right before us — 355 sign languages vital for Bible translation. And we recognize that that number could change. That’s what we have before us today and that’s what we know today with the best data available out there.”

Pray for God to continue to open doors for sign language Bible translations and to spur Deaf Bible’s ministry. Thank the Lord for the growing awareness of Deaf communities and the need to get God’s Word into their heart sign languages.

Click here to learn how you can get involved with Deaf Bible Society!