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What's in a name?

If you’ve been around Deaf people for any length of time, you’ll learn about a “sign name.” This is a made-up sign that replaces someone’s name, so the name doesn’t have to be spelled out each time others refer to the person.

The sign name can be invented by Deaf people for themselves, given to them by their parents, or, in the case of a sign name for a hearing person, tradition dictates that it is created by their Deaf friends. The sign name usually is in the form of the first letter of the person’s name, and reflects something about the person’s character. For example, a hand in the sign of the letter “R” on the corner of the mouth could be a sign name for a person named Ruth who smiles a lot. Or, a hand in the “J” shape, that circles near the hair could be a sign name for a “Julie” who has curly hair. Whatever the sign name, the person usually keeps it for life, unless something dramatic changes their name or their character (like if a woman gets married and changes her sign name to reflect the first letter of her new last name).

Recently I presented my ministry in a church with a Deaf ministry, and the Deaf couple who run the Deaf ministry invited me over their home. They were very enthusiastic about God, and their conversation always seemed to praise the Lord, no matter the subject. At the table, the husband, a professional chef, began telling me his testimony. Born in Guyana, South America, he was ignored and punished more than his siblings due to misunderstandings and limited communication. As a child he was sent to the island of Barbados to attend a Deaf school where he was finally given a means of communication: sign language! He adopted a sign name with the first letter of his name, “E” in front of his nose. He thinks it highlighted his large nose. Years later, as a young adult, he came to America. He trained at America’s only University for the Deaf, Gallaudet University, and began working as a Chef. He was later promoted to General Manager of the Kellogg Hotel at Gallaudet University. Unsaved, he tried different things to satisfy him, but was disappointed. Finally, in 1994, a Deaf man from NY shared the gospel with him in sign language, and for the first time he understood why Jesus died, and how he must trust in Jesus alone for salvation. He chose to trust Christ, and his life began to change. Though busy, living as a single parent with 3 children, he looked for ways he could show Christ’s love to others.

One day, at a church gathering, he learned it was someone’s birthday. Using his culinary skills, he went to the kitchen and made a beautiful ​​birthday cake. When he presented the cake to the Deaf individual, they immediately exclaimed how “sweet” he was for doing such a kind gesture. The recipient further suggested that since this was such a drastic change from how the chef used to act (before he was saved), that he should change his sign name from an “E” in front of the nose, to an “E” hand that brushes the chin, since brushing the chin means “sweet” in American Sign Language. The new sign name reflected the dramatic change in the chef’s life: from a focus on the outside, to love and compassion on the inside. He happily agreed.

(Picture: My Deaf chef friend, Edwin, and his wife)

In the years since that time, he has occasionally bumped into old friends and they call him by his old sign name. With a smile, he tells them that his sign name has changed, and uses the opportunity to explain the reason for the change. “Jesus changed my life, so I changed my sign name because I have a new identity,” he signs. “I know I look the same on the outside, but inside is completely different.”

God gave this sweet man a wonderful, godly (Deaf) wife, and, together, they now serve as leaders and sign language teachers for their church’s Deaf ministry.

Has your identity changed?


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