I was two years old in 1975 when my mother first suspected that there was something unusual about me. As mother held me in her arms, a friend dropped a heavy object on the floor, making a loud bang. Mother noticed that I did not even flinch. By the age of three, I was still unable to talk. Then my family heard the shocking news—specialists confirmed that I was totally deaf!
While I was still an infant, my parents divorced, and Mother was obliged to raise me and my older siblings—two brothers and a sister—alone. At that time, deaf children in France were not educated the way they are today, and the methods used sometimes resulted in much suffering. Still, since childhood I have had an advantage that many deaf people do not have. Let me explain.
For some time, many educators believed that deaf children should be taught by using speech and lip-reading. In fact, in France, where I grew up, signing was absolutely forbidden in school. Some deaf children even had their hands tied behind their back during lessons.
For the first few years of my life, I spent several hours each week with a speech therapist. I was held by the jaw or the head and obliged to produce again and again sounds that I could not hear. I was not able to communicate with other children. Those were years of suffering for me.
Then, at the age of six, I was sent to a specialized boarding school. For the first time, I came into contact with other deaf children. Here, too, sign language was forbidden. If we gestured in class, we risked having our knuckles rapped or our hair pulled. However, we signed in secret, using codes we invented. At last, I was able to communicate with other children. So began four happy years.
When I was ten, however, I was moved to a primary school with hearing children. I was devastated! I thought that all the other deaf children had died and that I was the only one left in the world. Following the advice of doctors, who feared that I might lose the benefits of speech therapy, my family had not learned to sign and I was not allowed to associate with deaf children. I still remember a visit to a hearing specialist. He had a sign-language book on his desk. When I saw the pictures on the cover, I pointed to it and said, “I want that!” The doctor quickly hid the book.*
MY SPIRITUAL BEGINNINGS
Mother tried to bring us children up by Christian principles. She took us to the meetings of the Mérignac Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, near Bordeaux. As a child, I understood very little at meetings. However, different ones there took turns sitting next to me to write notes about what was being said. I was touched by their love and concern. At home, Mother studied the Bible with me, but I never fully grasped what I was being taught. I felt a bit like the prophet Daniel, who, after receiving a prophecy from an angel, said: “I heard, but I could not understand.” (Daniel 12:8) For me, it was a case of “I saw, but I could not understand.”
Nonetheless, basic Bible truths slowly took root in me. I treasured up what I clearly understood and tried to apply it in my life. I also learned from observing the behavior of others. For example, the Bible tells us to be patient. (James 5:7, 8) That did not mean much to me. However, by watching my fellow believers display this quality, I was able to understand what patience is. Truly, the Christian congregation has been of great benefit to me.
BITTER DISAPPOINTMENT AND A WONDERFUL SURPRISE
One day, when I was in my teens, I saw some deaf youths in the street signing to each other. I started associating with them in secret and began to learn French Sign Language (FSL). I continued to attend Christian meetings, where one young Witness, Stéphane, took me under his wing. He made great efforts to communicate with me, and I felt a strong bond with him. However, a bitter disappointment awaited me. Stéphane was imprisoned for maintaining his Christian neutrality. I was devastated! With Stéphane gone, I became deeply discouraged and virtually stopped attending meetings.
Eleven months later, Stéphane was released and came back home. Imagine my surprise when Stéphane began communicating with me using sign language. I could not believe my eyes! What had happened? In prison, Stéphane had learned FSL. I watched Stéphane’s hand movements and facial expressions, and my excitement grew as I contemplated all that this would mean for me.
UNDERSTANDING BIBLE TRUTH AT LAST
Stéphane started to study the Bible with me. It was from then on that I began to patch together all the pieces of Bible truth that I had retained. As a child, I loved to look at the beautiful pictures in our Bible publications, comparing the characters and examining every detail in order to impress the stories on my mind. I knew about Abraham, his “seed,” and the “great crowd,” but it was only when I saw these concepts explained in sign language that they took on real meaning. (Genesis 22:15-18; Revelation 7:9) It was evident that I had found my natural language, the language of my heart.
Now that I could understand what was said at the meetings, my heart was touched and my thirst for knowledge grew. With Stéphane’s help, my understanding of the Bible continued to grow, and in 1992, I dedicated my life to Jehovah God and was baptized. Despite the progress I had made, however, not having been able to communicate in my early years left me introverted and cautious.
MY FIGHT AGAINST TIMIDITY
Eventually, the small group of deaf people I was with was combined with a congregation in Pessac, a suburb of Bordeaux. That was very helpful, and I continued to make spiritual progress. Though I was still struggling with my limited ability to communicate, my hearing friends were careful to make sure that I understood everything. One couple, Gilles and Elodie, made special efforts to communicate with me. They often invited me to share a meal or have a cup of coffee with them after the meetings, thus developing a wonderful friendship. What a joy to be among people who follow God’s loving ways!
It was in this congregation that I met the charming Vanessa. I was attracted by her sensitivity and sense of justice. She never viewed my deafness as a barrier but, rather, as an enriching personal experience for her. She won my heart, and we were married in 2005. Even though communication is not my strong point, Vanessa has helped me to fight my timidity and to express myself more openly. I truly appreciate her support as I care for my responsibilities.
ANOTHER GIFT FROM JEHOVAH
The year we got married, the France branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Louviers invited me to come for a month of training for translation work. In recent years the branch has been working very hard to produce several publications in FSL on DVD. But with more work ahead, the translation team needed reinforcing.
Both Vanessa and I felt that for me to serve at the branch was an immense privilege and a gift from Jehovah God, but I have to admit that we were apprehensive. What would happen to our sign-language group? What would we do with our house? Would Vanessa find work in the region? In a wonderful way, Jehovah provided a solution to each problem. I really felt Jehovah’s love for us and for deaf people.
SUPPORTED BY A UNITED PEOPLE
Having been involved in translation work, I can better understand all that is done to provide spiritual help for the deaf. And what a pleasure to see many fellow workers try to communicate with me! The few signs that they learn and try to use touch my heart. I do not feel left out—far from it. All those expressions of love are a demonstration of the extraordinary unity among Jehovah’s people.—Psalm 133:1.
I am grateful to Jehovah that through the Christian congregation, he has always made sure that someone was there to help me. I also appreciate the small role I have had in helping my fellow deaf ones to know our loving Creator and to draw close to him. I look forward to the day when all communication barriers will be removed and all will speak the “pure language”—the truth about Jehovah God and his purposes—as part of a united human family.—Zephaniah 3:9.
It was not until 1991 that the French government officially authorized the use of sign language in educating deaf children.