Signing, a lifesaver

Interest in sign language returns to bless injured youth

He was 6 years old the first time he saw someone using sign language. He was standing in front of his school with his mother and saw two people across the street signing to one another.

"Mommy, what are they doing?" he asked.

"They are signing. Their ears don't work," she replied.

Right then, the little boy with red hair and his identical twin brother decided they wanted to learn sign language. That was 21 years ago in Cape Town, South Africa.

Today, Elder Timothy Hughes of the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission knows and uses sign language daily in his mission work. He and his companion, Elder Derrick Lopez of Kearns, Utah, use American Sign Language to "speak" to members in the Miramar (Deaf) Branch, Fort Lauderdale Florida Stake, to communicate with investigators and to teach discussions. They are especially finding success teaching using the videophone, a video relay service combining telephones, video cameras and televisions to provide a two-way visual link between parties. The Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission is one of the first in the Church to have the technology that can reach the deaf community throughout the United States.

For Elder Hughes, sign language is more than a means of communication — it is a gift he used during the darkest days of his life before friends introduced him to the Church.

He and his brother, Simon, did learn sign language. At first, they taught themselves. Then as they grew up, they took classes and finally studied at the University of Wit Waters Rand near Johannesburg, South Africa. While volunteering at a school for the deaf, they even helped the children sign the national anthem for the deaf television station of South Africa. The film director was so impressed he invited Timothy Hughes back to work on a deaf television production for a time.

Then, on Jan. 28, 2000, he and Simon were driving in Johannesburg when a speeding car sideswiped them. They smashed into a bridge and Simon was killed. The future missionary spent 76 days in the hospital, 18 of those in a medically induced coma. He was not allowed to move because of severe fractures and internal injuries. The only thing he remembered when awakening was being loaded into a helicopter at the accident scene. He later found out he was resuscitated 12 times.

When he was finally coherent, he could not speak because of a tracheotomy. He was told his brother had died.

Today, the 27-year-old credits sign language with saving his life. The television station for the deaf sent an interpreter over who stayed "24/7" so he could communicate with doctors and family. "If I didn't (know sign language) I would have been dead," he said, speaking of the post-accident depression and the link sign language was to express his feelings and emotions.

"Heavenly Father was taking care of me from when I was 6 years old," he added during a telephone interview.

After months of recovery and rehabilitation, he began living a somewhat normal life in Cape Town, but questions following the accident bothered him. One day, two friends, Michael Somers and Shelly Powrie, with whom he had grown up, invited him to dinner. Michael was preparing for his mission. While eating, they asked their friend what he believed in.

The questions came fast: "Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where did my brother go? Why did the Bible end? Did God stop loving us? Why isn't there any modern-day revelation?"

Two weeks later, he walked into the Panorama Ward meetinghouse in Cape Town. On Dec. 16, 2001, he was baptized. He was immediately given a calling teaching the deacons. And he interpreted sign language for a deaf senior sister in the ward, Anna Baldwin, with whom he became close. Sister Baldwin, now 92, remains an influence. "She's one of the reasons I came on a mission," Elder Hughes said.

For 18 months now, he has worked in the ASL Mission Program in south Florida. He knows South African sign language in five dialects, now knows American Sign Language, and is familiar with some Spanish sign language. He speaks English, Afrikaans and some Xhosa (an African language). Because of his familiarity with various dialects, he is able to help the branch president better communicate with some members, including Spanish-speaking. (Sign languages are actual visual languages. They are not symbols of English.)

He is especially excited about the videophone, which has allowed him and his companion to teach investigators in Arizona, Oregon and New Jersey, as well as throughout Florida. He said there are some 24 to 34 million people who are hearing impaired in the United States.

"The Spirit is felt regardless how you teach," Elder Hughes said during a sometimes emotional interview. He said he will never forget teaching Peter Parkes, who is now a member of the Church preparing to enter the Orlando Florida Temple. While teaching the discussions in sign language, Elder Hughes signed, "Will you get baptized?"

"He spelled back Y-E-S and signed, 'I always want to be a member of this Church. I'm never going to leave,' " Elder Hughes related.

The young South African elder recently ordained Brother Parkes, using sign language, to the Melchizedek Priesthood.

"How much better can you get?" Elder Hughes added, again with emotion.

His goal as his mission comes to a close in December, he said, is to get a doctorate in child psychology and deaf education and open a private deaf school for members of the Church in South Africa.

  • Elder Richard Robertson of the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission contributed to this article.

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