To understand what this Guide Entry is about, you need to know a little about Deaf Culture and a little about the Bible. But not much. Even a very basic understanding will get you somewhere.
For a start, Deaf Culture can be seen as celebrating Deafness1. Deaf Culture is the culture that has grown up around a linguistic minority. Culturally Deaf people do not generally view deafness as a disability, but as a passport of access to the Deaf World.
And the Bible tells us that, while travelling and preaching in the Decapolis, Jesus healed a deaf man. This account is found in Mark 7:31-37. That passage reads as follows:
Again he departed from the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and came to the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the region of Decapolis. They brought to him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech. They begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside from the multitude, privately, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat, and touched his tongue. Looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, "Ephphatha!" that is, "Be opened!" Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was released, and he spoke clearly. He commanded them that they should tell no one, but the more he commanded them, so much the more widely they proclaimed it. They were astonished beyond measure, saying, "He has done all things well. He makes even the deaf hear, and the mute speak!"
— from the non-copyright World English Bible.
How, though, could Jesus 'heal' a man who was not ill? This has troubled people over the years, and the question considered here is one that has been genuinely asked by many people.
Does Jesus' healing of the deaf man show a denial of or a disrespect for Deaf Culture?
Slightly longer answer
Deaf Culture? What Deaf Culture?
John H. McWhorter's book on linguistics, The Power of Babel, has a short passage on the development of Nicaraguan Sign Language. This may seem like an irrelevant digression, but I assure you that it forms an integral part of my argument, as you'll see before the end.
In the 1980s deaf children created a new sign language while attending a new school for the deaf. Before the school was founded, there was no established sign language in Nicaragua and deaf people had little contact with one another. Each of the children had been using a "home" sign language local to their households before they came to the school — a sign language largely based on the kind of manual mimicry that most of us would come up with if forced to communicate with our hands only. Once the children were brought together into the school, however, they quickly conventionalized a systematic sign language of their own capable of expressing all human thoughts.
Imagine being languageless. The "manual mimicry" of a "'home' sign language" is a poor substitute for a full language "capable of expressing all human thoughts". And yet that has been the situation of most deaf people throughout the history of human existence. In such circumstances, deafness truly is a disability.
Only when the deaf come together into a community can they develop a language and, subsequently, a culture. Only then can they become Deaf, overcoming the challenges presented by being deaf. May it not be significant that the first historical record of the existence of a signed language was in a large city? (Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée, in eighteenth century Paris.) Where so many people come together in one place, the deaf will meet, and develop a language and a culture. But in a rural community, such as twentieth century Nicaragua or first century Palestine, there is unlikely to be a Deaf community and a signed language.
In this light, we can see that the effects of Jesus' action was to release this man from a prison of non-communication. How long he had been in that prison is nowhere recorded. We are not told that he was born deaf, as we are told that the man whose healing is recorded in John 9:1-7 was born blind. Even today, when deafness need not be a disability, most who lose their hearing later in life want it back.