KNOXVILLE — Johnson University Junior, Emily Farmer, stands happily smiling into the camera in front of the Chapman Highway Chick-fil-A she has worked at since she was 14. The video is silent as she motions in American Sign Language that the employees wanted to honor the local deaf community for Deaf Awareness Month. This community is one that, in many ways, Farmer feels a part of.
Late last year the video, an idea Farmer had to reach out to the local deaf community, went viral.
“So we made this video, put it on Facebook and tons of people shared it, it was really cool,” she said. “But in December this reporter reached out to me and was like, ‘hey I saw your video, I think that’s really cool.’She came and like kind of put a twist on the story that really isn’t accurate,” she said, frowning.
The news report made it seem like every employee at the Chick-fil-A knew sign language, which Farmer said is not the case. But she has come up with a creative solution to the problem.
“I’ve started making Facebook videos on our work page teaching them signs a little bit at a time so that we can like try to live up to that,” she said laughing.
Farmer, who grew up in South Knoxville close to the Tennessee School for the Deaf, was taught American Sign Language as a child to be able to communicate with her deaf father.
“I could actually sign before I could talk,” she said. “So I grew up from the very beginning bilingual, its very much a part of my nature.”
Farmer’s mother and three biological siblings are hearing. She explained how growing up side-by-side with the deaf and hearing communities influenced her childhood.
“It’s the only thing I’ve ever known,” she said. “I don’t know what its like to have a hearing dad. Its not a sad situation, my dad is very successful and very proud to be deaf because that’s how God made him.”
In December 2015 the Farmer family adopted an 11-year-old girl from China, Lily, who is deaf.
“Its really cool how the Lord worked through our family knowing sign language to be able to adopt her and her be integrated into our family very smoothly,” Farmer said.
Another American family adopted Lily before she came to live with the Farmers. After two years they decided that it was not going to work out and the Farmers stepped in.
Farmer explained that interacting with Lily has been a unique and very special experience.
“Having a little sister to talk to, its a whole different way that you talk to somebody. That really encouraged me to embrace the deaf community for her sake,” she said. “She was at a very big disadvantage having been in China. There’s not really a deaf community there that she was in.”
Farmer is planning to graduate with a degree in global community health in May 2018, she hopes sign language will influence her ministry.
“That’s something that God has really been working on in my life especially this year, just learning about all of the unreached deaf people groups,” she said. “There’s different data but it ranges from between 250 to 450 different sign languages in the world and only one of those has a Bible.”
Farmer explained how she felt affirmed after a visit to the International Conference on Missions in November where she sought out the booth for Pioneer Bible Translators and met the only deaf missionaries PBT has.
Farmer volunteers at Buffet Heights Baptist Church, interpreting for a deaf Sunday school class.
“Recently we just started a sign language class at church so I’m planning on going and helping as needed for people trying to learn,” she said.
Farmer pointed out that reaching out to the deaf community is something Johnson should focus on.
“We don’t [have deaf students] but I think first and foremost it really goes along with Johnson’s mission statement because its a huge mission field,” she said. “Twenty minutes away is TSD, so there would be lots of opportunities to volunteer.”
Farmer also said that offering sign language as a foreign language elective could jump-start the mission for unreached deaf people groups.
“I know there are tons of students who are interested in that,” she said. “It would be very helpful even specifically in this community just for the missional and relational sake of it.”
After graduation Farmer hopes to attend nursing school to supplement her degree in global community health before she heads out into the mission field.
“I love Africa, I’ve been to Uganda and then I stayed in Zimbabwe for a summer, but I also very specifically want to work with unreached deaf people groups,” she said.
Farmer said that going to Africa will most likely require learning a different dialect of sign language.
“My parents went to Liberia a couple of times to work with the deaf there and they say its like American sign language but its also really different so its hard to just have a regular conversation,” she said.
Farmer explained that language barriers are just some of the issues she may face on the mission field in Africa.
“In Liberia, some parts, it depends on where you go, it could be seen as a demon so parents will leave their deaf kids just like on the streets because they don’t want that cultural weight,” she said.
Farmer said she is confident that wherever she is sent she will be happy to utilize the gifts God has given her through serving the deaf community.
To see the Chapman Highway Chick-fil-A video for Deaf Awareness Month visit here.