Symbolic Universal Notation Brings Scripture to the Deaf and Blind

In 2020, Symbolic Universal Notation (SUN) was launched as a way of effectively reaching deaf and blind communities around the world with God’s word. The concept-based language provides a symbolic representation of the words in the New Testament and was developed by Wycliffe Associates, a globally networked Bible translation organization, over four years.

A team of Biblical researchers took the New Testament and broke it down into core concepts embodied in each chapter and verse. From these concepts, new symbols were created that could be read both visually and using touch.

The need for such a version of the Bible is acute: an estimated 70 million people worldwide were born deaf, with a majority unable to communicate in the locally used sign language. With only 20 percent of those in the Deaf population accessing education, a key question is how to provide an edition of the Bible meaningful to those without formal education.

The SUN system was developed by Wycliffe Associates to reach out to the 600,000 people who are both deaf and blind. SUN took inspiration from Mandarin language symbols in the concept of symbols that could be universally understood.

A team of people who are deaf or hard of hearing and hearing impaired developed the approach of converting sign language gestures into universally recognized symbols on a page. An example is a sentence describing a person smelling a fish, which features characters representing a side-view face, a nose, and a fish in that order. The small group of core characters can also be combined and altered, creating additional symbols known as extensions.

With 400 volunteers collaborating online across the United States, various symbols were created to represent the precepts in Scripture. The Unlocked Literal Bible was the source translation, with the process of producing a SUN New Testament. In addition to traditionally printed book editions, 3D printers are being used to print editions with symbols that can be felt and used to understand text physically, as with Braille. Typically, Deaf individuals can learn the 100 core SUN symbols in four days, while Deaf and Blind individuals require 16 days.

As Wycliffe Associates described it, having introduced SUN into around a dozen Deaf communities worldwide, the SUN system effectively reaches even those unable to access their local community’s sign language. Wycliffe Associates spoke of a training session in a country in Southeast Asia with eight Deaf adults who could only communicate with family using rudimentary gestures and sounds. Not knowing how the local languages worked, they could not communicate with other Hearing or Deaf people and felt extremely shy in social situations.

Within a matter of days, these adults, who for their entire lives had not been able to communicate effectively with those around them, were able to learn the core SUN symbols, read John 3:16, and start to take in the meaning of: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Also, the students were described as eagerly preparing for classes each day and engaging with Hearing and Deaf communities in ways they had not before.

Wycliffe Associates says, “That’s closer than they’ve ever been in their lives. Closer than we’ve ever been able to bring them and communicate with them. So, to us, that proximity to the truth of Scripture is tremendously exciting.”