One of my passions is the study of American Sign Language (ASL). It began several years ago as a hobby of sorts. I found the language so beautiful, visually engaging, and poetic. As I delved more deeply into learning the structure and grammar of ASL, my instructors introduced me to the rich history and culture of the Deaf community.
I was, like most hearing people, completely unaware that an entire community of Deaf people shared not only a common language, but art, film, poetry, and a common history. I discovered that Deaf people consider themselves not just physiologically deaf, but part of a culturally minority. Deaf people are intensely proud of their deafness, their language, and their culture. Being unable to hear is not considered a disability or a handicap. It is simply a difference- like being male or female, blond or brunette.
I became so interested in learning more about Deaf Culture, I decided to structure my masters thesis around the perception of deafness in children’s literature. I won’t bore you with the details, but my goal was to look at children’s books over a twenty-year period and see whether Deaf characters have been portrayed as disabled or members of a distinct culture. I found that while many more Deaf characters have appeared in kid’s lit over the last twenty years or so, the portrayals remain dated and stereotypical. Very often, deaf characters are lumped together with other “disabled” populations- such as the blind, autistic, or those with Down Syndrome.
During the course of my research I had many of my hearing friends and colleagues ask about my topic. I found that almost no one I spoke to knew about Deaf Culture at all. To explain my topic, I had to first explain about Deafness (with a capital “D”). Many of my friends who asked a simple question (probably just to be polite) were suddenly bombarded with a longwinded history of Deaf education in America. I found this rather surprising, given the recent interest in sign language. From college courses to baby sign programs, to using sign language with special needs children and the elderly, the past few years have seen a major increase in the use of ASL by hearing populations. And yet, very few hearing people understand or even know about Deaf Culture and history.
While I’ve been using ASL signs in my story programs for a while, I am somewhat conflicted. Part of me loves to share signs- simply because it is fun, engaging, and helps to establish communication with very young children and especially special needs kids. But, I also feel that, as a hearing person, I have to be careful not to misappropriate a language and a culture I can only understand second-hand. I would love to know what those in the Deaf community feel about us hearing folk using their language.
There are two documentaries I’ve seen recently that have helped me better understand Deaf history and appreciate the current struggle with the Cochlear implant technology. Through Deaf Eyes is a 2-hour PBS documentary that explores the last 200 years of Deaf life in America. There are interviews with famous Deaf Americans and several specially commissioned short films by Deaf filmmakers and artists. It is a well-produced and fascinating documentary.
The other film I saw just this weekend was Sound and Fury, a documentary following two sets of parents trying to decide whether to implant their deaf children with a Cochlear implant. Peter Artinian and his wife are both Deaf, with three Deaf children. Their oldest, 4-year-old Heather, is curious about getting the implant so that she can communicate with her hearing friends. Her parents are weary of the technology and fearful that it will negatively impact both Heather’s sense of self and her use of sign language. Peter’s (hearing) family, however, feels strongly that to deny Heather the implant is tantamount to abuse.
The other family followed throughout the film, Peter’s brother and sister-in-law, have two twin babies, one of whom was born deaf. Since both parents are hearing, they are firmly committed to implantation. In a near parallel to the reaction of the hearing family, the Deaf relatives are outraged when they discover the plans for implantation. To the Deaf world, such an operation is deeply insulting and a cultural betrayal of everything it means to be Deaf.
The filmmaker does not take sides and does a wonderful job of simply allowing each set of parents to explain their situation. Personally, I found myself torn. If I were to have a deaf child I would want them to be able to live in both worlds- hearing and Deaf. Would I opt for an implant? I don’t know. Does an implant automatically shut them out of the Deaf world? Does sign language impair a Deaf child’s ability to fully integrate into the hearing world? There are no easy answers.
In the meantime, I’m still studying ASL, still using signs in my programs, and still on the lookout for good children’s books with strong, proud Deaf characters.