Friday, March 28, 2008

13: deafhood and the process of education

Parent-teacher night brings interesting experiences. You meet parents the twin of their child; parents nothing like their child; parents you wish didn't have a child; parents you envy. Sometimes experiences echo your own. Here's one:

Hilda became Deaf as a child, like I did. Because (like I did) there was a period in which she could hear (however brief) doctors and advisors insisted to her mother that she be kept from signed languages (ASL, in this case, although the well-intentioned have paved similar stones in other countries.)

She reminds me very much of myself at that age. She enjoys the written word, and just finished reading the fourth Harry Potter book. She has a personality, but she is ultimately withdrawn, always uncertain in communication, still struggling to figure out the rules for interacting with the world. She has a few friends, but most of them are domineering loners who don't mind her lack of comprehension and just rattle on about their own issues. She's developing her grammar skills in English, although she shows several errors, particularly with subject/verb agreement. However, my sense is that many of these mistakes are careless ones, made because she has something else - a book, a project, or the pleasure of someone's company - to which she must return.

I've tested her in a few ways. When she is sitting with other Deaf people in small groups, such as during tutoring, she feels more comfortable and becomes more animated. This is to be expected - for her entire childhood she's gone to school in similar segregated groups of children, some of whom probably signed. When sitting in the regular classroom, she sits alone, looks isolated, hunted by the support staff assigned to work with her, ashamed to look at interpreters, and not sure that doing so would help, in any case.

The thing which sucks is that she's only taking ASL class one day a week. I'm going to work at amplifying her exposure. But it isn't easy, even in a school with two languages, to give everyone what they need: especially when you consider the topic of my next post: How Do You Teach Them To Learn It For Themselves?

But what is she? (What was I?) Deaf or deaf or hard of hearing? After much thought I still call her Deaf, with a capital D. I suppose some people will take notice, or umbrage. I suppose even she might. But Deaf, to me, is an umbrella term covering a huge variety of people (look at the diversity under the term American, or Jewish, if this perspective makes you protest.) Which counts, the experience or the person? Once you turn away from a medical view of Deafness to a sociocultural view, the answer becomes less obvious.

I was not culturally Deaf when I was a child. But I was a Deaf person going through my own process of Deafhood. My experiences were like Hilda's. We both went through a period where we had to define our identity as Deaf people. In our case, we did it in the New York Public School system, measuring ourselves always against the actions and words (those we could perceive) of others. In the case of other Deaf people, they did it in Deaf schools. (She is now; I did, a few years older than she.) Some Deaf people who are culturally Deaf now, performed the exploration which formed their own Deafhood in oral schools, and would not countenance being told that they are not Deaf. (Culture is part of Deaf people, not the other way around. It could not be otherwise: all people have more than one culture.)

I believe in this definition while, simultaneously, believing that all Deaf people should have the opportunity to learn their national signed language as well as the spoken language they will no doubt be rigorously exposed to, in an almost-tyrannical way, for their entire educational life. I believe these things with all my heart. Is that too sentimental a construction for an academic paper? It is based on my conviction of the human need for independence and the challenges that independence brings. Languages and the ability to use them are what give human beings the freedom to grow and change - to be human, in short.

Was I human, before I learned language? Caliban learned language and his only profit on't was that he learned to curse. Perhaps one day I shall also: I look at Hilda and am split. Half of me wants to cradle her, teach her all the lessons I've learned about being a Deaf person and a human being, share what I can so she can avoid or deal with the frustrations I had with more aplomb than I did. The other half of me thinks that would only make it worse, and the best thing I could do would be to let her find her own way, and take what she will of me.

And maybe help get her a few more ASL classes a week. (It's far too easy to forget the best solutions are practical ones.)

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