Monday, June 9, 2008

17: Learning English, Insularity, the Deaf World, and the metaphysics of reality and language

There seems to be a truism among Deaf people that learning English well is not something Deaf people need to do, that it is okay to just be skilled with ASL or another signed language. I am here to tell you nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact Deaf people should become familiar with as many languages as possible. Life isn't worth living until you can say "audism" in 300 languages. Trust me.

I bring this up for two reasons. Last week we read a screenplay in class. Struggling to experiment with ways to read aloud to an entire classroom with Deaf and hearing students at once, I experimented with using a Smartboard to display the text next to me while I signed commentary. It was an interesting experiment, but what struck me was that even though it was English class and we were studying an English text and the point was learning to read in a more skillful way, one of my Deaf students raised her hand and asked me to interpret the text without even bothering to read it. It's easy to tell: ask them to explain their confusion and they can't, because they have none yet: they've just jumped right into expecting the ASL translation. This bothered me.

The second thing is this: I got an e-mail from my old website/blog address - a website called which specialized in social issues. It invited me to join the website. When I did so, I naturally looked right away, using the very handy search tool, for anything related to Deaf people.

I got zero results.

A little broadening of my search terms brought me to a group for deaf-blind people. But other than that, nothing. No drive to subtitle or caption all televised material. No drive to protect the rights of Deaf people and Deaf children. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.

This isn't a new experience. I often see little written by Deaf people in the English media. Helen Keller was unusual in that she wrote 13 books; her like has not again been seen. (Sadly, most of these books are out of print; I'd love a set.)

Sometimes I see the Deaf world as a black hole. You go in and you don't come out. Even ideas don't come out. There's this old line audiologists used to use to describe the signing Deaf world to grieving hearing parents. They'd tell them, "Your child won't socialize with hearing people. They won't have hearing friends. They won't talk to their neighbors." It's true. We don't. But when you pull this line out to us Deafies, we tend to be pretty speechless. In our minds we talk to hearing people quite enough. We can talk to the neighbors just fine. It's not that we can't talk to our neighbors. Often, we just don't seem to want to, with the same intensity that we talk to Deaf friends.

Politics is maybe the area most sorely effected by this cultural difference. As a community, we tend not to go "outside." I write this blog at least in part to counter this tendency. I write occasionally on to counter this tendency. But I keep wondering why it's so. Other linguistically different groups aren't like this, not groups as culturally and technologically well-versed as we are. They study hard, learn good English, and fight really hard to get their message out in the wider community and garner support. They don't abandon their culture - they see these things as additions, not distractions. In our community, it's the exception instead of the rule for a blogger or writer to be successful in the mainstream, and when they do they rarely do under "hearing" rules.

Part of this is because of our fine understanding of the effects of linguistic deprivation. I'm beginning to understand, through my teaching, just how much of it is problems with how people teach Deaf students English - my kids have no problem fixing their grammar errors, and they keep telling me "nobody's ever explained this like this to me before," so I think it's just a matter of teaching people to see things from a deaf person's perspective. (Which makes me think: maybe I've always had my own kind of Deafhood, and I've been spending my whole life realizing that, and learning to trust myself instead of depend on other people's perception of me. Which in itself is scary.)

Part of it, also, is that when you don't speak the same language as the other person, they seem less real to you. I see this difference in my students. I saw it a long time ago with my parents when I was diagnosed as Deaf. I wrote a poem once:
it was easy for them to fall into
the habit of ignoring their deafchild
(one shared by so many hearing parents of deafchildren)
of speaking of him and to him rather than with him.
I had become a ghost,
Still walking in their rooms
Singing in tones too low for them to hear
"This is me, this is who I am, this-"

-from Anomie, copyright 2005 Joseph Santini
At the time, as all kids do, I assumed it was myself who had become less of a person. Little did I know the pain and self-diminishment that was happening on the other end. We all do that - ignore how our ignorance affects others. And maybe I'm right about this whole language thing. Maybe it really is responsible for our not opening our borders more readily. Or maybe it's something else. But we should not ignore how our ignorance affects others. We as a group need to take responsibility for going out there and being part of a larger world.

I said once, writing on Deaf in the City, that there was no Deaf world and no Hearing world, that both of these were illusions, that there was one world and we both had equal claim to ownership. The statement is true and it cuts two ways. It is a hard lesson but it is a lesson which true Deafhood (not the feel-good American plan version) teaches us and if we ever want to understand the whole of who we are and what we can do before we're wiped off this weeping ball of stone, we'd better get it together. (Even the FDP in England has changed its name to the Signing Community. You have to open yourself up if you want the world to open to you, especially if you want, like the website promises, to create change in your world.)

But how I can teach this understanding to my student, when she is sitting in front of me looking at me expectantly for a translation, and 19 other students are sitting there, some not even understanding I've been asked a question, waiting for me to continue? She can't even say audism in one language yet.


Greg said...

Hi Joseph, I have read your blog on deaf society and english. I must say I am impressed with your thoughts, feelings, and facts. It is, I feel, true on the relationship between deaf society (not all) and english. I feel it is very important to grasp all of the languages there are in this universe, and that will bring you and everyone else a better understanding of life and above all, love. I myself am the professional actor, and I have to learn to understand most languages. I think and feel every language is beautiful, just that it only takes a heart to love it (them). Therefore, for those who desires to field their passions into acting and/or any career, languages are equally important as their own. That's that. Just remeber this: this opinion I have expressed does not mean right or wrong. Now my brain is baked, and I's tired. Smile. Faith, Hope, and Love to you and all.

JR said...

Hello Greg

Thank you for your comment. Those are my feelings exactly.

I usually find that people who say "this is my opinion, it doesn't mean it's right or wrong" are often right! :)

Lord and lady guide your feet,

Anonymous said...

the depth of your expression, impressive as always, begs for further development, stronger resources and the willingness to receive challenges openly. i know you will be one to bring expansive change. don't give up.

Greg said...

Aw, thank you! I certainly am looking forward to your next blog. I love to discuss about life and everything else. Again, I look forward to it.

Kate O. Breen said...

it's a great write, joe. thanks for reminding me what's important out there. :) love and hugs, kb

Mr. Sandman said...

Some of us do try to write about politics and general issues, but it usually is overlooked in the deaf community in favor of articles centering on ASL, deaf education, and the like.

As for deaf writers, I agree-- would love to see more of us get published. Who knows...? Maybe one of these days...