Wednesday, February 18, 2009

25: Speaking to me

Sometimes I wonder why all the effort in Deaf education is spent towards getting Deaf children to speak. It often doesn't matter. Your voice can be a rich patina of textured sound. As long as you are a Deaf person, that takes precedence... I have spoken to people who understand me perfectly until they are made to understand that I am Deaf. After that, no matter what I do, I am incomprehensible, and we must write to communicate. Other Deaf people have reported the same experience. Based on these casual observations, we can form the hypothesis that people's opinions and prejudices about Deaf people have much more power than any one individual's ability to learn to speak or hear better. The power of the stereotype, with all its opinions and prejudices, is deadly. It is those opinions and prejudices, in the end, which cost us more and keep us further away from success.

It almost does not matter whether or not you believe Deaf people are an individual people with their own culture and experiences and language. No matter what you believe, Deaf people will experience many of the same things such minorities do, including, as I've explained above, stereotyping. Reality is subject to the power of the stereotype. Just as there were once African Americans who, despite repeated evidence that they could produce remarkable calligraphy, were proclaimed illiterate, there are still unconscious prejudices which make people see Deaf people as terra incommunicado.

I experience this on a daily basis in my classroom. Some of the hearing kids I teach "get it" quickly, signing to me or speaking to me or otherwise trying to communicate with me. These are the kids I respect the most. Other kids have a hard time getting past their built-in audism. They ask their friends to talk or sign to me, or they don't even bother, or they look around for a substitute adult (in our school, we are lucky, since such adults are likely to reinforce my authority in the classroom and direct the child to talk to me. In a normal school, another adult would be more likely to take away from my authority, and take charge of the answer.) If there is an interpreter available, they whisper to him or her to ask him, ask him... Sometimes I feel rather like an ancient Greek oracle, accessible only to a chosen few.

I teach English, so communication becomes of even more importance. Rather than seeing my Deaf nature as a disadvantage, I see it as a huge advantage. Establishing protocols for effective communication and teaching children to learn how to use those protocols is highly beneficial. Teaching hearing children that very Deaf skill, the skill of being able to try communication method no. 1, then no. 2, then no. 3, until every possible method has been tried - teaching that could be very beneficial!

But getting kids over that communication barrier - the barriers they bring with them - is a very difficult job, and I haven't found a complete and easy solution yet. Take things one by one, I guess.

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