Can You See Me Now?
Welcome to Deaf-World.
The 19th-century poet Laura Redden Searing, who happened to be Deaf, wrote a story about a lonely bird with crippled wings who comes upon the Realm of the Singing. This bird longs to sing like the birds living in the high branches of the Realm, but his crippled wings have also crippled his voice. The crippled bird, after much effort, does learn to sing. It’s a beautiful voice worthy of the birds in the high branches. He sings to the wretched of the Earth, who have gathered beneath his tree. In an act of redemption, the birds in the Realm of the Singing invite the crippled bird to join them up high. But he rejects them, choosing instead to inhabit the low branches as he always did, using his voice to cheer the wretched of the Earth. “Once I would have died to go,” the crippled bird exclaims, “now… I have found my kingdom and vocation. Both are down low.” Searing’s story could be the story of Deaf Americans from the 19th to 21st centuries, the story of people who were once seen as crippled, and who, finding their voices, chose to make music for each other.
- The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry by Harlan Lane, Richard C. Pillard, and Ulf Hedberg. 296 pages. Oxford University Press. $49.95.
In America, inspiring stories of individuals overcoming disabilities — economic, physical, metaphysical — are regularly sewn into the narrative quilt that is the inspiring tale of America itself. Perhaps the most familiar is that of Helen Keller, who could neither hear nor see. Like many Deaf people living in America before the modern age of Deaf culture, the young Keller lived an isolated existence. Some viewed her as little more capable than an animal — maybe less capable. The true story of how Helen Keller not only overcame her alienation by learning American Sign Language from Annie Sullivan — the “Miracle Worker” — but went on to become an American icon, is truly inspiring. It is specifically inspiring to hearing people because, to them, Keller’s tale is one of a disabled person who went on to succeed in mainstream America. Yet for most Deaf Americans, Helen Keller's struggle wasn’t about overcoming a disability; she simply needed to learn the language of being Deaf. You see, for most Deaf Americans, being Deaf is not a handicap at all. It is not the inability to hear but rather, the ability to perceive life in a different way from hearing people. For many, it’s a blessing.
When I first decided to take up American Sign Language as a teenager, and I found this idea incredibly intriguing. Sadly, I had no Deaf friends with whom to practice ASL, and no Deaf family members either. I didn’t know any Deaf people at all. I was driven mostly by a fascination with the language itself, a silent language powered by clarity and expressiveness — more so than daily spoken English — a language that (I thought) might utterly fall apart without, say, eye contact. I recall once watching an argument between two ASL signers as a child, and thinking it was the loudest string of soundless sounds I never heard. ASL matched complex physicality with the distillation of English down to its essentials. For example, there was an illustrated diagram in my ASL textbook explaining that, to properly ask a question in ASL, you first make a statement and then, at the same time, shrug your shoulders, cock your head to one side, and open your eyes wide, perhaps adding an inquisitive expression to your face. To a hearing person, this feels like overkill, to say the least, like donning a Greek theater mask every time you need to find the bathroom. But the translation of heard and spoken inflection into something you have to communicate with your whole body is a fundamental part of ASL. It’s a visual language, a language of the eye.
With the absence of one sense, Deaf people have said, came the heightening of others, most notably, sight. Modern Deaf poetry is filled with intense visual imagery and the poetry of seeing, like in J. Schuyler Long’s “The Poetry of Motion”:
In the poetry of motion there is music if one sees,
In the soaring birds above us there are moving symphonies.
There is music in the movement of a ship upon the wave
And the sunbeams dancing o’er it, that the minstrels never gave.
…in harmony of motion there are songs that Nature sings.
And there is music all around us if we have the eyes to see…
Or this poem by Robert F. Panara:
In silent study I have learned to tell
Each secret shade of meaning and to hear
A magic harmony, at once sincere,
That somehow notes the tinkle of a bell,
The cooing of a dove, the swish of leaves,
The raindrop’s pitter-patter on the eaves,
The lover’s sigh, the thrumming of a guitar,
And, if I choose, the rustle of a star!
What Deaf people have realized about themselves in the last century is that being Deaf opens up a new mode of experience. And ASL is the language of that experience. Deaf people were creating their own world. But it was a world they would have to defend.
The newly published The People of the Eye sets out to define the Deaf-World and to fight for it. Where Deaf activists have spent decades arguing that deafness is not a defect but a character trait — a benefit even — The People of the Eye goes a step further. It asserts that Deaf is an ethnicity. An ethnicity like all officially classed ethnicities, to be given its due, politically and culturally. Authors Harlan Lane, Richard C. Pillard, and Ulf Hedberg write that, although Deaf identity is based not on religion, race, or class, “there is no more authentic expression of an ethnic group than its language.” Language is the core of American Deaf life. The important characteristic that distinguishes deafness from other conditions classed as disabilities is that deafness is a matter of communication. With the emergence of Deaf schools, literacy allowed Deaf people to better communicate in the hearing world. As ASL developed, Deaf Americans could better communicate with each other, and with this came the creation of a Deaf culture, even a new way of being.
ASL signers say that they spend much more time thinking about and dealing with language than most Americans, resulting in a rich and independent tradition of Deaf language arts — literature, theater, journalism. Deaf people have their own clubs, their own rituals, their own places of worship, their own newspapers, their own sense of humor. The People of the Eye discusses, too, how the fully embodied language of ASL and Deaf pride created a culture of storytelling in the Deaf-World, and how this storytelling developed a unique narrative structure based on the particularities of ASL. (It’s important to note that the authors don’t say all individuals in the Deaf-World are storytellers, but that storytelling and bravado are prevalent aspects of Deaf culture.)
The People of the Eye argues that, along with language, American signers share a common history and even ancestry. Indeed, the second half of the book is chock-full of ancestral accounts and pedigree diagrams that would make a Mormon genealogist proud. The Deaf-World, write the authors, even has its own creation myths, such as the one about Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, founder of Gallaudet University, America’s (probably the world’s) preeminent school for the Deaf. One day, the story goes, Gallaudet taught the young Alice Cogswell, who had become deaf at age 2, to understand H-A-T as the thing on his head. Alice’s father, a wealthy surgeon, was so impressed that he sent Gallaudet to study sign language in Paris — at the renowned school of the abbé de l’Epée, who invented modern sign language — whereupon Gallaudet returned to America and founded schools for the Deaf all over the country. “And that’s how the Deaf-World began in America.” Except, as the authors point out, the story is altogether untrue, or at least a mix of fact and fiction, like the creation legends of any people, majority or minority. One aspect of Deaf ethnicity, says The People of the Eye, is its similarity to other ethnicities. This only adds to its validity. “The reader should not expect too much that is exotic in Deaf-World rules and values,” the authors writer. “As with recognized ethnic minorities, the Deaf-World absorbs some of the dominant ethnicity that surrounds it.”
Even if you, like most people, find classing “Deaf” as an ethnic group to be a wild notion, are adamant that deafness is a disability, you must admit that there is no other human disability that has created a new language the way the Deaf-World has. Sure, you might say, ASL is interesting. Remarkable even. That said, if deafness could be cured, there would be no need for ASL, just as the need for prostheses would disappear if we could organically regenerate missing limbs.
For a long time, Americans have been searching for ways to cure the Deaf. These cures have ranged from the abusive to the absurd, from so-called “oralism” (forcing Deaf people to speak and lip-read instead of sign); to sticking twigs, urine, or electricity in the ears; to divine intervention. Charles Lindbergh, reportedly, would charge $50 to take Deaf people up in a little plane and perform acrobatic stunts to “rouse the slumbering hearing apparatus.” Unsurprisingly, passengers on these “deaf flights” left 50 bucks lighter and with ears still very much asleep.
The People of the Eye makes it clear that “Deaf” cannot be thought of as something that should be, or could be, cured at all. Except that, these days, deafness can, in effect, be “cured,” and the cure is rapidly making headway and headlines. It’s called the cochlear implant. An estimated 71,000 adults and children now have cochlear implants. It’s likely that you’ve heard about cochlear implants, especially if you are a viewer of daytime television, which is rife with heartwarming stories of Americans whose lives have been dramatically changed by the device. The cochlear implant looks a bit like a sea parasite escaped from Radio Shack feasting on the side of a human head. Inelegant as its design may be, its effectiveness at making Deaf people more successful members of the hearing world is remarkable. Cochlear implants don’t just amplify sound like hearing aids (which mostly just amplify environmental noise). Unlike hearing aids, which rest outside the ear, cochlear implants are surgically attached to the cochlea. As the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders website puts it: “Cochlear implants bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. Signals generated by the implant are sent by way of the auditory nerve to the brain, which recognizes the signals as sound.” It must be said that recognizing signals as sound is not a restoration of complete hearing capacity. But cochlear implants do seem to help those who want to better perceive sound, to increase their ability to communicate orally. And the technology is improving all the time.
The thing is, turning the Deaf into the Hearing would kill the Deaf-World. For Deaf adults who have grown up in the Deaf-World, and live in it as happy citizens, the suggestion that they should get a cochlear implant can sound downright insulting, prejudiced even. If one accepts the argument that Deaf is an ethnicity, couldn’t plans to eradicate it be seen as acts of genocide? And this is where The People of the Eye brings up some very uncomfortable propositions. Even if Deafness is a choice, does this make it any less valid than, say, Judaism? It is, of course, the case that Jews can be successfully “cured” and become members of the Christian world. (As the Inquisition demonstrated, even white Protestants can be cured.) In fact, many of the qualities we hold as being inviolable, as true to our identities, to our “ethnicities,” are mutable. But because they can be changed does not mean they must. Are cures an acceptable way to address human diversity? Are deviations from the norm to be embraced, with education and social sensitivity, or eliminated?
And yet, what of the Deaf child, who is too young to understand the implications of the potential loss of their Deaf identity? Or who may not want to grow up in the Deaf-World but are unable to make the choice? And what of the hearing parents of a Deaf child? How could they encourage their child to be Deaf, especially given the option of a cochlear implant? Even the most permissive, who might accept their Deaf child’s different ethnicity such as one would for an adopted child, would have to come to terms with leaving their child to the unfamiliar Deaf-World. In doing so, would they lose their own connection to the world of their child?
At the heart of American multiculturalism is genuine excitement. Multiculturalism is like a trip to Epcot, an opportunity to sample cultures different from one’s own. We taste, and then we go home. We Americans have a love affair with diversity, love to be Irish (read: drunk) on St. Patrick’s Day, love to be Mexican (read: drunk) on Cinco de Mayo. But we are unnerved by difference, too. Hearing Americans cheer the news that Deaf Americans, once lonely and isolated, have found solace in each other. They support Deaf people’s living happy, independent lives. But thinking of them as living in a different world — this makes them rather uncomfortable. The country’s truly marginal communities — the Amish, the Satmar, the Gullah-Geechee, et al. — alternately thrive and struggle within the boundaries of America’s alternating enthusiasm and fear. America is about belonging—isn’t it? Belonging is linked to America’s secret love affair with proselytizing. Americans might not want to join your thing, but they want to be wanted, want to know that the possibilities are open. Possibility is part of the American dream. The flipside of that dream is a message of hope to outsiders such as Helen Keller, a promise that they can assimilate into mainstream America given the opportunity.
What The People of the Eye wants hearing people to understand, though — difficult as it may be — is that most Deaf Americans would not assimilate even if they could. ASL signers do live in a hearing America, are dependent on a symbiotic relationship with the hearing world. Even so, Deaf people tend to marry other Deaf people, go to Deaf schools, have Deaf friends, and even surrogate Deaf parents when hearing parents are insufficient to bolster a Deaf identity (or who threaten that identity by attempting to cure them). The Deaf-World, borne of necessity, has now become a fortress against the invading hordes of the hearing. There are ASL signers who dream of a Deaf homeland, where visual communication is the norm. Deaf people who gain too much success in the hearing world or marry into it can be looked on with suspicion, much like hearing people who want access to the Deaf-World by learning ASL. As Barbara Kannapell (quoted in The People of the Eye) once wrote: “ASL is the only thing we have that belongs to Deaf people completely…. Maybe we are afraid to share our language with hearing people. Maybe our group identity will disappear once hearing people know ASL.”
Suffice it to say, when I decided to learn ASL, I was perhaps the very brand of hearing person the Deaf community distrusts — the curious enthusiast hungry for passport into their private world. ASL, like any other language, is exclusive by design. Which doesn’t mean that ASL can’t be taught to the hearing, nor does it mean that hearing people can’t participate meaningfully in the Deaf-World (as is the case with hearing children of Deaf parents). What it does mean is that, even for those fluent in ASL, being Deaf is an experience a hearing person can never, ever have. This challenges the American idea that all cultures should be easy to participate in, that they can be different as long as they’re not Different.
In Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, author Paddy Ladd draws a distinction between deafness and what he calls Deafhood. Deafness, says Ladd, is a term given by the hearing. It presents being Deaf as a finite state. “Deafhood is not, however, a 'static' medical condition like 'deafness',” Ladd writes. “Instead, it represents a process — the struggle by each Deaf child, Deaf family and Deaf adult to explain to themselves and each other their own existence in the world. In sharing their lives with each other as a community, and enacting those explanations rather than writing books about them, Deaf people are engaged in a daily praxis, a continuing internal and external dialogue." Looked at this way, maybe considering Deaf as an ethnicity is itself a process, a process of completely reconsidering what a Deaf person is or can be. Maybe it’s not an end but a beginning, for hearing and Deaf alike. • 23 May 2011
Stefany Anne Golberg is an artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She's a founding member of the art collective Flux Factory and lives in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.