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Friday, December 18, 2009

Thoughts on ASL and Deaf Culture

As you read this, keep in mind that I don't identify myself as
Deaf culture. I grew up hearing. Even after I began losing my
hearing, I was still hearing culture. I could speak. I read
lips. I got a cochlear implant. I didn't know any sign
language.

There are a few reasons for this. My whole family is hearing.
That means they are hearing culture and so am I. I was educated
in the public school system with no special education support
at all. I had no contact with the Deaf community or ASL. The
oralist professionals who worked with me wanted to make sure I
didn't learn sign language. They believed that would make me
too lazy to listen and speak.

When I became totally deaf-blind in my late twenties, I had no
choice but to switch to some type of sign language. My family
and I began using tactile fingerspelling. Some members of my
family think this means they speak ASL. I know better than that.

My ex-husband bought an ASL book so we could learn some real
signs. We did not get far with it. He rolled his eyes as he
read the introduction about Deaf culture and their "so-called"
language.

"It's all bull," he told me. "Deaf people are in denial so they
pretend they aren't disabled. They hide behind their stupid
culture and language. None of it's real."

He reminded me that I will never fit into the Deaf community.
"You have a cochlear implant. You are a traitor. They hate you
because they are jealous that you can hear now."

He tossed the book aside and that was the end of it. Still, I've
been struggling to learn a better way to communicate for years.
I've tried working with a private tutor. Since no one else in my
family knew the signs I was learning, I couldn't ever seem to
remember them. I had no opportunities to practice or use the
signs. The lessons were meaningless with no real life
experience.

Finally, I enrolled in the ASL program at my local university.
I just completed ASL iii. There are six classes in the program
so I am half way through.

What a difference this has made in my life! I'm not just
learning signs that stand for English words. I'm actually
learning ASL. With classes twice a week, practicing in the ASL
Lab, signing to students and friends outside of class, and
attending Deaf socials and community events, I'm finally really
learning something. I've found myself in a new world - enriched
with language and culture and people who accept me for who I am.
This is more than I ever expected to achieve from a college
education.

Now I have some thoughts about ASL and Deaf culture that I would
like to share. First, I've discovered something shocking.
They've been teaching us this since the beginning but I didn't
really understand until now. The idea was lost on me in ASL i,
where we learned mostly vocabulary. ASL ii hinted at this as
we studied sentence structure more in depth. ASL iii finally
drove the concept home. My eyes have opened. I understand! I
get it now!

Here's the truth -- ASL is a language. It is actually a real and
true language. It's not a signed form of English. It's not just
gestures and slang. It's a language!

I remember one day when I felt overwhelmed by all the rules and
requirements of learning ASL. I naively proclaimed, "It's like
learning a foreign language!"

Now I know the truth. It IS a foreign language. ASL is a
language with it's own grammar structure and linguistic rules.
I'm not learning to sign. I'm learning to "speak" a new
language.

I am fascinated by ASL in comparison to English. Of course,
hearing people think that English is superior to ASL. It amuses
me to realize that ASL can often convey more information than
English. Using classifiers, directional verbs, inflections and
more, ASL can describe nouns in more detail and give better
information about how things are spatially related.

English can tell you that the boy is standing beside a tree.
ASL will tell you exactly where the boy is standing in
relationship to the tree. Is he very close to it or a little
away? Is he in front of it? Is he to the left or the right?
ASL will give you that info and more. It can even tell you the
size of the tree and in which direction the boy is facing.

English will tell you that the girl is walking down the street.
ASL will tell you how she is walking. Is she moving fast? Is
she walking slow? Is she staggering from side to side? Is she
walking a little then stopping and walking again? ASL will show
you in what direction she is walking and if she's in the middle
of the street or on the side.

Sorry all you English speaking folk. ASL scores way more points
in this area.

I may be learning ASL but I'm still not part of the Deaf
community. I admire Deaf culture and sometimes I'm even jealous
of it. But I'm still living in a hearing world and identifying
myself as hearing culture. I don't know if that will ever
change. Only time will tell.

I now understand Deaf culture better. I realize that Deaf people
are not in denial. It's not fake or stupid. They share
something very special that binds them together as a community.
It's the language. It's ASL.

It makes sense that a group of people speaking the same language
would form their own culture. They have something unique in
common with each other. It's also something very vital and basic
in life and society. It's the ability to communicate with
others, share values, history, goals and needs. It's a community
centered around a language. It's just like an other culture.

There is one final thing I would like to comment on. Cochlear
implants. Do people in the Deaf community really hate me because
I have a cochlear implant? I don't think so. They seem to
respect my right to make that decision. I can visit people in
the Deaf community and attend their social events. I may have a
cochlear implant hanging on my ear but they still give me a
chance. It's not like wearing some giant scarlet letter that
marks me as a disgrace. My ex-husband was wrong about that one.

On the other hand, I can see their side of the issue. I recently
read a book that talked about the "anxiety of Deaf culture."
We now live in a society that focuses so much on identifying
"bad" genes, fixing, repairing and curing anything that is not
normal. Child receive cochlear implants when they are babies.
They never have the chance to learn ASL or discover the Deaf
community.

Of course that makes people who are culturally Deaf nervous. Do
they fear the end of their culture? It must feel a little bit
like genocide.

Is ASL at risk for becoming extinct? I don't think so. Even as
children receive cochlear implants at very young ages and
doctors try to cure deafness, more and more people are learning
ASL. The language is alive and thriving. I suspect that will
never change. Something as beautiful and precious as ASL will
never die out.

As George Veditz so eloquently put it, "As long as we have Deaf
people, we will have sign language." Amen to that.

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