Someone I know posted this video on Facebook. How adorable.
I love this video. I love the interaction between the little girl and her Dad. I love it when he laughs and when she looks both curious and proud. It demonstrates the profound power and necessities of learning: A dedicated loving teacher, intrinsic curiosity, and pride.
I really liked the video - and then, it started to make me feel ashamed. And angry. And here is why:
The video caused me to reflect on the baffling question that people ask so often when they meet my friend Amy. She is deaf. She can not hear and does not read lips. “Does she know how to read?” people have asked, time and time again.
The question baffles me because auditory language has nothing to do with visual comprehension.
While the hearing community has a penchant for teaching reading via phonetics - phonetics has everything to do with speaking words aloud, and very little to do with reading comprehension itself. But I tend to think that the assumption that someone can not read because they are deaf has larger and far more disturbing roots in epidemic audism in our society.
(Audism: "An attitude based on pathological thinking which results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear; like racism or sexism, audism judges, labels, and limits individuals on the basis of whether a person hears and speaks.")
For many years now, scientific studies have shown that babies learn to communicate faster and with more efficacy when using sign language. All people understand that basic body and hand signs can be far more effective than speaking out loud in situations such as when trying to communicate with someone out of hearing distance, or to indicate something important more privately when in a group, or to simply convey something more quickly than using spoken words will achieve. Even in organized sports, hand signs are critical parts of game strategy. And yet we forget or disregard the obvious importance ‘sign’ language has on effective communication.
Why is comprehensive sign language not the first language of all people? Why are those who rely on signing not only treated as if they are at a disadvantage = but often as if the language itself indicates that they are of lesser intellect? This makes little or no sense. Surely no hearing person will look at the video above and automatically think - “Oh, look. That baby is intellectually disabled because she is signing. She must have a lower mental capacity.” and yet that IS the automatic assumption toward far too many Deaf people by far too many hearing people in this country.
The roots of Audism are vast, troubling, and profound. For thousands of years Deaf children were treated as if they were mentally handicapped, they were separated from their families, institutionalized and all but given up on without even a modicum of effort toward education or support.
Later, Alexander Graham Bell - who is heralded in our country as the “Father of Modern Communication” - would publicly and vociferously denounce deafness as a condition to be eradicated entirely. Until we could achieve that, he believed that people should place all their efforts toward teaching the deaf to ‘speak aloud’ and avoid the use of sign language at all costs. The result? In many schools and families, Deaf children endured severe punishment including having their hands tied behind their backs so they could not communicate by signing — in order to force them to attempt oral communication. His efforts to suppress the teaching of sign language were so widely accepted as either helpful or at the very least harmless - that this traumatic impact of his teachings are rarely even mentioned as a part of his ‘industrious’ record of furthering communication among the masses. How many of you even knew this was a part of Bell’s legacy? Yet, it is - and it speaks to the continued shaping of mass consciousness toward Deaf people as a whole. Forget reading. How can you learn ANYTHING when you are a child and your hands are literally tied behind your back in a so called learning environment? Deaf or not, this is an atrocious scenario. While many quote Helen Keller in her respect for Bell, few people mention his advocacy of sterilizing women in families that appeared to carry a deaf gene.
For anyone who wants to argue -’yes but that mistreatment of Deaf people doesn't happen anymore so it isn’t relevant any longer -’ or - ‘well, I never made purposeful assumptions about being deaf means lower intellect, so prejudice of this nature does not apply to me -” I suggest you set those arguments aside and start first by showing how - because of the civil rights movement - there is no longer prejudice or racism extended toward African Americans in our society. Can any of you make that argument with conviction? Negative societal norms and deeply rooted and damaging cultural biases impact every aspect of living within our society, every minute of every day. How do we change that? By admitting them, confronting them, and challenging them in equal measure.
I would like to say that I am only speaking about hearing people who are not advanced in progressive thinking in other ways, but I am not. I am talking about my own poorly preconceived notions prior to learning more about Deaf culture, and I am talking about many of my own family and friends who I respect dearly.
ASL has its own grammatical structure and syntax. It is a different language than hearing English. It is based in visuals and not auditory cues and response. Therefore, if you read a chat board that is populated primarily by ASL users (deaf and hearing alike) you will see that the grammar being used is different than that of hearing English. The assumption I first made, and that many hearing people will make - is that the grammar is wrong. Poor. Uneducated. None of these things are true when applied to ASL. Still, one friend said to me: “Yes, well they need to learn good hearing English grammar, because how will they succeed in the world if they don’t? People don’t understand.” While this may sound reasonable at first - I am asking my progressive friends to back up right here and now and challenge your entire thought process. Put it into a context where we are finally (with still, a long long way to go) challenging the exact same line of thought:
“Yes, well, that gay person is going to have to learn to act straight and present themselves as straight because this is mostly a straight world and it is their responsibility to fit in. People don’t understand being ‘gay.’”
Most of us are starting to understand that the answer lies in equal rights, education, access, tolerance, and acceptance - and NOT in continuing to shame gay culture and continuing to force conformation on them as a whole - right?
But how is this different than the expectation that Deaf people conform in their spoken (visual) and written language to that of hearing people? The reasons for expecting them too are rooted in the same pathological ideology and are equally disheartening and inappropriate.
Why do so many well intentioned straight people not speak up or challenge their assumptions when it comes to gay culture? Because the issue is so widespread, so deeply entrenched, and has been perpetuated for centuries - it is often easier to not think about how we may just be a part of the problem as well.
Another person whose overall political ideology I greatly admire said to me: “It might be annoying when hearing people assume that a deaf person can not read - but if they are not deaf how will they understand that a deaf person can read, unless they ask?”
Herein lies my response. I do not have a problem with asking questions of or seeking knowledge about other cultures when someone doesn’t understand the process around something. I think asking questions based in respect is healthy and critical to both individual and community growth. I have heard some frustrated Deaf people say stop asking the questions! I don't agree with that and have publicly said so. But people are not asking how my Deaf friend learned to read - they are starting out with the assumption that she can’t. And I go back to the fact that life experience in and of itself will negate that assumption. Children with laryngitis don’t forget how to read because their voice is rendered unusable. Reading is not a hearing activity - in fact the vast majority of hearing people read in silence! It is habitual and a natural state, to read without speaking aloud. Many hearing people when called upon to read aloud in a group, feel so uncomfortable and conspicuous doing so - they feel physically ill when it happens. So why the automatic assumption that being deaf means you can not read or even that learning to read must have been very difficult?
Again, let’s put that question and why it offends me into context. If you were a progressive intelligent white person with a black friend, and you went out to lunch, and the server automatically turned to you and said: “Can your friend read?” and you knew the question was based solely on the fact that your friend was black - you would think it was absolutely absurd. You would see immediately that the undercurrent of racism in this culture was perverse and terribly disrespectful. How many of you, today, would say: “But if you don’t ask, how will you know if a black person can read?” No, most of us would say ‘ “What in the world does the color of someone’s skin have to do with reading?” And so I ask, what does hearing have to do with reading?
If you want to say that the confusion exists because hearing people learn to read phonetically, I want to challenge that too. I believe telling yourself that phonetics is the reason for being confused as to how a Deaf person might be able to read is an automated response to excuse and deny the blatant audism that takes place in our culture. Black people suffered through the travesty of a culture that forbade them from learning to read for hundreds of years. They and many minorities have and still do endure schools and districts that are understaffed, underserved and dealing with a terrible lack of resources. In other words, if we wanted to excuse an assumption that black people were not able to read with some kind of reasonable fact - we could - but we have come to understand that making any assumptions about skin color and ability is based in endemic racism and not ‘factual’ at all. Yet we excuse and justify these same assumptions when directed toward the Deaf.
Many people in our society do still assume that black people are of lesser intelligence. We do still employ a pervasive and shameful attitude of forced conformation toward gays. Don’t ask. Don’t tell! Both of these things have to do with intrinsic racism and homophobia and not with excusable ignorance. Why are we making excuses for our attitudes toward the Deaf?
Challenge yourself to recognize that these automated responses toward audism in our society speak to the same (beyond) destructive forces that create classism, elitism, homophobia and racism. They are not excusable by an automated ‘logic’ that is not logical at all - but instead based in centuries of misinformation and subjugation and the repugnant need for power and control. Challenge your thoughts, your questions, and the very root of your questions. Why are you asking yourself if Deaf people can read? Or drive? Or understand things? If anywhere in your question lies the implication that it is because their intellect is not the same as that of a hearing person - bingo. There is the problem. And the problem lies in premise of the question itself.
All that being said. Don’t stop asking how. That is a fair question. That is about educating yourself. That is about greater understanding. It is appropriate to question a method you have no point of reference for. But that is a question born of the intent to learn, and not born of the assumption that deafness must cause people to be of lower intellect.
Words are a powerful thing. So watch them. Watch your words. And not just when saying them out loud, but when thinking them to yourself too. When you recognize that something is not right - educate yourself. Educate others. And advocate for any person, people, or culture you see being abused. Start with yourself and spread it outwards. That is how change will happen. That is the answer to the question - how will people know?
To learn more - there are many resources. Do a search for: Audism, Sign language and babies, Alexander Graham Bell and Deaf Education, Captial D vs. d in the word deaf, deaf grammar, deaf stigma, or Deaf Culture - for starters.