11 March 2008

Sound and Fury

I'm about to write on something that most people will probably not care about. It's a turn from what I normally take the time to say - stuff about movies or books or life as a college student. This is a little different.

From the beginning I'd like to make it clear that I am not representing the deaf or hearing communities. I'm just putting my thoughts down on a debate I've been having in my head for a while.

I'm in a Deaf Culture class right now. I've taken two years of sign and in order to get my language credit passed off, the University requires me to finish off with a semester studying deaf culture. BYU is unique in that all of the ASL teachers are deaf. It has provided me with a really unique learning experience and I'm glad that I've had the chance to learn sign. I think it is a beautiful language.

I've been struggling a bit with my 301 class, though. It frustrates me to go in a class and learn about how hearing people are "bad" or "oppressive" and to be deaf is "right" and "good" compared to being hearing.

Part of this frustration is warranted. The deaf world has been through the mill in the last hundred years. The fact is, there are more hearing people in the world than deaf people. 95% of deaf children have hearing parents, and most of those hearing parents haven't had exposure to the deaf world before. They don't know what to do. The hearing world literally revolves around sound. We know when to get up because of an alarm. We hear our phones ring or the doorbell. We know when to feed our children because we hear them cry. We know when to stop a lane change because someone honks at us. We know that something is wrong downstairs when we hear the sound of glass breaking. We have a literal obsession with recognizing sounds and understanding where they come from. For a hearing person with little exposure to the deaf way of life, the idea of living without sound is incomprehensible and frightening. Even now as I'm writing I've got my music on. The Beatles. What would life be like if I couldn't hear the Beatles? I would wager that nearly every student on campus would spontaneously explode if someone cut the cord between them and their iPod.

We watched a movie yesterday in 301 about a family who has a deaf son. They focus so much on his inability to hear that they inhibit him from acquiring any knowledge at all. His mother says over and over that she just wants him to be able to talk and order his own food at a restaurant, etc. She says having a deaf son is like expecting a child with legs and getting one with fins instead.

But that's not quite right. He doesn't have fins. He still has legs. And expecting a deaf child to live like a hearing child is ridiculous. He can't hear.

Prior to watching that movie I'd wondered about what I would do if I had a deaf child, even though I do know sign and can communicate well enough. As an English person, I struggled with it, because there are some major drawbacks in deaf education at the moment. Public education made the mistake of throwing most deaf kids in with other handicapped children with mental disorders. Deaf children aren't stupid. They just need a bit of help. What's happened is that you have hearing parents desperate to teach their kids to talk, and by the time they learn sign later on in life (if they do) they're well behind in other subjects and can't have the independence their parents wanted for them in the first place. Most kids educated in ASL are well behind in English. They can't write or read as well. They can communicate perfectly, but they struggle to communicate with the outside world in a written way because ASL is not a written language. I decided that if I were to have (or adopt) a deaf child, I would stress importance in understanding English. Just as I would stress the importance of learning English in a child I adopted from China: to survive in America, to become truly educated, it is vital that you be able to present yourself well.

The trouble I have with this class is that the material is outdated and, in many ways, I see the deaf community as crippling themselves. The Gallaudet Revolution in the late 80s did great things for the deaf world, but it's still so close to the hearts in the leaders of the deaf community that they have trouble breaking out of the "oppressed" mindset, just as some members of the black community struggle because of Civil Rights movement backlash. Sure - there are people that genuinely do not understand the struggle and don't want to. But there are many people who would be willing to help if they knew what to do. Most of the materials we use in the class are outdated. I feel frustrated when I read long chapters in books about how hearing people are mean and it's all their fault that deaf people have a horrible life, etc. It makes me want to stand up in class and say "look - you don't need to tell me that it's better to use sign. I'm here! I'm trying. Tell it to that stupid mother trying to yell into the ear of her deaf son so that he could 'hear'-"

I have hope for the deaf world though. I have a feeling that the farther we move from the Deaf President Now campaign, the more willing people will be to come together. I think the study of deaf culture will expand and grow into something better. Right now, though, I struggle. It's not my fault I can hear. Blame the powers that be, if you want.

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