Omigosh, There's a Deaf Guy in My Class!

by Tina Blue
January 23, 2001

          Now, here's irony for you.

          One of my English 101 students this semester is deaf and uses a sign language interpreter in the classroom. Whatever powers run the universe must have thought it amusing to let him join the one English class taught by someone who is probably almost as hearing-impaired as he is--but who cannot sign and who has had almost no contact with other deaf people.

          I have had a significant hearing impairment my whole life, and in the last fifteen years it has progressed to the point that without a hearing aid and lipreading I can only understand about 10% of spoken language. Even with a hearing aid, my comprehension rate without lipreading is only about 40%.

          My younger sister, Linda, is even deafer than I am.  My mother and grandmother were always severely hearing-impaired, and they were almost completely isolated by deafness during the last twenty years of their lives.

          But despite my own deafness and the deafness of three close relatives, I have had little experience in dealing with deaf people. I did have one deaf friend during the 1970s--a graduate student in my department--but she did not sign. She got by, as I do, with hearing aids and lipreading.

          I am fifty years old and I have been hearing-impaired my whole life, but Aaron, the deaf student in my English 101 class, is the first signing deaf person that I have ever had direct dealings with.

          I am a regular visitor to a deaf and hearing-impaired message board at iVillages. The impression I get from others who post messages there is that they also have had little or no contact with other deaf people (which is why they are so grateful for the interaction on the message board). I also think that like me many, perhaps most, of them don't sign. (I discuss the fact that many deaf people don't sign in my article "A Lot of Deaf People Don't Sign").

          But as I watch Aaron and his sign language interpreter, I find myself feeling wistful and perhaps even a little jealous. How nice it would be if, when talking to other people, I could have that extra help in understanding what they are saying. There are so many situations I now have to avoid that would once more be available to me if I could understand sign and if people in those situations could help me by signing.

          I know that isolation led to depression in my mother and grandmother, and my sister has also struggled with isolation and depression. Among health and mental health experts, depression is widely recognized as a problem for people whose hearing deteriorates as they age--simply because of the social isolation that often accompanies hearing loss.

          It doesn't have to be that way.

          I now believe that all children should learn to sign. If signing were consistently and systematically taught from kindergarten up, very soon nearly everyone would know how to sign. As those children grew up and started their own families, they would probably teach their children sign right along with their regular language skills, even if no one in the family was hearing-impaired. Thus, when their children started school, sign would already be an integral part of their language repertoire.

          There are any number of situations where an ability to sign and to understand sign would be of great benefit, even to those with normal hearing. And since even people with normal hearing are likely to suffer some hearing loss as they age (especially now that so many young people blast their ears out with dangerously loud music), the widespread use of sign throughout society would protect them from social isolation and from the depression that attends such isolation.

          As it is now, many U.S. elementary school students learn a smattering of sign from Sesame Street and from the two-week units on handicaps that are common in social studies classes. Kids love that stuff. They would probably be delighted to have sign included as part of their regular curriculum.

          Schools of education could start the ball rolling by including sign language courses on their list of requirements for a degree in education. Considering how many silly and counterproductive things schools are required to do these days, it would seem like a positive development to institute a society-wide program of sign language instruction.

          Recently the local newspaper ran a series on special education in Lawrence schools. An interview with an eleven-year-old deaf girl was included as part of the series.

          The girl was very smart and unusually articulate for her age. But what I noticed most in the interview was the wistfulness of her comments. She often feels so lonely and isolated at school, even among her friends, that she can't wait to get home to her family where everyone signs. Her friends know some sign, but not enough to make communication easy or comfortable, and they often exclude her from their interactions without really meaning to. She prefers to interact with her friends on the telephone, where she has the technology that allows her to read what they are saying.

          When I asked Aaron if people acted uncomfortable around him, he said that when they did, it was only because they didn't understand deaf culture. I had to admit, "Aaron, I don't understand deaf culture."

          There is actually a rich and complex deaf culture in the United States, but most deaf and hard of hearing people are not a part of it. Often we are isolated not only from those with normal hearing, but also from others like ourselves. If signing were common rather than uncommon, that would probably no longer be the case.

          Another benefit to widespread sign language instruction would be that when someone did encounter a deaf person, there would be no awkwardness in relating to that person. Instead of trying to interact through a third-party or by writing notes or exaggerating speech sounds, they could speak "directly" to each other.

          And if signing were common rather than uncommon, then encountering deaf people would not be a once in every fifty years occurrence, as it has been for me. We would all run into a lot more deaf people. No longer would fear and embarrassment isolate those with hearing impairments--either from the hearing world or from each other. They would be out there in the wide world, mingling up a storm. Every deaf or hard of hearing person would know that he would be welcomed by those with normal hearing, because his deafness would not be an obstacle to communication, and others would not feel awkward or uncomfortable around him.

      Here is another irony for you to consider.

          Two nights ago Becky, my nineteen-year-old daughter (who has normal hearing), called me from Missouri, where she attends college. I mentioned Aaron and his sign language interpreter to her, and that prompted her to tell me that she has been studying sign quite intensively for a month--just because it interests her and she thought it would be cool to learn it.

          But it had not occurred to her to mention this little project to her deaf mother, simply because she knows that I don't sign and that I am unlikely to learn sign any time soon, if ever.

          We have a lot in common and a lot to talk about--but unfortunately signing is not part of what we share.

          I wish it were

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