Deafness As An Ethnicity, Ctd

Apr 19 2011 @ 4:55pm

A reader writes:

Thank you so much for posting this link for other readers to become aware of this issue. I was hard of hearing growing up, but when I was 13 years old (with all the drama that implies of a teenage girl), I went to bed one night and woke up completely deaf. Just like that. Hearing aids no longer worked for me. What had previously been a disability for me – having to sit in front of the class at school so that I could better hear the nuns and priests, to the detriment of my social life – eventually became a whole new world that is a cultural and linguistic minority.

I attended Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, where I became fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and learned about the "Deaf Way" and Deaf culture. I'm proud to be deaf. All of my friends are deaf. My social life revolves around deaf events and gatherings, deaf clubs, and a deaf church on Sundays. My husband is deaf. My entire career as a social worker has been focused on serving deaf clients and their family members.  It is the mainstream society that makes me feel disabled.

Another writes:

I shouldn't be pelting you with emails during a workday, but … "Being blind separates you from things, but being deaf separates you from people." The reason Deaf people marry other Deaf people?  They can communicate with them.

Capital D "Deaf Culture" is markedly closed to the non-deaf, but even more surprising is closed and in many cases actively hostile to anyone, hearing or deaf, who promotes communication in any way but ASL. There is nothing wrong with using ASL as a language, except for the fact that there is no written form. And Deaf people live and work and sign contracts in a world with written language and that written language is not ASL. Being fluent in ASL doesn't give one a command of English. Anyone using ASL to communicate must be bilingual to operate outside Deaf Culture.

Prelingually deafened children raised using ASL or another of the signed English systems (which keep trying to force ASL to be more like English) have roughly a 10% success rate at reading English (or any other traditionally spoken language) on grade level above the 4th grade. Reading the writing of the average Deaf adult is like reading an English paper written by a foreign student, as they are both writing in a foreign language. Imagine being raised speaking English and only ever learning to read in Spanish. Some do remarkably well, but the odds are stacked against them. It's extremely hard for them to succeed in standard high school and college courses when they are not fluent in English.

Some parents reject ASL to teach their kids aurally using coclear implants or hearing aids. While these help, they don't work at all in the bath, the swimming pool, or any other time the battery is dead or the device is off. For many kids it's still like watching a show when the signal is cutting out, and I don't know about you, but I give up on it after about two minutes. Now try learning a foreign language watching a TV that cuts in and out, or lipreading a language you don't know well.

Success rates with this method are dismal for profoundly deaf kids and those who don't respond to CIs, and they don't have the skills in ASL either – they're left semi-lingual, which is why Deaf Culture is (rightly) hostile to this method. The ones with residual hearing or good CI response do OK, but often you don't know for sure until after the major language learning years are over.

There's a middle way, however. A way that uses traditionally spoken languages, but incorporates a visual signal to "disambiguate" the message. It's called Cued Speech. Whereas Sign Language uses handshapes and movements to represent full words or concepts, CS is a method of using handshapes and placements around the mouth to make all phonemes of spoken language visible. It doesn't require any sound to work, just normal mouth movements coupled with one hand. It's like the difference between writing with pictograms and writing with an alphabet.

It was developed at Gallaudet in the 1960s to combat the severe problem of deaf literacy in English. Prelingually deafened children raised using Cued Speech have something closer to a 90% chance of reading on grade level. Even more, they often love to read. The young adult cuers I met back in Boston were attending MIT, BU, Brown, and Wellesley, as well as local community college – wherever their interests took them. Some used "transliterators", others the traditional CART reporting or notetakers. They needed accommodation, but not translation, in order to succeed.

The Deaf community has been quite hostile to the use of Cued Speech, which is one reason why it's only used by about 5% of deaf children in the United States, mostly on the East Coast. It is finally being included by name in disability legislation as of the last few years. The primary argument by the Deaf against Cued Speech is that it's an attempt to replace ASL and disband Deaf Culture. While that is not and never has been the goal of Cued Speech proponents, they're not wrong to suspect that it would, through no mal-intent at all, replace some or all of ASL usage because maintaining two languages is phenomenally hard work. (Although, somewhat ironically, CS allows for foreign language learning.) The other fear is that it is too much like the failed aural instruction, which has been disproven with research.

I absolutely understand the fear of losing one's language, especially one so hard fought. ASL is a beautiful language and we should work to maintain it. But the reality of using ASL to the exclusion of other methods like Cued Speech puts D/deaf children at a profound disadvantage in the larger world.