I rode shotgun as Josh Swiller spoke at the California A.G. Bell‘s annual conference in Milpitas last Saturday. Josh had texted me the day before that there’d be protestors there. I’d texted back, “Nobody ever pickets my speeches. Some guys have all the luck.”
A. G. Bell’s a strongly oralist organization, as you can tell from its motto, “Advocating Independence through Listening and Talking.” That doesn’t sit so well with some members of the signing deaf community. Milpitas is close to Fremont, which is home to the California School for the Deaf, which is a strongly signing school. Because of that, the area has many deaf people passionately committed to sign language. The California chapter of the Deaf Bilingual Coalition was there having a peaceful rally in front of the hotel, on the lawn, with picket signs and shirts saying things like,
“English – 5 MPH. SEE – 50 MPH. ASL – 500 MPH.”
(SEE means Signed Exact English, a form of sign language that follows English grammar exactly. ASL, American Sign Language, is more widely used and has its own unique grammar which is very different from English.)
They’d brought a large white wooden block, which served as a miniature stage for people to address the crowd. They weren’t actually protesting Josh, who spent eight months at Gallaudet and knows sign well enough to converse. They were protesting A. G. Bell.
Which didn’t sit so well with A. G. Bell. So: cop cars outside the hotel, overweight cops strolling potbellied in the lobby. A beautiful spring day in the South Bay, pink buds peeking out of treebranches. Not a day on which you’d expect confrontation.
And there wasn’t any. The A. G. Bell folks stayed inside the hotel. The DBC folks stayed outside on the grass. Only a handful of people — as far as I could tell — walked from one to the other.
Including Josh and I. We walked over in the afternoon. I was nervous, because I don’t know sign. I’ve been to Gallaudet three times now and have been warmly welcomed each time, though I’m still a little puzzled as to why. I’m not anti-sign in any way, but I’m still the physical embodiment of much that the signing deaf community fears. (By the way, the paperback subtitle of my book, “My Journey Back to the Hearing World,” was a mistake, proposed by my publisher and accepted by me; I had never meant to imply that it was the only world worth living in.)
I was received this way: “Oh, hi, hello!”
One burly fellow with enormous wrists introduced himself to me as having been in the classroom during a two-hour debate I had at Gallaudet last year with Dirksen Bauman’s students. That debate had the feel of history, of titanic forces clashing: the passion of the deaf community colliding with a technology that penetrates and transforms everything it meets. I’d spoken with candor. I’d said, Look, ninety-six percent of the deaf children born in this country are born to hearing parents. Offered a technology that lets their child hear, what do you think they’re going to choose? But I’d also said that sign language and the community sustained by it are precious, and that their disappearance would be a tragedy. I offered no easy answers, because I had none. Everyone was unsettled. Nothing was settled. At the end of the debate I felt worn out and anxious. Anxious, because I wondered if I had alienated them. I had wanted to build bridges, and I wondered if I had.
Apparently I had. On the grass I was being warmly welcomed once again. People smiled at me. The burly fellow offered to shake hands and we did, my hand disappearing inside his. He explained who I was in rapid-fire sign to a few people nearby, then asked me for my email address. No paper was handy, so I wrote it in spidery handwriting on the back of his placard.
Josh hopped up on the block and made a few remarks — I don’t remember what he said, maybe he’ll post it on his blog. Then I was invited up. I hesitated. What would I say? But the fact of conversation matters above all else. “I’ll need an interpreter,” I said, and and a young fellow with a goatee materialized. We both got up on the block.
I told them of a marvelous line by Abbie Cranmer: “We all sleep in silence.” (Actually, I remembered the line wrong: what Abbie actually wrote is, “We sleep in total silence too.”) It’s true, I said: we have more in common than not. We all struggle with communication.
I told them how much I appreciated the willingness of people in the signing deaf community to welcome me and converse about these issues. Such things are healing, I said. I told them I’d submitted an application for a fellowship at Gallaudet shortly after my last visit.
I kept my remarks short, got down, talked to a few people, and went back into the hotel. There I talked with one woman who had two hearing aids, a clear penetrating voice, a strong jaw, and steely blue eyes. She told me she planned to become a corporate VP. Some people, you just look at them and you know they’re going to get wherever they’re going.
But there were other people who gazed at me in polite confusion when I tried to talk to them, with whom I ended up writing things down on paper. After a conversation with Josh that night back in my living room I thought: Some of the people in the hotel should really have been out there on the grass. A child who has grown up with 110-decibel losses in both ears will never be able to speak and listen to English with the ease and grace of a native language, no matter how well he or she can read and write in it. It is not the better part of wisdom to ask them to forever try.
And some of the people on the grass should have been in the hotel. According to the Survey of Income and Program Participation, page 8, in 1997 only 48.5% of people with “severe difficulty hearing normal conversation” were employed. A later survey in 2002, pegs the employment rate of people with “severe difficulty hearing normal conversation” at 68.6%, which means an unemployment rate of 31.4%. Either way, those figures are high compared to the national average of 4.8% in February 2008. But those rates say nothing about the intelligence of deaf people. Unfortunately, a person who can’t communicate comfortably in English has limited horizons regardless of how smart he or she is. The technology now exists to let most deaf people grow up using the language of the majority; the language that lets them joke and socialize and network in a larger world. There is no reason why deaf people cannot grow up using both English and ASL.
There must be a way in which the signing deaf community can adapt to cochlear implant technology (and other technologies that are likely to come down the pike) so they can not only survive but thrive in the decades to come. To turn the technology to their advantage.
“The warmth and friendliness out there on the grass was palpable,” Josh said to me that night. Yes, I agreed, it was. Two different worlds were living side by side that day, one in a hotel ballroom, the other in sunlight. But they shared common concerns: communication and the lack of it, and the desire for community. They should have been working together.