Think of Marlee Matlin-hold her kindly face in your mind. Consider her enduring Hollywood career, her success, her de facto spokesperson role those years for millions with hearing loss. Imagine that she is past 20 standing in front of you. What of her do you notice; what of Marlee sets her apart?
Those who think of Marlee and zero in on her ears, saying those ears don’t work the way others’ do (although inconsequentially, some might add), constitute the majority view about deafness. It’s all about the ears.
However, those in the Deaf Community-individuals who view themselves as an active subset of the mainstream and accordingly capitalize the name of their community to signal pride-have a completely different answer: It’s her hands. Those appendages of convenience find a special, arresting utility-they are used to articulate nuanced thoughts through sign language.
Sign language is more than communication. It is a shared experience forming the bedrock upon which the culture and identity of the Deaf Community is built. People who are deaf bond over similar life events-estrangement from parents who refuse to learn sign language, alienation among peers at school, frustration at asking someone at the dinner table to repeat a joke and being told that “it was nothing,” occasional looks of pity or derision, lack of confidence as their capabilities are constantly doubted, feelings of loneliness even in a crowd of 1,000. But similar experiences also include memories at schools for the deaf, summer camps for the deaf, and cultural and sporting events for the deaf.
The Deaf Community has no fixed presence; in some U.S. towns it is a loose community, while in others it might be more obvious in its physical manifestations. In some areas of the country it is a dispersed subpopulation, a group that might meet for coffee every other Thursday, form a bowling league or catch a captioned movie together. In other areas the Deaf Community occupies real estate-a community center, a clubhouse or the campus of the state school for the deaf, where many people who are deaf are also employed.
Many aspects of the Deaf Community are similar to the characteristics of any pulsating community. The National Association of the Deaf has been the foremost advocate for people who are deaf since 1880, and state associations for the deaf are found in all 50 states. Most states fund schools for the deaf, which engage the wider community with homecoming days, student plays and assorted alumni events. Advocacy, professional, religious, cultural and athletic organizations create social opportunities for people who are deaf and provide leadership training, self-advocacy workshops and community development activities. These organizations create scholarship funds, adopt community service projects, help other neighborhood groups, create sports leagues, host potluck meals and hold holiday bazaars. The activities of the Deaf Community span the entire gamut of opportunities for community involvement and self-improvement.
Deafness, however, defies neat labeling, and not everyone fits the same mold. There are those who are deaf completely and those who are hard of hearing, those who live with hearing families and those who grow up with parents who are also deaf, those who lose their bearing at a young age and those who are part of the mainstream hearing world until late in life. Many would not necessarily consider themselves part of the Deaf Community, that subculture of individuals who find their identity in the use of sign language, seeing themselves as much Deaf as they are American.
Sign language is, of course, only one of several options for communication; oralism-a philosophy emphasizing lip-reading and learning of speech-is another. At the other end of the spectrum, auditory-verbal therapy utilizes hearing provided by a hearing aid or cochlear implants to teach children who are deaf to talk and understand speech. The debate about which of these approaches is more appropriate extends back to the day of two titans in American deaf history-Alexander Graham Bell, who invented of the telephone, and Edward Miner Gallaudet, who served as first president of Gallaudet University, the only university in the world established for students who are deaf and hard of hearing. Contemporaries, both were children of deaf mothers and proponents of education for the deaf, but they advocated opposing views about communication: Bell was for oralism, while Gallaudet was for sign language.
The same debate rages today, amplified by the possibilities of technology. As the Deaf Community finds its members opting for restorative surgeries like the cochlear implant, some fear the community will lose some of its unique culture and identity. These critics often see the desire for such procedures as tantamount to self-denial. The controversy is rife with moral ambiguities, such as the ethics of parents deciding upon cochlear implant surgery for their children as infants, leaving the child no say in the decision. As the technology has advanced in the past decade, however, and more deaf adults are opting for the surgery-cognizant of the rewards and risks-the polarity has become less pronounced. because the Deaf Community has seen the attrition it feared. Most adults receiving restorative surgery feel they are not leaving the Deaf Community, many believing that the use of sign language remains their defining characteristic.
Indeed, the identity issues surrounding deafness are most prominent for people on the outside; among the deaf, on a day to day basis hearing loss is an afterthought Ask a dent person whom in Hollywood he or she would like to meet and the answer might be Marlee Matlin, but it just as easily might be some other celebrity from the same long list of stars any other person would mention. People who are deaf either love or hate the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees. They will or won’t watch Brokeback Mountain. They work and live and shop at the same places as anyone else. The Deaf Community in the US, is a microcosm of the larger American community
Similarly, deaf people marry whom they want to marry, For those in the Deaf Community, the only sin in marriage between a deaf person and a hearing person is when the marriage is passed off as achievement. Deaf ness is not a deficiency, and a spouse who is deaf is not inferior to a spouse who can hear. Acknowledging deaf ness is not an admission of anything, any more than acknowledgement of being a female or being from a certain racial group.
But like any minority group that has seen a history of good intentions gone bad, the Deaf Community has emerged emboldened to declare its own identity and heritage. Consider the legacy of stereotypes and restrictions society has placed on people who are deaf: Aristotle said they were unteachable; Bell proposed outlawing marriage between deaf people; sign language was once banned at deaf schools; and basic privileges such as driving and owning property were at one time denied. The Deaf Community responds today that deafness is not a cause for apology but rather for celebration.
Granted, being deaf isn’t like scoring 30 points in a basketball game. It isn’t something anyone studied for. It isn’t something that can be painted or built or earned. But for those people who have accepted deafness, it is far from limiting; by accepting their deafness, they are able to turn to other values. Just as my friend who moved from the East Coast to Arizona stopped bemoaning his departure from the Appalachian forestry when he found hiking in the desert equally irresistible, people who become deaf have to embrace the transition.
The same debate rages today, amplified by the possibilities of technology. As the Deaf Community finds its members opting for restorative surgeries like the cochlear implant, some fear the community will lose some of its unique culture and identity. These critics often see the desire for such procedures as tantamount to self-denial. The controversy is rife with moral ambiguities, such as the ethics of parents deciding upon cochlear implant surgery for their children as infants, leaving the child no say in the decision. As the technology has advanced in the past decade, however, and more deaf adults are opting for the surgery-cognizant of the rewards and risks-the polarity has become less pronounced, because the Deaf Community has seen the attrition it feared. Most adults receiving restorative surgery feel they are not leaving the Deaf Community, many believing that the use of sign language remains their defining characteristic.
Bob McCullough, a columnist for a newspaper in Belfast, Ireland, writes, “I lost my hearing at 11 and still have vague memories of classical music… It’s soul destroying to lose your hearing in later life and be cut off from such a life-enhancing gift. Is it any wonder Beethoven became cantankerous and crabby?” Nevertheless, McCullough then points out that Beethoven did not compose his Ninth Symphony masterpiece until after his hearing loss. The writer concludes, “I never cease to marvel at the wonderful way so many deaf people have come to terms with their hearing loss to lead such normal and satisfying lives… Things start to look up when we learn to accept our deafness and look life in the face.”
Many people who are deaf bring their own flavor to the arts, and both the hearing world and the deaf world are enriched by their perspective. Big River, a stage production of Huck Finn’s adventure down the Mississippi in which nearly the entire cast used sign language, won the Los Angeles-based performance group Deaf West Theatre a Tony Award for best cast. Bernard Bragg, an entertainer who is deaf, became internationally known. as an acclaimed mime, his white-painted face recognized across the globe. And, of course, Marlee Matlin won a Best Actress Oscar in 1986 for her role in Children of a Lesser God, showing audiences worldwide the power an actor who is deaf can bring to cinema. Within the Deaf Community there are many performers storytellers, stand-up comedians, poets who compose exclusively in sign language, stage actors, rappers and bands. From online blogs to a growing number of independent films, many forums explore art, politics and society as seen through eyes of people who are deaf.
Similarly, throughout history many communication techniques have been influenced significantly by people who are deaf. Bell-who taught at a school for the deaf and ultimately married one of his pupils-originally invented the telephone as an apparatus to assist with hearing. Samuel Morse was married to a woman who was deaf and gave us Morse code, a communication system useful for ships, radio towers and incidentally -people with a variety of conditions involving sensory or motor loss. Vint Cerf, widely credited as the father of the Internet, created the system as a means of communicating more efficiently with his wife, who is deaf, during his long trips away from her.
In recent years, technology has reduced many differences between the modes of communication for people who are deaf and for people who are hearing. Personal digital assistants (PDAs) and cell phones have reached Star Trek levels; on handheld wireless devices, people who are deaf can send text messages, hold conversations through instant messaging and make phone calls via relay operators. Web cameras and videophones have largely replaced the TTY (an older form of electronic typewriter compatible with the telephone).
Still, in this modern context, those who populate the Deaf Community gather not only to enjoy life but also to share common experiences, concerns, joys and purpose. The Deaf Community is not a ghetto but a haven; deaf people do not insulate but rather immerse.
A poem written by Willard Madsen more than 25 years ago begins
What is it like to “hear” a hand?
You have to be deaf to understand.
Each subsequent stanza closes with the same resonant refrain: You have to be deaf to understand. The poem does not insist that others cannot cognitively understand the Deaf Community, but rather that without being deaf they cannot truly understand the deaf experience.
That’s the uniqueness of the Deaf Community, where silence is anything but. Matlin is just one of its many interesting faces-and one of its best known pairs of hands.
by Glenn Lockhart
Glenn Lockhart describes himself as deaf as can be. He works at Verizon in business development for the relay service unit and is a graduate student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University. Incidentally, he says he doesn’t like writing that much, but there’s no way to get sign language down on paper.
National Association of the Deaf