Sign Language And The Choreography Of Communication

How much do you know about the culture and history of deaf people, and what about the various forms of sign language? Here are 10 things about deafness and sign language you probably didn’t know.
sign language

Illustration by Kati Szilagyi

Most of us have met deaf people, but few of us know anything about deaf culture. Often deafness is treated as an impairment and we fail to see the unique linguistic and social traits that deaf people embody. Let’s address those preconceptions head on and learn more about a rich tradition!

1. Is it offensive to use the word “deaf”? Should one use “hearing impaired” instead?

No, quite the opposite. The latter is wrong, since deafness is not to be considered an impairment, but a trait that only becomes an impairment when confronted with an unwelcoming environment.

For instance, dyslexia only surfaced as a trait when reading and writing became common. It didn’t exist previously. Deaf people, however, when communicating and being understood in their own language, manage to do all the things everyone else does. Hence the need to use the correct vocabulary: deaf and hard of hearing are the terms used by the deaf community to describe themselves.

2. But deaf people can’t hear sound. Isn’t that a disability?

Sound is nothing but vibration. Deaf people are capable of sensing vibrations and engaging in the language of music. Bob Hiltermann is a drummer in the rock band Beethoven’s Nightmare — all of the the members are deaf and they use their entire bodies as their ears. This was also the strategy employed by Evelyn Glennie, an acclaimed British percussionist who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. She tours regularly and performs on stage barefoot in order to better feel the vibrations of the music. Meanwhile, T.L. Forsberg is a deaf singer. How is that possible? She sings using her hands, expressing herself with sign language. And if you still believe deaf people cannot be musicians, remember that Beethoven composed some of his most adventurous music when profoundly deaf. (And did I mention the rapper, Sean Forbes?)

3 . OK, but can gestures actually be a language?

You would be surprised to know that this viewpoint was common up until the 1960s. William Stokoe, a hearing researcher, studied sign language at Gallaudet University in the US at a time when people saw signing as a poor gestural imitation of voiced communication and not as a language in itself. His research and publications — which included a dictionary of American Sign Language — gave credence to the notion of American Sign Language as being composed of complex grammar and syntax, metaphor and even mistakes, such as a slip of the hand or a gestural pun (very well exemplified in one of the scenes in Ridicule, a French film). His research changed hearing people’s perceptions of deaf people and deaf people’s about themselves. (It also helped undo the damage done by Alexander Graham Bell; see point 6.)

4. How long has sign language existed?

The first recorded manual alphabets surface in the West in the 17th century, but the 18th century led to the creation of the first school for the deaf in France and the concomitant acknowledgement of the legitimacy of signing. We’ve come a long way though, and recent research shows the existence of 137 different sign languages all over the world.

For example, Lindsay Dunn, professor at Gallaudet University, was raised in South Africa and learned South African and Irish sign language at the same school. Another school close by taught British Sign Language. He also learned a mix of French and American sign language throughout his education. His story is typical of a country that includes many communities and cultures. Professor Dunn’s experience as a deaf person reflects that.

5. I didn’t know deaf people like Professor Dunn could teach at universities and have powerful positions in society. Is it common?

Yes, but not as common as it should be. If you ever meet Professor Dunn, however, don’t call him Mr. Dunn and don’t be too formal. Deaf people call people by their own name — and each person can spell their name or be given a name in sign language by the deaf community. It usually represents a personal trait the community identifies in you, such as dimples. If you have dimples, your signing name will reflect that by including a hand gesture that points to them.

6. That’s neat. But why learn SL if you can lip-read? Isn’t signing depriving children of opportunities in mainstream society?

Debates about whether children should learn how to lip-read or sign first (or exclusively) are still raging, but many now consider signing to be the first language children should be exposed to. Many deaf people complain about time spent lip-reading without much success. Others refuse to be force fed mainstream hearing culture. The oral method received a push in the 19th century with Alexander Graham Bell. (Yes, the inventor of the telephone.) He had a detrimental effect in the lives of deaf people — even though he grew up with deaf family members — by discouraging sign language and promoting the use of lip-reading and speech for the deaf throughout the US. A eugenicist, he opposed deaf intermarriage and reproduction, separating deaf people from one another and promoting the dismantling of the community. The Milan International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) in 1880 cemented his viewpoint, and for the next 100 years deaf people saw their culture, language, institutions of learning and community attacked by mainstream hearing culture. The attack relented around the 1960s, when scholars admitted its failure and Sign Language was gradually reintroduced into education.

(Related to eugenics: In the 1950s there were two different schools for signing in England — one for boys and one for girls. They learned signing differently. The fear was that they would communicate and meet and end up having more deaf babies.)

7. With so much prejudice, deaf people must be very aware of bigotry and actively inclusive of others, right?

Not quite. Deaf people don’t grow in a vacuum. In 1950s America, racial divisions were also felt in access to deaf institutions of education. Black people were sometimes excluded from white deaf environments. Gender policing is also an occurrence in deaf culture: there is anecdotal evidence of deaf transmen who find themselves criticized for signing too “feminine” after transitioning.

8. So what makes deaf people different from hearing people, then?

Well, they can’t hear and might experience difficulty in communicating when immersed in mainstream hearing culture. That’s all. For instance, when speaking to deaf people, bear in mind they need to see you — either your lips or your hands, if you are signing. Big groups hamper eye contact and wall the deaf away. Deaf people don’t get to pick up random pieces of info just by overhearing stuff, so you might be surprised at their lack of knowledge regarding certain things you might consider common but they might consider otherwordly. In fact, a notion has evolved in the deaf community between two worlds. One is EARth, the planet most of us seem to inhabit; the other is EYEth, a planet of sight without sound. This notion has inspired creators such as performance artist Mark Morales and filmmaker Arthur Luhn.

9. Were all these victories won by hearing people on behalf of deaf people and the hard of hearing?

Not at all! Deaf people have been historically capable of organizing themselves politically. One crucial moment in deaf history and culture is DPN – Deaf President Now. In 1988, deaf students managed to force Gallaudet University in the US — the only university in the world for the deaf, founded in 1864 — to elect its first deaf president, Dr. I. King Jordan. Deaf people were tired of hearing people controlling their institutions and told the Board of Trustees that choosing a hearing president out of three candidates when the other two were deaf was inadmissible. A peaceful rally became a protest led by Greg Hlibok, Tim Rarus, Bridgetta Bourne and Jerry Covell. By the second day, the campus had been taken over by the students, shutting down the university by refusing access to it. The Board of Trustees met the students who demanded that the current president resign and a deaf president be elected, that the chairman of the Board of Trustees resign, that there would be a 51 percent majority of deaf members on the Board and that there would be no reprisals. The demands were finally met a few days later, after protests escalated, and a National Deaf Rights March was celebrated.

10. Amazing! So is there a name for the bigotry directed at deaf people or anyone due to their hearing status?

Yes, it is called audism. Now you know!

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