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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Inside Deaf Culture: "To Express is Divine"

I had done some blogging about books dealing with deaf issues on my previous blog.  I hadn’t read anything on the subject at all since I started my current blog.  Then a friend started taking a class on ASL (American Sign Language) and shelved some of her class reading on Goodreads.  I just finished Inside Deaf Culture by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, and had some thoughts about it. The phrase in quotes in the title of this review is taken from Inside Deaf Culture.


The book describes a long history of segregating certain types of students at deaf schools based on gender, race or communication status.  Such segregations in the past were based on prejudice.  These prejudices affected how students were treated, and what they were taught.  I am trying to understand the reasoning behind the current segregation of deaf students with cochlear implants from the rest of the student body at some deaf schools. 

The authors explain that cochlear implants can fail which might mean that the deaf child’s language acquisition could be delayed.  This is a serious developmental problem.  Segregating the students with cochlear implants is putting all their eggs in one basket and risking their lifelong ability to communicate.  It seems to me that deaf students with cochlear implants should be presented with alternatives just in case their current option doesn’t work for them.  I have stated on my previous blog that deaf individuals have the right to choose their mode of communication.  Segregation is an obstacle to choice.

On the other hand, I was interested in the authors’ account of the experiences of Ernest Hairston who attended the West Virginia Institute for the Colored Deaf and Blind starting in 1946.  Hairston recalled that there were vocational classes taught by local African Americans who earned their livings in those vocations.  This encouraged the students to take jobs locally when they graduated.  Hairston felt that the school was therefore a part of the local African American community.  So from Hairston’s perspective, there was an unintended benefit to his segregated education. 

I also learned that another unintended benefit of African American segregation was that during the period of exclusive oralism when sign language was forbidden in almost all deaf schools for Caucasians, most African American deaf schools did teach sign language.  Why wasn’t the oralist ideology enforced for the African American deaf?  Oralists believed that the deaf would have better opportunities if they became lip readers and spoke orally.  It seems to me that oralists were racists.   They didn’t consider it worthwhile to teach African American deaf students their method because they didn’t think anyone would hire them for the more lucrative jobs.  Yet oralism didn’t eradicate prejudice against hiring the deaf.   Deaf people who communicate orally have encountered discrimination in hiring.  Tara Chevrestt, my co-blogger on Book Babe, is an example.  See her memoir, Hear Through My Ears.

This book does give examples of employers who recruited the deaf.   In 1941 Goodyear Aircraft needed to replace hearing male employees who were fighting in WW II.  So they actively recruited women and the deaf to assemble fighter planes.  They didn’t require experience.  Their managers would train and supervise them.  It’s estimated that Goodyear Aircraft employed 1000 deaf people in Akron, Ohio that year.  This hiring initiative brought about the founding of the Akron Club for the Deaf.

Not all opportunities that open up for the deaf are completely advantageous to them.   According to Inside Deaf Culture, The National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) turned out to be an ambiguous experience for the deaf actors who have been employed there.  When Broadway producer David Hays decided to present deaf signing performers accompanied by voice actors in 1966, he wanted the signed and voice dialogue to be synchronized.  Typically, signed phrasing was lengthier.  So Hays’ director told the signers to economize their expression.  This was a really bad idea.  I know from what I’ve read about signing styles that this would reduce the expressiveness of signing vocabulary.   It also meant that deaf audience members couldn’t understand the signed dialogue.  It went by too fast for them to comprehend.  In addition, it occurred to me that the politics of this decision were quite negative.  The deaf actors were being asked to subordinate themselves to the voice performance which was initially intended to be an auxiliary translation.   My conclusion, based on what I read about them in Inside Deaf Culture, is that NTD has prioritized hearing actors, and the preferences of hearing audience members.

To be completely fair, NTD has instigated a wider exposure to signing.  The statement by Mark Scism on the NTD Website is very cogent.  I’m not sure I’d credit all the progress that the deaf have made over the past fifty years to NTD, but I’d certainly consider them a key influence.  They have assisted in catalyzing a revolution in attitudes toward the deaf and sign language.

I appreciated that the authors of Inside Deaf Culture, Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, don’t believe that there is a single deaf culture.  There are multiple deaf cultures and they each have a perspective that contribute to the diversity of deaf communities.  


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