ASL and the Question of Existing

by Alison Aubrecht

For a while now I have been feeling this creeping sense of foreboding
that carries on its fringes a tickling sense of fear. Some of the
perceptions that have presented themselves in blogs, discussion forums,
and newspapers over the last six months scare me on a deep level,
although I probably shouldn’t be surprised.

Perhaps I have falsely allowed myself the illusion that the world we
live in is a progressive one in terms of social justice—and that as we
advance as a society, as we evolve—we come to find the horizons of our
mind broadened to encompass new and acceptable ways of experiencing the
world.

I am finding, however, that such is not true. And it is like having
someone’s bare hand reach into your stomach, through the flesh and
grabbing raw, bloody intestines to squeeze and twist until you are left
hunched over in pain. And then someone tries to tell you that there is
no hand. That the pain you feel is just a figment of your unrealistic
expectations and desperate attempt to crawl further into the cocoon that
is Deafness in attempt to hide away from “the hearing world.”

I have asked before, and I will ask again: Where is this “hearing
world”?

After all, there’s only one world and we all live in it. No one has
ownership. No one has authority on “the way” that we should exist.
Should the majority of people in the world be men, would we tell women
that they must learn to prepare to live in “the men’s world”? What
kind of message do we send to children when we tell them this?

That no matter how high they rise, they will never hold the world in the
palm of their hands simply because they don’t have the right
“equipment” to do so. Just by that one statement, we inform children
who don’t hear that they don’t have the right to exist as a deaf
person and they are therefore a failed, flawed product.

And what part of their soul do we kill? What part do we render helpless?
Which part do we inject with that dose of oppression that becomes
internalized in a way that cripples them for life?

I am not so blinded by denial that I do not see that in America, English
is the primary language. I am also not so naïve that I don’t recognize
that our country is dominated by speech, by all things based in sound.

I’m questioning why people don’t allow for more than that. For the
visual-tactile way that will only serve to enrich our lives.

People seem to believe that in immersing ourselves in the
visual-tactile, we are deliberately segregating ourselves from
“them.” You know, the hearing, speaking, population that does not
sign. I don’t believe this to be true. You see, I believe in
possibilities—in the human capacity for opening up and inheriting so
many different experiences.

And when someone chooses not to allow me to be involved because I
don’t speak—I don’t see that as a flaw on my part. I don’t see
that as something I did wrong, something I’m lacking. I don’t see
that rejection as justified, expected. I see that as a direct act of
oppression that enrages me in its ignorant arrogance.

But I am slowly learning to be compassionate enough to see past that act
of oppression and wonder about the mind, the emotions inside of that
person. I am coming to find that I feel a deep sense of sadness that he
or she isn’t able to reach outside of him or herself—to reach beyond
that ethnocentric comfort zone so that s/he may feel just a little bit
more alive.

It’s odd—so many people have written lately that “deaf people are
afraid of change.” Perhaps I’m deluded here, but I see the opposite.
I see a community hungry for change, in fact—starving for it to the
point where we are almost feral in our pursuit of that which we believe
will fulfill us. We have tried—for years—what we are being asked to
do now.

We have tried a form of inclusion that—in my opinion—excludes. We
are being asked to – for the sake of inclusivity—learn to speak and
try to hear. We are being asked to put aside American Sign Language and
allow different modes of communication to dominate. We are, in essence,
being asked not to be deaf.

When did deafness become such a dirty word? It has, somehow. No matter
how hard we try to explain the word (you know, the whole little “d,”
big “D”)—the general community has a very specific frame of what
that word means.

And then we get stuck in the boxed-ear, in a room where we drive each
other nuts with definitions of what “it really means to be deaf.”
The truth is, you can’t define a way of being deaf, because doing so
is no different than trying to tell deaf children that they have to
learn to live in the hearing world. It’s a predetermined opinion: this
is the right way! And for whom?

At the end of the day, there isn’t a right way to live. There’s
simply the right to exist in the way that feels most comfortable and the
responsibility to accept each other wherever we are in our journey
through life.

I do not believe I am a stranger in this country, a foreigner that must
learn to accommodate that world which does not belong to me. I do not
believe that choosing to sign as opposed to speaking makes me less
intelligent, less qualified. I do not believe that because the world
happens to be one where the majority of people hear and therefore design
most things to accommodate sound, I am disabled.

I do believe that American Sign Language is a language that is beautiful
and wholesome. I do believe that it can be successfully used to educate
children—whether deaf or hearing. I do believe that it can also be
used to teach English—and that there is romance in this language, too.
I believe that teaching in American Sign Language – because it is
visually and tactually accessible by those who are given the chance to
learn the language—is the most inclusive form of instruction. I want a
place – just one place that gives this belief a chance. And in this
place, I want people who believe in the same thing.

Maybe Gallaudet will never be that place. I don’t deny that people who
choose not to use American Sign Language – whether deaf or
hearing—have just as much right to their beliefs as I do. I just
wonder—when those two beliefs come so in conflict, how do we co-exist?
How do we co-instruct?

Is it wrong to want to allow for both ways – but in different places
so that different groups are allowed to fully immerse in their ways of
existing and visit each other as opposed to struggling to exist and grow
in a place that doesn’t completely “fit” and once in a while visit
that land where things are finally—finally warm, accessible, and
welcoming, just like home?

I guess the question I ask is: What is Gallaudet? Is it a place where we
all go simply because we’re deaf and among others who are deaf? What
then, of “hearing people?” Or is it a place where we go because many
people sign, although not all of them and not in the same way? What
then, of educating and communicating? Is it a University like any other,
a place that just happens to have an extraordinarily large number of
signers? What then, of our low enrollment rates? Is it a place where
everyone, deaf and hearing alike, communicates in American Sign Language
and strives to develop a visu-centric model in various fields—carving
a path of our own that is the mark of the eye in the world? What then,
of those who don’t want this?

I don’t have the answers. All I have is this dream, this desire—and
a passion to fight for its chance to erupt in the world.

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