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March 28, 2008
While my household has come together to learn ASL, we have simultaneously been given the glorious opportunity to be welcomed into the Deaf community to celebrate their culture, their language, to celebrate their deafness. Our teacher, K10 is the first deaf friend I've had that communicate through sign with and I'm delighted that I'm finally accomplishing a goal that has eluded me for my 34 years due to being raised in the mainstream aural community. The Deaf Bilingual Coalition, through the generous support of its members, sent me to the AG Bell Conference this past Saturday in Milpitas, with a wonderful interpreter named Bunny to sign for me throughout the event. While AG Bell did provide for captions to be available, they do not support ASL as a language to be used by the deaf community, instead supporting mainstreaming through technological advances like hearing aids and cochlear implants along with extensive speech therapy. They spoke to a wide variety of parents, professionals and educators about advances in technology applicable to children as young as one year old. They also had a panel of young adults to share their experience growing up aural.
According to AG Bell, I believe that they would consider me to be a success story having worn hearing aids since the age of 2, mainstreamed with speech therapy through high school and encouraged to not feel limited by my deafness. I speak, as a result, very clearly, with good enunciation and a rich vocabulary. I use powerful hearing aids, lip-reading and I frequently repeat what I hear (or imagine) to fill in the blanks caused by noise, beards, and people who talk through their smiles. I also speak Spanish fluently and have a grasp of conversational French. My sign is not so good... but it is improving;)
While the conference gave me the opportunity to be around other like-minded people who have gone through the AG Bell system, all of us with varying degrees of hearing loss, thus varying degrees of speech control. Remember, how can you know what it sounds like if you cannot hear? The Keynote speaker, Josh Swiller was quite remarkable and passionate as he shared his story, of his deafness, of his experience as deaf, as hearing, as an outsider in both communities. He was funny and candid, honest and humble. His first remarks were those of thanks to the protestors outside for standing up for the rights of ASL to be recognized as a language just as powerful as spoken English. He encouraged the dialogue to happen citing the importance of both sides to be heard. I found myself nodding in agreement often as he shared his story, knowing that yes, there were others out there who had lived similar experiences. I also noted that many of us were similarly ostracized from others with similar experiences.
During our lunch hour, I joined outside, a richly diverse group of people who support the language of ASL for the deaf, their families, to assist the deaf in finding peace in their deafness. They encourage love and support, language and culture to prevent the constant threat of isolation that often occurs when the deaf are not accepted for whom they are. With their signs, their drums, kids of all ages and parents, friends, teachers and supporters, I spoke to the group (with the assistance of my interpreter) telling them how grateful I was to be invited, how honored I was to support the cause. I told them that there were more people outside protesting than were inside at the conference...which they responded with instant applause. Applause is shown with both hands in the air shaking them vigorously above ones head. I told them of the challenging dialogue happening inside."If you had a child who was deaf, would you teach that child ASL or would you encourage cochlear implants?"
After much consideration and pause, the speaker replied that (HE) "would encourage cochlear implants but would also insist on the use of ASL to richen the language of my child". While thoughtful and diplomatic, I empathize with parents in making such a difficult decision. I would not immediately suggest cochlear implants. I believe that there is always time for that. Hearing aids are helpful, and ASL is crucial to teaching language and communication. Parents need to spend quality time with their children in both the hearing assisted realm as well as without technological assistance in order to convey self confidence, love and understanding for their deaf children. I found it interesting that the DBC members outside had a stronger sense of community and support than those inside the conference. The kids outside just seemed happier.
I am experiencing a paradigm shift in my life right now with the support of my friends and family. I'm hopeful that the void that I have felt for as long as I can remember will be filled with the newfound relationship that I am currently developing with my new deaf community. I'm learning sign and I'm loving it. My household is looking to take a structured ASL class in addition to our current lessons with our teacher K10. Eventually, I might even start to live without my hearing aids.