Deaf rejecting deaf
You spend a lifetime with hearing people, most of whom don’t sign, or who don’t sign well, or who might sign well but forget to sign when you need it the most. Some of them might be your own relatives. You love them, but you wish communication with them wasn’t so hard ALL. THE. TIME.
You are surrounded by lack of communication. You are drowning in incomprehension, and frustration. You are drifting, lost, in a sea of rejection. The people around you can’t seem to be bothered to even try to accommodate your communication needs. Unless you bug them. And remind them. And bug them. And remind them. Again. And again. And again. And, did we say already? AGAIN.
And then — at last! You find yourself among companions who SIGN! Who communicate in YOUR language! You are surrounded by communication! You are happily immersed in comprehension and serenity. You are floating, found, in a sea of acceptance. The people around you don’t even need to “accommodate” your communication needs because you all share the same needs. No longer do you need to bug. Or remind. Or bug. Or remind. Nope. There is only love and belonging.
But — what’s this? Here, all of a sudden is an interloper. Someone who … does NOT sign. Or signs, but not well. What are they doing here? Don’t they know they don’t belong? You think you’re finally surrounded by full communication access. But now, suddenly, here’s someone with whom it is not so easy to communicate. Don’t they know how frustrating that can be? Don’t they understand how violated that can make you feel to realize that your one sanctuary has just been invaded by exactly the kind of communication barriers you wanted a break from?
But wait a minute.
This might be someone who, just like you, knows EXACTLY what it is like to drown in incomprehension and frustration, to be adrift and lost in a sea of rejection. Because, just like you, they’re deaf, except only–for now–for that lower case “d.” But, unlike you, they weren’t lucky. They weren’t lucky enough to have grown up with another way to communicate. They didn’t start learning ASL, or BSL, or Auslan, or (insert your local signed language here) until age 10, 15, 25, 40.
They’re starting late. But they are desperate for a place to belong. And they hope they’ve found it, among Deaf people. If they can just learn to sign. And, more importantly, if they can find acceptance. If they can find a little patience. If they can find signers who are willing to slow down a little so they can understand. If they can find people who will simply help them learn a new sign instead of sneering when they have to resort to fingerspelling.
And maybe, on top of being (formerly) oral deaf, their brain just isn’t one of those lucky brains that just happen to be wired for soaking up a brand new language late in life. You’ve all met them. Maybe you’re one of them. People who start learning ASL, LESCO, LIBRA, (insert your local signed language here) at age 12, 18, 30, 50, and immediately become fluent. Who take to it like a fish to water. Who find it so easy they’re amazed they didn’t know it before.
But, the fact is: not everyone’s brain is wired that way. Even the most enthusiastic students of language–the ones who immerse themselves 24/7 (or would, if they could) for months on end (or would, if they could) sometimes just never reach full fluency in a new language. There are immigrants who live in their new home for decades without really becoming fluent in the local language. And it’s not always a simple matter of effort. Some of them are people who take language class after language class, but it just never seems to stick. Or it only sticks a tiny piece at a time.
It’s the same with people learning to sign. Some take to it very quickly and can become fluent in six months. Others put in the exact same amount of effort and commitment, and expose themselves to the exact same range of opportunities, but need five or 10 years to achieve the same fluency. And that’s just the way they are. It doesn’t mean they “aren’t trying.” It doesn’t mean “they don’t care enough.” It doesn’t mean “they really just want to be hearing.” It’s just how they are.
It’s hard enough to learn a new language. It’s harder still when the people who you hope can help you learn reject you instead.
But that’s exactly what happens with many (lower case) deaf people who would earnestly like to become (capital D) Deaf people. Instead of acceptance and support in their scary journey toward learning a new language and a new culture, they get the door slammed in their face.
And when that happens, everybody loses. The deaf person loses because they are left to make do with what acceptance and communication they can find in the hearing community. And the Deaf community loses because we lose someone might have become a new community member. Someone who might have interesting insights and perceptions. Someone who might enrich our community–if only we would give to them the same courtesy we wish hearing people would give to us.
If you’ve read this far, then I hope that means you’re thinking about how the Deaf community can become more welcoming and supportive of emerging Deaf people. (Perhaps we could say: d–>Deaf people … a d with an arrow showing the person’s path as they gradually become a captial “D” Deaf person). The next time you see an “interloper” in your cozy circle of Deaf friends, how can you reach out to them with warmth and patience for their (temporarily) awkward signs?
If you take these questions seriously, then you might want to learn from the hurtful experiences of people who have found only rejection from Deaf people. Follow this link to http://kethry.wordpress.com/2007/05/01/prejudice-from-your-own-kind/ to read one example. [Edit: Kethry herself has responded below. I encourage you to both read her blog entry, written for Disableism Day, and also her comment here.] You might also want to explore some of the other posts under the “Audism” category at this site.
[Want to submit your own essay for publication at Reunify Gally? It should be related in some way to diversity within the Deaf community, or related to reunifying or healing the Gallaudet community in the aftermath of the protests. If interested, review my Guidelines for Guest Bloggers and submit your essay to ashettle (at) patriot.net]