Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Grocery Store Game

1. Throughout the week, keep a careful list of items needed.
2. When you leave for the store, forget the list.
3. When you return, check the list and calculate your score.
4. Start a new list with the items you forgot to get.
5. Repeat.

Another rhythm of my life.

Monday, April 01, 2013

A Culture Threatened by Technology

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I took an afternoon to visit Gallaudet University, the only college in the world whose programs are specifically tailored to deaf and hard of hearing people. Established in 1864 by a bill signed by President Abraham Lincoln, the campus sits on a hill in northeast Washington among a group of Nineteenth Century row houses, not far from the warehouse district above Union Station.

As soon as you go through the gate, you know you have entered a different world. All campus tours are conducted in American Sign Language (ASL), and if you don’t speak Sign you must make special arrangements for a tour with an English interpreter. The entire campus is designed for people whose primary sense is vision. Like many universities, the classrooms are fitted with the latest computer projection equipment, but to ensure that everyone can participate, circular seating is the norm. Large windows in the newer buildings provide plentiful natural lighting, and interiors are designed and furnished with openness and clear sight-lines in mind. The student center is a happy place with hands flying in youthful conversation, and from what I could see, the student body is quite ethnically diverse.

I don’t know ASL, but I have some appreciation of the beauty of the language. What the rest of us do with vocal inflection and rhythm, signers do with their entire bodies. As I negotiated the purchase of a book at the bookstore, the student clerk offered me the credit card receipt and a pen with an added flair that said, “Please, sign here,” without a word being spoken. After the transaction was completed, he gently rapped the counter with his knuckles to get my attention, and then threw back his shoulders to sign “thank you,” with his open hand extending broadly out from his mouth in a gesture as warm as a handshake. I witnessed what I assumed was a fairly typical college debate among friends in the library—a kind of frenetic dance of hand motions and facial expressions conducted entirely in silence. To the outside observer, fluent ASL involves a kind of bodily confidence rarely seen in the hearing world.

Deaf people assert that theirs is a rich culture now threatened with extinction by the growing popularity of cochlear implants, devices that allow deaf people to hear through a radio receiver wired directly to the auditory nerve. Implants are very expensive; not always covered by medical insurance; and the results are somewhat variable. But as the technology improves and more cochlear implants are given to very young children in an effort to have them learn spoken language, many foresee the eventual end of Sign and deaf culture. The Gallaudet community has embraced many aspects of our electronic world—email, Skype, and texting—but the technology that would replace Sign language with spoken language is nowhere in evidence.

Although it may seem strange—or even troubling—to many hearing people, deaf people often reject the idea that deafness is a disability, and some deaf parents, wanting to share their unique world with their children, express the hope that their babies will be born deaf.  But the overwhelming majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents. As a result, decisions about which world these youngsters will enter are typically made by loving adults firmly established in the dominant hearing world.

Many deaf people see their cause as exactly parallel to the great social movements that have fought for the rights of ethnic minorities, women, the LBGT community, and other groups. Twenty-five years ago this spring, Gallaudet was embroiled in a great protest, known simply as Deaf President Now (DPN). As the world watched, students, faculty, and staff shut down the campus insisting that it was time for the university—by then over a century old—to appoint its first deaf president. The strike was successful, and I. King Jordan, a dean and professor of psychology, was appointed president. Since then all Gallaudet’s presidents have been deaf, and DPN stands as a defining moment of self-determination for deaf people throughout the world.

It is difficult to put yourself in the place of the hearing parents of a deaf child. I am not sure what I would do if faced with that situation. At the same time, I know where I stand on deaf culture. Gallaudet is a vibrant place, a symbol of what a community of deaf people can do—for itself and for us. I live on the outside. I don’t speak the language. But I see what this world means to those who inhabit it. Deaf people have created a society with a unique and wonderful history, and we will all be diminished if it fades away.