While learning about language for last week’s Reading List, I read a number of stories about the Deaf community. Deaf culture is unique and thriving. As Sujata Gupta puts it in her essay for Matter:
Very few hearing people are aware of the vibrancy and depth of Deaf culture. It’s a world with its own etiquette and norms. It has languages—the many different forms of sign—as rich and nuanced as any spoken tongue. Like any culture, it has its own interpretation of history. There are Deaf theater companies and Deaf film festivals and Deaf comedy shows. And these are not facsimiles of hearing-world versions, with speech replaced by sign. The shared experience of deafness, and the physical nature of sign, make Deaf arts distinct in a way that most hearing people cannot appreciate.
The following four stories demonstrate this vibrancy and history–the enduring presence of Deaf culture and its advocates.
1. “A Linguistic Big Bang.” (Lawrence Osborne, New York Times, October 1999)
“No linguist could create a language with half the complexity or richness that a 4-year-old could give birth to.” In 1980s Managua, deaf schoolchildren developed their own sign language from scratch. Subsequently, Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN) is transcribed by its student inventors, developing its own dialects and changing the field of linguistics. Lawrence Osborne travels to the Escuelita de Bluefields to meet Dr. Judy Kegl and her signing students. (Something that struck me in this essay: Kegl’s students do not learn any other kinds of sign language, in order to preserve their indigenity.)
2. “The Silencing of the Deaf.” (Sujata Gupta, Matter, April 2014)
Cochlear implants make hearing accessible, but will their proliferation eliminate Deaf culture? Meet Derek and Christine Reid, hearing parents whose daughter, Ellie, was born deaf. Christine and Derek are good parents facing a big decision: give their daughter the ability to hear, or encourage her to embrace sign language? Science writer Sujata Gupta intertwines the Reids’ story with a brief but thorough history of American Sign Language, a visit to a Cochlear implant conference, and interviews with Deaf and hearing folks on both sides of the debate.
3. “Deaf Artist Christine Sun Kim is Reinventing Sound.” (Cassie Packard, Vice, April 2015)
Christine Sun Kim eschews the idea that vibrations are the only way Deaf people can experience sound–indeed, she seeks to expand the definition of sound itself.
Piecing together a tangle of overlapping languages and systems, including musical notation, body language, and American Sign Language (ASL), which she describes as similar to sound in its intrinsic spatiality…Experiencing her work is similar to the moment when one realizes listening to the same song in the dark is different than hearing it in the light.
If you’re as intrigued as I was after reading Kim’s profile at Vice, read this interviewwith the artist at Medium.
4. “The Sign for This.” (Katie Booth, Vela, June 2015)
Katie Booth is the hearing granddaughter of Deaf grandparents–the only granddaughter who learns Sign, who learns it at such a young age, she becomes the object of study for a local university. Booth writes about the harsh conditions of boarding schools for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, where Sign was forbidden and speech enforced, under penalty of physical abuse. But Sign endured, and Booth concludes that her grandmother was one of the brave students who spread her language and culture. I am taking a writing class right now, and this is the sort of essay I’d like to write one day. It is a collision of love and craft.
BY JACKDIENG GATKEK