Madness at the Marriott

(2007 AG Bell Convention)

(Note: Although I fully support the Deaf Bilingual Coalition, I was only able to join them for two hours. My story is only a small part of the bigger picture. The experiences and opinions expressed in this article may not entirely reflect those of the DBC.)

Now this is a vacation my family will never forget.

We were supposed to tour Washington DC and then zoom off to Hagerstown, MD, for Eastern Deaf Timberfest. But after learning that the Deaf Bilingual Coalition had planned a protest at the AG Bell conference, I simply couldn't resist. This was something that really tugged at my conscience.

My motivation for joining this group had nothing to do with "Deaf militants" or any radical "Deaf Power" movement that skeptics so often grumble about anytime a Deaf organization tries to reach out to the world at large. There was a fire burning within me, yes, but it had nothing to do with the Deaf culture I belong to. My passion, in fact, came from a group of people who are not culturally Deaf.

First, there was a group of hard of hearing children I met at a Family Learning Vacation back in 1999. An entire room of kids, most of them raised via Auditory-Verbal Training (AVT), confessed that they had to work hard to "fit in" with their hearing families and friends. Several confessed faking their way through family conversations. Believe me, from personal experience I know what they mean. I have the same background and I've done it myself. It is hard work.

Still skeptical? Let me direct you to another person who echoes this sentiment.

Dr. Samuel Trychin is one of the best public speakers I've ever seen. I was in attendance at a keynote address he made in 2002. He, too, is not culturally Deaf. He's hard of hearing. He didn't even sign at his presentation (I'm not sure if he knows any sign language at all). You can check out this entry and if you scroll down a bit, you'll see where he details some of the actual physical symptoms that arise when you depend entirely on AVT methods of communication. Dr. Trychin is telling us point blank that dang, this stuff saps a lot out of us!

Disclaimer: I'm not against AVT. I know its just one of several methods parents can choose from. It has many benefits. I respect that. But I can tell you from personal experience that it takes considerable effort. For me, it was draining. By contrast, I later found ASL to be virtually effortless.

(For an example of what I mean, check out this article.)

What's so bad about making life a little bit easier? Why do some people insist that AVT and ASL must remain separate? Who said it had to be either/or?

So far, the fuel for the fire in my conscience comes not from hypothetical Deaf militants, but from the very people who have lived the oral, AVT lifestyle. Trust me, I was there. I've lived on both sides of the fence.

And so, my family went to the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Alexandria, VA to offer our support to the Deaf Bilingual Coalition. Here's what followed:

My wife Melanie, our three kids (ages 8, 5, and 2) and I arrived around 12:45. As we approached the hotel we saw some conference attendees sitting at a nearby restaurant patio. Their conference badges had TALK for a lifetime printed on them. Okay. Obviously, we were at the right place. We went in.

It took a few moments before we noticed a few familiar faces sitting over at the far side of the lobby. I walked over and said hello to some old friends.

Soon the leaders of the Deaf Bilingual Coalition made an announcement. Apparently, hotel management had continued to change the rules that were agreed on beforehand. The hotel knew in advance what the Deaf Bilingual Coalition had planned to do and initially they were fine with it. But now, here were the new rules:

No more flyers allowed. No film or photography (this seemed absurd because there were hundreds of tourists coming and going with their cameras, but, well, okay). No entering any of the AG Bell workshops, but we were free to go browse the exhibits and talk verbally with the AG Bell people.

I asked if "talk verbally" meant we were forbidden from signing. Someone said no, it was just to emphasize that distribution of flyers was not allowed. It was repeated that this was to remain a peaceful and cooperative demonstration and no one had a problem with this.

The reaction of the actual conference attendees was mixed. Some people reacted with disdain. Others engaged in brief but polite conversation.

I could see that the hotel staff was uncomfortable. They were keeping their eyes on us at all times. This was puzzling at first but I could see two viewpoints:

From my Deaf perspective, I saw a tight-knit, friendly group of people discussing ASL, language acquisition, accessibility, and how we need to connect with the general public. There was also plenty of general conversation as old friends caught up with each other. It was a very warm environment.

From the hotel's perspective, they may have seen something entirely different. They knew we were promoting a communication style that contrasted with the TALK for a lifetime slogan. They watched us carefully as we conversed in a language they could not understand. Perhaps this made them nervous.

Maybe our message simply wasn't welcome. Some people at the conference might have been irked at the irrefutable logic we presented. Namely:

  • Research has shown that sign language significantly boosts language acquisition and cognitive development for babies.
  • The reason sign language has been widely promoted for hearing babies is because they can use it long before they are developmentally able to speak. It's a huge, huge, head start.
  • Everyone knows that deaf babies face a significant risk of language delays as they grow older.
  • Therefore, it's puzzling how sign language is strongly promoted for hearing babies, yet for whatever reason people want to deny it from the deaf babies who need it the most.

Note: This is not a call to eliminate AVT. I'm just saying that as early as 6 months, all babies, deaf and hearing alike, stand to benefit immensely from sign language. It's a very reliable insurance policy against language delays. If parents of deaf babies implement sign language at the earliest months and later move on to a more AVT-based philosophy, and it works... that's fine.

By 2:45 my kids were getting antsy. They wanted to get on with their vacation. My 2 year old daughter -- who delighted everyone and even some of the Marriott staff with her constant signing -- started to get cranky. Nap time. Melanie took her outside and told me to meet her at the van in five minutes. I said I wanted to see the exhibit booths first. She said fine, and my two boys decided to join me.

We took the escalator up to the exhibit area. We saw some of the AG Bell folks at their respective booths and politely said hello. They smiled back. No problem at all, as far as I could tell.

Let me take a moment here to explain something. First, I recall that we were told it was okay to visit the booths so long as we appropriately interacted with the conference attendees. That's precisely what I did. I have to add, in all fairness, that the people upstairs were very cordial. They seemed genuinely nice. They greeted my kids, too. But -- had I been in violation of any conference protocol, any of the people that greeted me could have said so and I gladly would have cooperated with them. If I had to sign a form, pay a fee, whatever... it would have been fine. But no one said anything. All they did was smile and I truly felt welcome.

My kids were excited. One of the booths had free pencils and other kid-friendly stuff.

A few thoughts crossed my mind. First, you have to understand that my 8 year old, Darren, is going deaf. Right now he's in that in-between place where he's no longer a hearing kid but not quite deaf (if he follows my example he'll probably be totally deaf by the time he's a teenager).

Darren still attends a hearing school but now needs an FM system and hearing aids. Melanie and I have begun to contemplate a deaf school but for now, Darren wants to stay where he is. It's not going to get any easier for him so I thought what the heck, perhaps seeing the AVT materials for kids might make him feel better. He'd see that he's not the only kid in the world using an FM system and hearing aids.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps the AG Bell folks could meet him and see for themselves that AVT and ASL can indeed coexist (yes, my son uses a combination of ASL, voice, and hearing aids). I'm Mr. Middle-of-the-Road-Guy, sometimes to a fault. But I really was looking for middle ground.

Unfortunately, it wasn't long before we had some unexpected company. It was a burly security guard. Either he followed me upstairs or someone took offense to my presence and reported it.

The guard said something I could not understand. I asked him to repeat. I still couldn't understand but I got the gist of it. He wanted me to leave.

"Oh, I'm just browsing with my kids." I pointed to my two boys who were still having fun at the other booth.

The guard mumbled at me again. His face indicated total indifference.

"Excuse me," I said, pointing to my ears. "I can't hear. Could you write this down?"

Total disregard. He reached for his phone and started talking to someone. Apparently he was calling for backup.

"Excuse me," I repeated. "I'm deaf. Can you please tell me what's going on?" I was voicing, but also gestured with my hands that I would like him to write on paper so he could explain what the problem was. I met him more than halfway. He made no effort to reciprocate.

I'd like to point out that over the years, I've seen countless hotel, restaurant, and nightclub staff clear up any miscommunication by tactfully utilizing gestures or pen and paper. I wish this guard at the Marriott took this into consideration. Instead, he looked at us with utter contempt. In spite of my best efforts, he made NO effort to communicate. Again, had I been in violation of any rule, and had there been anything I could have done to resolve it, I would have been glad to do so. No dice. His indifference said it all.

By this point my son Darren was visibly upset. He saw what had transpired and he put two and two together. I did not want to model being submissive to someone who treats you with such contempt.

"Look," I said to the guard. "My kids and I are just browsing. You're asking me to leave because I'm deaf. That's discrimination."

He picks up his phone and chatters into it once again. Calling for the cavalry, I guess.

"Darren, Brandon, let's go," I said to my kids. "We're not welcome here."

By the way, I'm voicing all of this. Calmly, but firmly. I felt it was important that I used my voice because I considered the nearby vendors as potential witnesses. They were able to understand why I felt I was being treated unfairly.

I spoke up because I wanted my kids to see that I wasn't going to cower in the face of discrimination. I also didn't want them to see their dad arrested. So I said what I had to say, but I cooperated with the security guard who was looking at me like I was pond scum.

That's when it hit me: there is such a thing as audism and I was staring it in the face. It was ugly. You had to see the guard's expression. It made my stomach churn. I wondered what the exhibitors thought. Ah, the heck with them. I was more worried about what my kids thought. Both of them looked distraught.

Brandon, the 5 year old, is actually fine. Turns out he was upset that we left before he could get one of those free pencils. But Darren asked, "Dad, we have to leave because we're deaf?" That really hit me hard.

In front of the security guard I told Darren that yes, this was something called discrimination. The guard, of course, didn't give a rat's patootie. He kept chattering into his phone.

At that time the irony hit me: the guard himself was of an ethnic minority. The thought crossed my mind that he, of all people, should know what discrimination is. Regardless, he was in no mood to talk.

As my two boys and I followed the guard down the escalator, the manager of the hotel passed us as she went up on the adjacent escalator. Apparently she was the one the guard had been talking to on the phone. She was on her way to kick me out. As we passed each other I said firmly, "This is discrimination."

She was in no mood to talk, either. She just glared at me. I later learned that this was the same woman who ripped flyers out of an 8 year old girl's hands and tore them up. I also learned that the police showed up the next day and not only did they say the flyers were fine, but they also filed a report on the manager. The girl's hand was scratched so it had to be documented. (Yes, I'm talking about Barb DiGi's daughter Brianna. I'm glad she's doing fine.)

What a strange weekend this turned out to be. Melanie couldn't believe what happened when we met up with her in the van. By then I thought it was kind of funny. I actually felt honored in a way. Anything for the DBC.

Of more concern was my son Darren. I'd grown up convinced that being deaf was something that I had to conceal at all times. Would the Marriott incident have the same effect on him?

Melanie and I soon took our kids on a tour of Gallaudet University, the Union Station, and the Capitol. It wasn't long before all of the events that had transpired made their way to the deaf blogosphere. Thanks to my BlackBerry we had access to DeafRead. Darren was thrilled to see the updates and all of the kind words of support that followed. That's when he began to realize he was actually a part of something big. Something good.

Suddenly, an idea.

"Hey, do you know who Martin Luther King Jr. is?" I asked.

"Yes," said Darren. "Martin Luther King said it doesn't matter if you're black or white."

"Exactly," I nodded. "What he went through was much, much, worse than what happened to us today. But it's the same idea. Hearing or deaf, it doesn't matter. Everyone has a right to use sign language."

Darren smiled. He got it.