The Isolation Myth

The comment was made innocently. No offense was intended and none was taken. But I couldn’t help responding to it right away. And of course, writing about it later for your reading pleasure. There was a perpetual myth that needed to be dealt with promptly.

A person very interested in deaf culture recently asked me how deaf people arrive at the decision to “separate themselves into the deaf community or to assimilate themselves into hearing society.”

Mind you, the individual who asked the aforementioned question was very much fascinated with the deaf community and she wanted to learn more. Her first lesson, then, was going to be the fact that the deaf community does not “separate” itself from the hearing world.

The truth is we cannot separate ourselves from hearing society at all. At times I have seen critics of ASL and deaf culture remark that we “isolate” ourselves from the hearing world, but this is simply not possible. The hearing world is everywhere. We couldn’t escape from it even if we wanted to.

Using myself as an example, first let me explain that I’m up to my eyebrows in deaf culture. I am deaf. My wife Melanie is deaf. My parents are deaf. Melanie’s sister Shawna is deaf. Several other relatives are deaf. Melanie and I graduated from Gallaudet University. We are familiar faces at many deaf events, local and national. We both work in deaf-related fields, she as an ASL teacher and I as a school counselor for deaf students at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

So let’s see, with all this beautiful deafness around me, if I can succeed at cutting myself off from the hearing world.

Let’s start at my humble abode in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Leaving for work early in the morning, I say hello to my hearing neighbor and tell her to have a nice day. Arriving at PSD, I find myself working with plenty of hearing people: hearing teachers, hearing parents, and hearing workers from other agencies. By 11:00 a.m., I’ve interacted with about thirty hearing people, including the newspaper vendor who shoots the breeze every morning. The number will greatly increase as the day goes by.

My on-the-job interaction with hearing people is modest, I admit, compared to a number of deaf friends who work in other fields. Many of them work for companies where they are the only deaf employees and no one else uses sign language. I consider myself lucky to work in an environment where many people sign.

Around 4:30 the workday is over. Driving home, Melanie and I stop at a restaurant. We order our food from the hearing waiter and pay the hearing cashier when we’re done. We go to the mall afterward and buy a wedding gift for a couple getting married. We order and pay for the gift while interacting with a hearing salesperson. Later in the evening I attend a karate class where I’m the only deaf student.

At 8:00 p.m., a few phone calls have to be made. Several hearing relatives from my mother’s side of the family would like to get together soon. Calling them via TTY, we confirm dinner plans for the following week. Melanie calls her family (all hearing except for her sister) and plans are discussed for an upcoming wedding and a family reunion. I’d like to note that we all have hearing relatives, and they’re an important part of our lives no matter whether they sign or not.

By 10:00 p.m. Melanie and I have each had a chance to surf the Internet. I spend some time in a deaf newsgroup before moving over to a hearing martial arts group. Incidentally, someone in the deaf newsgroup remarks that ASL isolates deaf children from the world. Unable to keep my mouth shut (so what else is new), I reply with an anecdote that it was my ASL interpreter who prevented me from flunking out of my hearing high school back in the early ‘80’s. As it turned out, ASL did not isolate me from my hearing classmates. More than anything, it bridged the communication gap between us.

All right, that’s enough already. You get my drift. It’s simply impossible to separate oneself from the hearing world. Hearing relatives, friends, co-workers, classmates, neighbors, waiters and waitresses, the list goes on forever. The world is teeming with hearing people, with no shortage of them in sight. And we will always interact with them in whatever ways we can.

Active involvement in the deaf community does not in any way eliminate a deaf person from the hearing world. There is no either/or, no separation. I really believe that the myths about ASL and deaf culture isolating deaf children are a result of ignorance, perhaps fear. Sometimes hearing parents may fear that they might lose their child to deaf culture and that’s an understandable concern that can be addressed through proper education.

Sometimes the fear is political. There are certain people who, for whatever reason, oppose ASL. Needless to say, such people may fan the flames of the myth that ASL plus the deaf community equals isolation from the mainstream.

But a person’s participation in a core group, in my opinion, is more likely to strengthen rather than isolate. If I may use my hearing neighbor as an example, she is an avid churchgoer. She faithfully attends Sunday services and participates in many of her congregation’s activities. Picnics, bazaars, holiday parties, charity events, church choir, and much more. You name it, she’s there. She’s a better person for it.

Does this woman’s church isolate her from the rest of the world? Not at all. She socializes with people from other denominations and other religions. Our neighborhood is a unique mix of people with different backgrounds and she’s friendly with all of us.

Likewise, my core group is the deaf community. It strengthens me and makes me a better person. It gives me a spiritual boost, a sense of belonging. Without it I would feel empty inside. The deaf community adds a spark to my life, a spark I can share with everyone... including the hearing community.