Through Deaf Eyes: This is Only the Beginning

From my own warped point of view, I truly believe that the PBS documentary Through Deaf Eyes was a groundbreaking success.

Yes, I know there are complaints galore. Yes, I know there were factual errors and omissions. Yes, I know that the pathological approach towards deafness ate up a significant chunk of time, especially at the end. Regardless, I give this show two thumbs up. Not just for what it accomplished, but mostly for what it started.

First and foremost, I was doing cartwheels because this was the first time in recent memory that I recall seeing Deaf people portrayed as normal. (I can't stomach any of those sappy, patronizing, "Aw, look-at-the-poor-deaf-kid" stories.)

When CJ Jones opened the documentary with his What are you, hearing? joke, I raised my fist in the air triumphantly. My two sons, ages 8 and 5, looked at me as if I'd lost my marbles. I took advantage of the opportunity to tell them I'm proud of to be Deaf and that seeing CJ tell that joke made me even prouder. I even taught them the famous Deaf Power salute. (Seriously, I did. I couldn't help myself. And I think my kids drove their teachers nuts with that for the rest of the week.)

Also, as a former oralist who went through countless hours of self-esteem squashing speech therapy, I couldn't help but feel validated when Rosalyn Gannon shared her experiences back in the days when speech therapists did some really absurd things. Jack Gannon also chipped in his two cents' worth -- as did another Deaf family, the Garretsons. The best thing about this was how they so clearly conveyed the message that they're doing just fine without all of those audist attempts at "normalizing" them. To see them sharing anecdotes and chuckling in their native ASL was so healthy.

Gina Oliva also added significant impact with her take on mainstreaming. Having also been mainstreamed myself, I know it's no walk in the park. I found myself praying Please, let Gina say something when the documentary addressed the growing trend of mainstreaming deaf children. (Having read Gina's book, Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School, I knew she would drive home an important point.) Sure enough, Gina appeared and described the Met Deaf, Wow! phenomenon that occurs when mainstreamed deaf students finally get to meet their real peers.

Let me go on a side note and make a very important point: nearly every article, research paper, book, or webpage I've written since the 1990's has been driven primarily by the Met Deaf, Wow! phenomenon Gina so beautifully describes. I've always felt that it takes a frame of reference to accurately guage one's success, and I had counted myself as an oral/mainstreamed success -- until I went to Gallaudet University and realized that, in the overall scheme of things, I didn't know jackshit. (Pardon my French.) Thank you, Gina, for clarifying this on national television.

Okay. We all know that DeafRead is awash with bloggers and vloggers lamenting that the documentary wasn't, uh, Deaf enough (somewhere out there, Jane Fernandes is laughing. But it isn't funny.) Yes, I know there was a lot of coverage of oral deaf, mainstreamed deaf, cochlear implants, and so on. But I have no gripes for three reasons.

First, there's that Deafhood thing we got all worked up about at the last NAD conference. My understanding of Deafhood is that it involves a path towards self-actualization. Each of us moves towards who we really are and how we identify ourselves as deaf individuals. As far as I'm concerned, this includes oralists, CI users, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and so on. Each of these groups has its own group of people making their own (I hope!) choices. To see these groups in the documentary, in my opinion, shows an entire continuum of people who are deaf. Yes, I know -- those of us who were expecting a totally capital-D Deaf documentary may have been disappointed. But I had no such expectations because I knew beforehand that every aspect on the continuum would be included in this show.

Second, throwing all professional objectivity aside, I admit that I'm biased towards the culturally Deaf perspective. And I have to say that if you compared the signing deaf to the oral deaf in this documentary, it was actually the signing deaf who looked totally at ease and more... my god, it's about time... normal. CJ Jones, the Gannons, the Garretsons, et al, looked so damn good. The oral deaf, if you paid any attention, looked like, well, they were working. And I can tell you myself, as a former "successful" mainstreamed oralist, it IS hard work.

I think anyone with half a brain could see the effort the oralists were putting forth in order to speak clearly and understand each other. One of them admitted as much (especially involving group discussion) in the documentary. This is nothing new -- feel free to check out my hard of hearing page on Deaf Culture Online for more on this. (Note: I am not "against" those who choose to go a different route than the culturally Deaf. I simpy empathize from first-hand experience and acknowledge that it can be hard work.)

Third, getting back to the culturally Deaf frame of mind, I know there are countless Deaf people who are itching to have a documentary of their own that focuses entirely on Deaf culture and ASL. I also know there are several Deaf filmmakers out there. The same way it took Spike Lee, John Singleton, et al, to represent the African-American community on film, we will need our own Deaf filmmakers to do the same for the culturally Deaf community. Through Deaf Eyes can thus be seen as a starting point, as something that lights a fire under a Deaf filmmaker or two who wants to go far deeper into the Deaf World.

Thanks to Through Deaf Eyes the fire has been lit, and the door is now open. I can't wait to see the results.