You Deaf People

(Note: "You Deaf People" is an excerpt from the book Anything But Silent)

For years, I’ve put audiences all over the nation to sleep with my incoherent presentation on deaf awareness. A pinch of psychobabble here, a touch of Eastern philosophy there, and snoring audiences everywhere.

But at a recent workshop I decided to take a walk on the wild side. Rather than drone on with pre-planned, pre-fab material, I tossed my notes aside and opened the floor for many hearing parents of deaf children. The questions and resulting discussions were quite insightful, yet something was still missing. Everyone was trying too hard to be politically correct. Nice, yes, but we lacked an “edge.”

No problem. Prior to a break in the workshop, I passed out pieces of paper with instructions to write down any questions or comments. No topic was off-limits. Furthermore, it was anonymous. No names were to be used and thus we could easily address Everything You Wanted to Know About Deafness But Were Afraid to Ask. In the shadow of anonymity, people tend to be braver and more likely to say what’s really on their minds.

As I read these notes during the intermission, one of the written questions jumped right out and smacked me in the face:

“What is it with you deaf people,” the note began. “Why are you always so angry about the cochlear implant? What is it about Deaf culture that makes you have a chip on your shoulder when the hearing world is trying to help you?'” Needless to say, I had found my edge.

The question was read out loud to the parents and I noticed everyone shifting forward in their seats. Ah, finally I had their undivided attention. Okay, so it took a Jerry Springer approach. But I had their attention. Controversy sells, baby.

Yes, we tactfully dealt with the cochlear implant, discussing in depth why some people like it and some don’t. We also discussed the importance of avoiding stereotypes because opinions on the implant vary both within and outside the deaf community.

The parents were very satisfied with the discussion and we moved on to other equally challenging topics: What to do when hearing relatives won’t learn sign language, job opportunities for deaf people in the 21st century, literacy issues, and more. It was a smashing success.

On the flight home, however, something gnawed at me. I loved all of the questions, no matter how crazy or controversial... but three words stuck out like a sore thumb: you deaf people.

I did not interpret the wording as derogatory -- in fact, I appreciate how the person who wrote it was being up front with her feelings. What really concerned me, instead, was the way this person distanced herself from the deaf. In other words, what is it with you people, you Deaf culture types? What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you see that I’m doing what I believe is best for you?

It was a disturbing, gaping chasm of separateness. Disturbing because ultimately, we’re all in this together. Let's take a look at this phenomenon and see if somehow, there is hope for repairing the gap.

First and foremost, we must put ourselves in parents’ shoes. We all know how traumatic it is when hearing parents first discover their child is deaf. It is a tremendous shock, and this is only the beginning.

After the initial blow that comes with diagnosis of a child’s hearing loss, parents are soon confronted with another challenge. They are besieged with advice from a number of professionals, many of them pushing extreme views that favor one methodology over another. In most cases it will be doctors or audiologists pushing for audist approaches such as speech therapy, hearing aids and cochlear implants. Some of these experts will even warn the parents not to expose their deaf children to sign language or Deaf culture.

And this is where the cavalry comes to the rescue, right? The deaf community, after all, can tell parents how wonderful ASL and Deaf culture happen to be. That’ll set everything straight, won’t it?

Nope. On the contrary, if we’re not careful, we can make everything even worse. When a strong ASL/Deaf culture advocate tells parents that everything the doctors said was all hooey, we now have confused parents stuck in the middle of two extremes.

On top of that, our wonderful world of ASL and Deaf culture is completely foreign to most hearing parents; it’s like we’re from another planet. And we’re telling these parents that their kids are better off interacting with a different group of people who use a different language? Of course they don’t like it, and they no longer know who to believe anymore.

Sadly, we often become the straw that breaks the camel’s back. On more than one occasion I’ve seen parents driven away by well-meaning but overzealous people in the deaf community. The parents say, “Okay, that’s it. You can’t tell me how to raise my child. I’m not gonna take it anymore.” Who can blame them?

Further compounding the problem is the all-too-prevalent either/or mentality. Few people objectively provide parents with enough information to be able to choose from the varying options that match their child’s strengths. It’s an option, for an example, to wear a hearing aid and use sign language.

As a result of being bombarded with extreme viewpoints, parents often wind up wrestling with very difficult choices. Influenced by the either/or mentality, they usually choose this methodology over that methodology without incorporating the best of whatever each one has to offer.

Consequently, when parents finally make a choice, they may move on with it -- but deep down, they will always question themselves: Are we doing the right thing? To constantly second-guess your decision is tantamount to inviting a nervous breakdown. You can’t do it. You need to have your choices justified, validated somehow.

So whenever anyone chooses one methodology over another, to avoid any further mental anguish that person may go out of his or her way to disparage the other methodology. To justify that one made the right decision, to eliminate all nagging doubt, one feels better by distancing him or herself from those who take a different approach. And now we understand why that lady referred to me and my friends as you deaf people.

There are two answers to this predicament that come to mind. The first one is that all organizations should take it as an ethical and professional responsibility to provide parents with as much information as possible. Information is power, and with children, all power rightfully belongs to the parents. If your organization deliberately withholds information or constantly criticizes those who do things differently, you are contributing to the massive mind-screwing of parents everywhere.

The other answer is to implore parents and people in general to be more open-minded and to be willing to walk a mile in someone else's shoes before passing judgment. We have to remember that every group, race, religion, and countless organizations has its share of good apples and bad apples.

If I may make a martial arts analogy, I have been involved in three different martial arts styles for almost fifteen years. My experience in the martial arts has been overwhelmingly positive. But you know what? I’ve seen my fair share of nuts out there. For every ten honorable martial artists, there’s one demented psychopath who’s in it for all the wrong reasons. But you don’t see me quitting and saying bah, you martial arts types.

Likewise, do not give up on any aspect of the deaf community. Instead, strive to understand, strive to learn what works for you and your child, and make the most of it. And, above all, keep an open mind.