Every day, thousands of people drive the expressway past a mysterious and imposing turreted brick Victorian in the Bronx. Visitors to St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf remark how disconcerting it must be to teach with trucks roaring by constantly. Hearing people’s annoyance at loud distractions? The basis for long-standing jokes in the deaf world. The real noise at this and New York’s other 4,201 schools is about deaf culture’s fight for survival. Once again, the eloquent language of signing is under attack.
St. Joseph’s is feeling the impact of the cochlear-implant boom later than other places. Until five years ago, no hospital in the Bronx was doing the implant. “Then it exploded here,” says Dr. Patricia Martin, the school’s executive director. “About one third of our children have cochlear implants. I think the deaf community as we know it is going to be different. Many say the cochlear implant is the demise of deaf culture.”
Hearing loss is the most prevalent sensory loss in the United States. One in 1,000 babies is born profoundly deaf, according to the Deafness Research Foundation. Another two out of 1,000 have a hearing loss correctable by hearing aids. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders points out that “an implant does not restore normal hearing.” Cochlear implants bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. Signals generated by the implant are sent by way of the auditory nerve to the brain. Hearing through a cochlear implant is different from normal hearing and takes time to learn. “Some cochlear implants are extremely successful,” Martin says. “But people with implants are still deaf. Just because you have a prosthesis doesn’t mean you’re not an amputee. Whether or not people want to be part of a deaf community is a choice.”
My own parents are profoundly, prelingually deaf—deaf before the age of two. I’m hearing, but American Sign Language (ASL) was my first language. I signed for myself as I talked to people at St. Joseph’s about the conflicts over deaf culture. Many parents are resistant to letting children with implants learn ASL; teachers are discouraged from using it, with oral and lip-reading instruction now favored. More deaf children are being mainstreamed into public-school classrooms. But not all children succeed with implants, and if they are unable to acquire enough tools to communicate, they fall behind. The battles over ASL are not so much about the absence of hearing as about the presence of a language.
What is it about sign language that makes people want to fight for it? Robert Pinsky wrote a poem in collaboration with deaf students depicting ASL as “a language, full of grace … visible, invisible, dark, and clear.” It is a language of extraordinary intimacy. If French is the language of lovers and German the language of commerce, then perhaps sign is the language of humans connecting. You can’t sign to someone if you’re standing next to that person. You have to look full-on at each other—watch each other’s faces and necks, shoulders and elbows, hips and knees. You have to stand a bit farther back than you do with spoken language so that you can take in the entirety of the person, and take in that entirety you must. A mother cannot stir the soup and shout over her shoulder for her child to finish homework. Instead, she puts down the spoon, goes to find the child, faces the child, and signs. She watches the child’s response carefully and responds to what the child is doing or not doing, saying or not saying.
The emphasis in sign language is on visual creativity. Whereas a hearing teenager might frequently repeat “like” and “so,” deaf people encourage each other to play with the language, expand the poetry in everyday speech. A turbulent plane ride isn’t “like so bouncing, like I thought I would toss my lunch, like that plane just dropped.” No, this jet cruising at top speed hit clouds, bounced, swirled, swooped up, down, overhead bins popping open, clothing tumbling onto heads, tray table wobbling, stomach so tense, so nervous. In sign, articles and prepositions that have nothing to do with setting up the visual field are thrown out. Instead of telling a story in a linear way, several events are related at once. The deaf storyteller holds onto the stomach while relating the actual movement of the aircraft. People speak of the music of sign. Yet I see it more as a painting—it’s the complexity of the painting you take in, the totality of the Matisse, the Monet. Signing is about playing with negative space as much as with positive.