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Losing the Language of Silence


Not long after St. Joseph’s was established, Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet, founder of what is now Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., embarked on a bitter feud. Bell advocated oralism; Gallaudet, the use of sign. Both men had mothers who were deaf. Within two decades of the 1880 Milan Conference, where Bell campaigned that deaf people should not be teachers of the deaf, many programs around the world, and particularly in the U.S., had become oral. Children were required to focus on speaking and lip reading, and not allowed to sign.

For much of the twentieth century, oralism took precedence. But that doesn’t mean that deaf people weren’t signing to each other all the time. In hallways, in dormitories, behind buildings—these were the places of forbidden pleasures. In public, deaf people’s signs were often small, constrained. Too often, hearing people stared. Or sniffed, repelled by the physicality of the signs. Deaf clubs where people congregated to trade stories, gossip—those were the places of freedom. The deaf-power movement came into being in the late sixties, and by the eighties there was a truce. Oralists and manualists agreed to disagree. Signing even became chic; hearing parents enrolled their hearing babies in sign programs—or learned signing themselves to promote early language acquisition.

The recent resurgence of oralism seems to have taken culturally deaf people by surprise. Organizations such as the Deafness Research Foundation now talk about “conquering deafness,” stinging terms to some deaf people, given the eugenics laws through the twenties and the 1,600 deaf people exterminated in Nazi Germany.

A few years ago, St. Joseph’s had a student enrollment of 130—now it’s 110. “In ten years, I don’t know: Will we be open?” asks Amy Sincoff, the St. Joseph’s librarian. “We hope as long as we can—not only for our jobs. For the deaf culture.” She speaks of an implanted boy who was mainstreamed. “He couldn’t function. It was too hearing.”

How can there be such a thing as too hearing? For a deaf person used to signing, the rhythms of communication are off. In a deaf class, someone points to where one’s attention should fall. Heads turn. Hearing people often don’t look at what is germane—out of politesse, or simply because they don’t need to. If everyone is looking in different directions, how can you know what’s going on? Think of a playground—children dashing off to swing, then running back into tight groups, heads together, making jokes. Those heads are too close for a person relying on lip reading.

A deaf person’s ability to read faces is so refined that he or she can parse every blink. Hearing people say one thing, but their faces often indicate different thoughts. Deaf children can tell when a mainstream teacher is miffed at the interruption of class for speech lessons. They sense the teacher’s annoyance at having an extra person in the classroom if the student has an interpreter. Even the architecture of a classroom works to the deaf student’s disadvantage; often, filing cabinets are too high for clear sight lines, and desks are arranged so that students turn their backs to one another.

Some kids know how to use their “otherness” to their advantage. One deaf girl who was mainstreamed in high school was brilliant at manipulating her state-mandated interpreter to help her become popular. She sprinkled her conversation with curse words—the interpreter is required by code to say everything the deaf person signs. The kids laughed. She was a social star.

A St. Joseph’s display case labeled PROGRESS holds a smattering of once-bright technological advances: a tie-clip hearing aid circa the fifties; a “Phonic Ear” from the sixties; an eyeglass aid from the seventies. So many of the kids in the school, Sincoff says, toss their external cochlear-implant devices into a backpack. “Just like they used to with those,” she says, pointing at the case.

There is a sign I love: two fists at the forehead that suddenly whoosh out, hands expanding into encompassing arcs. The translation: “Mind expanded.” Or, “New world opening up.” Or, “I suddenly take in so much more than I ever could before.” As someone who lives in the world of words and signs, I support whatever will give a child as much language as possible. I am for cochlear implants and I am for sign language. I wish so many people didn’t see those two as mutually exclusive.

The ferocity of attachment to the language of signing in the deaf world keeps growing. This past November, my mild-mannered 80-year-old deaf father drove an hour and a half from his home to Purdue University to take part in a—yes, silent—protest against the exclusive use of oralism. In orange letters on his black T-shirt:


When I question him as to why he went to the protest, he says, “I simply want people to honor the way your mother and I speak.” Someone once asked my father what the best thing about being deaf was. His answer? “Being deaf.”


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