Losing the Language of Silence

Students and faculty signing on the grounds of St. Joseph's School for the Deaf in the Bronx.Photo: Ann Weathersby

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.

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.”

Losing the Language of Silence