“Deaf Culture is the result of a centuries-long struggle for the freedom to express itself through its own culture, language and community.” Joanne Cripps, author of Quiet Journey: Understanding the Rights of Deaf Children (2000)
I am writing about Deaf Culture here in my blog because being the hearing parent of a Deaf child has been a profound gift for me and helped me to grow in so many ways: with compassion, acceptance of difference and bridging across cultures. All connected to mindfulness and self-awareness, of course, and it helps me to be a better coach to the people I work with.
Although I am merely a visitor to the silent world of Deaf communities, communities that have their own complex history, values and politics, I have learned so much from the generosity and kindness of so many Deaf people, especially my son, who is in the picture with me below.
I’m writing about this now because I recently volunteered at an event organized by a remarkable Deaf woman, an entrepreneur, activist and advocate, Leah Riddell. She has created a business dedicated to creating “a new normal where accessibility and inclusion are not seen as challenges, but are part of regular, everyday life”. Imagine a world where we could all be connected and have a sense of belonging! This is the root of mindfulness…how we connect with ourselves and with others across sometimes wide divides.
A brief history
First, I’d like to bring you back to what brought me into contact with Deaf communities: 35 years ago, when my son, Luke, was nine months old, he contracted bacterial spinal meningitis, almost died and became profoundly deaf. My world tilted as I struggled with grief and loss and began to think of how I could possibly make new and unfamiliar life decisions on his behalf. I was trying to find my way through a dense fog on a large lake without a compass.
However, compass points appeared soon enough, teachers from the local deaf school and other Deaf and hard of hearing people reached out. I read a lot, learning as much as i could about Deaf culture, medical interventions and other possibilities such as cochlear implants and hearing aids. What kind of education and decisions.
Learning about Deaf Culture
I didn’t even know if a Deaf person could lead a fulfilling life! But then I met happy, thriving Deaf adults who identified with Deaf Culture and used ASL (American Sign Language); and they advocated strongly that young deaf children should start learning ASL. Around the same time, I also met the brilliant neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of Seeing Voices (1989). He said that if a child doesn’t learn language in the first three to four years, language acquisition becomes very difficult. Deaf children must be exposed to language early, and in the case of a deaf child living in North America, that means ASL.
Our family took this information to heart and began to learn ASL and explored the possibility of Luke going to a Deaf school.
At the same time, as I was trying to find my way through the fog and make sense of the best path forward for my son, there were significant political and social shifts happening in Deaf communities across North America.
For example, in 1988, a year after my son was born, Deaf students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. — the only university for Deaf persons in the world — went on strike and demanded a Deaf president be instated. As a result, the board of directors changed its selection from a hearing person to Jordan King, the first Deaf president. Since then, DPN (Deaf President Now) represents self-determination and empowerment for deaf people.
After 100 years of enforced oral education in schools — with deaf students’ hands often being tied if they tried to sign — a seismic change was occurring. Deaf students had been graduating from Deaf residential (and hearing) schools with very poor literacy skills. In contrast, new research demonstrated a bilingual/bicultural approach that held great promise for deaf children’s education. The vision was to integrate ASL as a primary language to teach all subjects and teach written English as a second language.
ASL or English? Hearing school or Deaf?
Let’s go back to my pressing need to make decisions for my newly diagnosed deaf child. What school should he go to, deaf or hearing? What language should he learn, ASL or English? What kinds of technology, if any, should be considered, such as cochlear implants or hearing aids? How much time should we spend teaching him to lip read and speak?
I was rapidly learning about Deaf Culture while I was trying to make these decisions. For example, I discovered that for some, being Deaf is not a medical condition to be fixed but a biological characteristic and a way of being in the world. It’s not deafness that is the problem, it’s living in a non-signing and inaccessible world. Identifying as culturally “Deaf” means being part of a cultural, linguistic minority that includes shared language, history, customs, arts and literature.
Joanne Cripps, a Deaf woman and author of Quiet Journey: Understanding the Rights of Deaf Children (2000), says that Deaf Culture is “the birthright of every Deaf individual by virtue of having been born deaf or having become deaf in childhood. …”
Our family began attending ASL classes, despite the challenges of learning a second language in adulthood; but Luke took to ASL like a duck to water. At the same time, we decided to try hearing aids for Luke and went to a speech pathologist to explore the possibility of Luke learning spoken English and lip reading, but neither were right for him; and the technology of cochlear implants at the time was too new for me to feel comfortable.
Passion for basketball
We moved to a new city so that Luke could attend a deaf school from kindergarten to graduation, but his real passion was for basketball. He initially played on a hearing basketball team and eventually joined the Deaf Canadian Basketball team after graduating high school. Luke experienced a sense of flourishing as part of a Deaf team that allowed him to experience sports in its purest form since his teammates shared the same language. He travelled to Italy, Brazil and Washington to play at the international level and it’s still his favourite sport.
For me, I continue to grow in gratitude and awareness for how challenging life can be and how much we have to work to bridge divides between us. Let me know how you’ve grown by connecting with different people and cultures. I’d love to hear if you’ve learned anything from this blog. Connect with me for a free discovery session…