The life we have lived, through ASL

I woke up this morning wishing the entire world knew sign language.

My heart littered with moving handshapes crafting stories of being, I wish often that I could share this poetry with the hearing world that surrounds me. And last night was no exception.

At Northeastern University’s ASL Festival I watched as Deaf individuals, young and old, painted pictures of experience with their bare hands, moving side to side, up and down, as they told stories of what it means to be Deaf.

Through poems, stories and artwork, they idolized the strength and bravery of Nyle DiMarco, shared the comfort one finds in the Deaf community, and criticized the learning standards Deaf children are held to in a hearing environment – when we can sign words, why must we also learn to speak them? When will sign language be enough?

I watched as they stood proud of their language and their heritage – something all their own, but a glimpse of which they were willing to share with others.

As young as eight years old, their hands, overflowing with insight and intelligence, move swiftly and softly, manipulating sentence structure and handshapes to create visual poetry, Deaf jokes and puns, much like we do with the written word.

And their craft is undeniable to anyone who can understand the beauty of sign language. On days like these I wish everyone could.

An hour later my sister texted me about the latest crusade against our language and culture. For decades the hearing world has been trying to denounce the worth of sign language and Deaf culture in favor of an oral, speech-based approach to living. It started with the sterilization and segregation of Deaf individuals from one another and soon expanded to an oral-only approach to education, where hands were tied behind backs both literally and figuratively as teachers attempted to train Deaf children how to speak with their mouths only, neglecting the brilliance that lay in their hands.

For decades the hearing world has tried to dictate the lives of Deaf individuals, believing they know best. And the latest editorial from the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is no different.

To the hearing world, Alexander Graham Bell is an inventor, an innovator. But to the Deaf world, he’s known as the father of oralism in American Deaf education. There, he has built a history of manipulative politics and oppression toward Deaf individuals, and his organization today continues to do the same.

“What it means to be ‘deaf’ has changed,” they write, trying to justify their claims that sign language use is declining and should only be considered a secondary, optional approach to conversing with our children.

I wonder how they know “what it means to be Deaf” when they claim that deafness doesn’t exist at all – that with the help of technology, deaf children can hear as well as their hearing counterparts.

What they don’t recognize is that many Deaf individuals don’t believe they need to hear to be an equal and productive member of society. This audist approach carried by the AG Bell Association assumes that superiority and capability are tied to one’s ability to hear, and is discriminatory against the very people they claim to look out for.

Ninety percent of Deaf children are born to hearing parents whose only exposure to deafness comes from the doctors they work with.

And with misleading facts and a lack of evidence, the AG Bell Association makes a case that all Deaf children “can hear and talk” if given the appropriate tools, persuading these ill-informed parents that the only way their child will succeed is through the use of hearing aids and cochlear implants.

“The voices of our deaf children tell the story. In videos available on AG Bell’s YouTube channel, families share the remarkable abilities of deaf children today – making music, singing songs, and participating fully in sports, theater and more, with wonderful speech and remarkable hearing,” they say.

Although it’s there, I don’t need research to refute these claims. For to say that Deaf people cannot access these things through the beauty of sign language is an insult to the very life I have lived.

I am a CODA, and American Sign Language is my Home.

As a child of Deaf adults, I grew up in a world where songs and plays and stories and sports and education came to life in the hands of Deaf people, dancing and making music for me wherever they went.

I grew up learning the heart of community at basketball games at the Rochester School for the Deaf, where I’m sure the music of hundreds of stomping feet rattling the bleachers as our students scored again and again made up for the silence you see in our waving hands.

In the off-season, I grew up watching the plays at RSD, where stories came alive because of the expressiveness that is ASL. I grew up reading stories and songs and folktales off of the hands of others, re-watching the story of the tortoise and the hare on a VHS tape again and again, compelled by a sense of understanding as waving hands crafted lessons of humility, hard work and determination that made me feel something. It was there that I fell in love with the magic of storytelling – a part of our culture that I now cherish more than ever.

And I grew up in a world, too, where the hands of Deaf people were far more expressive and intelligent than the words from my mouth.

Last week as I assisted in the filming of Deaf professionals crafting ASL lectures in STEM topics, I was in awe – as their hands painted pictures of the process of photosynthesis in sign, I could now see the very concept I was learning come to life. No longer are Deaf students tied to English-based learning when the same content can now be visually accessible for students of all ages.

This is the power of ASL – the one I wish everyone knew.

Our children don’t need your speech-based approach to life, for with sign language they speak and hear through their hands and eyes in a way that is more complex and sophisticated than anything I have ever seen.

The hands of our Deaf children tell the story. And far more fluidly than you or I can, manipulating sentence structure and handshapes and crafting poems of experience that say what it means to be Deaf.

They are the bookkeepers. They are the storytellers. They are the athletes and artists, models and musicians, actors and intellects that you believe they can’t be. They are doctors, researchers, teachers, advocates and more.

And just because you choose not to see or understand their story, does not mean it does not exist. This is the life we live, through ASL, and I am proud to call it ours.



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