Deaf culture seeks respect, empowerment

CHAMPAIGN — Donald Lee Haring had a classic Indiana high school experience. He was on the football, basketball and track teams at one time or another. He made friends. He learned — especially about math, which he later taught.

Other than missing his parents, who lived on a farm a couple of hours away, he didn't feel his life was so different from anybody else's.

The University of Illinois American Sign Language instructor certainly didn't feel "impaired."

In fact, he has a big smile on his expressive face, where lifting an eyebrow can convey subtle meaning.

But he credits being in a nonhearing environment to help him feel completely himself.

"I would have been alone, isolated" in a small-town mainstream school, he said through an interpreter.

So when people try to be nice and say "hearing-impaired," Haring doesn't like the euphemism.

He's deaf.

The number of people with some degree of hearing loss is large, about 17 percent of American adults, according to National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

Haring has been deaf all his life, and he doesn't feel it's a problem, only a difference. He teaches ASL to mainly hearing students.

Deaf culture has its own language, ASL, with its own grammar and syntax, developed separately from English, and its own subtleties, including a wider use of the body to communicate.

(English sign language is very different; Americans use one hand to sign the alphabet while Brits use two.)

Haring's face and hands are in constant movement, with his eyebrows eloquently denoting the type of sentence he's signing.

It's not simply a translation of English into movement.

Haring lives in a world more visual than those who hear.

Much like growing self-empowerment in racial, religious and gender and sexual choice groups, there's a deaf-culture movement.

University of California Professor Carol Padden, deaf and a winner of a MacArthur "genius grant," says the deaf as a group meet all the definitions of a culture.

"It is something that deaf people share, not only deaf people but groups of deaf people that are all over the world," she said in a National Public Radio interview.

"It describes what deaf people have in common, their common history, their sets of ideas, their common practices. Culture itself captures a sense of commonality within a group of people. American Sign Language is a critical part of that commonality."

Every deaf person's experience is different, says Matthew Dye, who holds professorships in speech and hearing science and psychology at the Beckman Institute. He grew up without the sense of community Haring did.

"I was raised in a small market town in East Anglia (in England) and did not meet a deaf person until I went to college," he said via email.

He learned about deaf culture later, in school and social situations.

"I took an elective class in college that required us to study British Sign language at night class. One day our deaf teacher took us to the local deaf club (in Manchester, England) and there were over 150 deaf people there!" he said.

"That's where I started to learn about deaf culture."

The movement has its own political watershed, more recent than Selma or Birmingham or Seneca Falls or Christopher Street.

ASL and deaf culture here are almost inseparable.

"In many ways ASL IS the culture," Dye said. "It is the central unifying theme for all members of deaf communities. They may disagree about cochlear implants, the best way to educate a deaf child, or a myriad other things. But (Americans) will all use ASL, and value and cherish it as their language."

Just as a community comes to feel value for itself, it also sees it remains different.

Deaf people felt they were at the mercy of the hearing, who dominated the school experience even at deaf schools.

That began to chafe at people who saw them as being limited or lesser, and the community began to develop a political sense of its own.

In March 1988, students at Gallaudet University came together to protest 124 years of leadership exclusively by the hearing — at the prominent college for the deaf.

Haring is an alumnus of Gallaudet, and Gerald Covell was a leader of the successful Deaf President Now movement there.

Covell, who spoke recently at the UI, is coordinator of the interpreter preparation program at MacMurray College in Jacksonville and has waged war in the court of public opinion and in the courts themselves.

"I'm one of the few deaf people who say we need a national movement, just as there was for voting rights," he said.

He said there's a strong need for action to improve educational and workplace opportunities for the deaf, who can do most jobs well, sometimes with small adjustments, he said.

Beyond education for the deaf, Covell said there is a need for education in the hearing.

Using terms like "hearing-impaired" is not a sign of neglect, he said, but rather of poor education. He said the deaf community needs to reach out in media and in personal relationships

Many hearing people are confused when they hear the world "audism," assuming it is a mispronunciation of "autism." Spell-check assumes the word is an error.

The term refers to those in the hearing culture who feel superior and make assumptions about another culture according to the movement.

For instance, people assume all deaf people can read lips. Haring can't, and he's far from alone.

There's Braille in elevators, but rarely are there health or safety measures primarily for the deaf.

Dye said the hearing could work harder to se what they share with the deaf.

"Take the time to communicate," he said. "Don't be dismissive just because someone doesn't speak or cannot hear you. There are lots of ways to communicate with someone if you really want to."

Deaf culture may evolve, but it won't disappear, Dye added.

"The make-up of the community may shift, as an increasing number of deaf children who received cochlear implants get older and become adults," he said. "But fundamentally it will remain as a culture (and set of communities) where deaf people can feel comfortable in their deafness and not experience derision, exclusion or oppression based upon their inability to hear like the majority of Americans."

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