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CHAPTER ONE

Only connect! . . . Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
                                                                —E. M. FORSTER, Howards End

When we newspapermen turn the last page of our lives, we are praised at the wake and forsaken after the grave. Our achievements, after all, are as transitory as the events we chronicle. What will we have produced that will last? In my case, perhaps this book about my deafness.
 
One of the reasons I have written it is to help fill a void. The body of literature about the deaf by the deaf is rather small. A good deal more has been produced by educators of the deaf, parents of the deaf, and offspring of the deaf. Much of it is valuable but tinged by second-handedness. Other than modest and often artless testimonials, chiefly published by small specialty presses and marketed within the deaf community, little has been written by the deaf themselves. Historically, their handicap has kept most—especially those born deaf—from achieving the command of English necessary for literary accomplishment. Happily, all this is beginning to change.
 
Another impetus for this book comes from an extraordinary series of events that occurred in March 1988 in Washington, D.C. It began with the proclamation that “deaf people are not ready to function in a hearing world.” What a stupid thing for the chairwoman of the board of a university for the deaf to say! When the news arrived at the Chicago Sun-Times, where I am an editor and critic, I was astonished. But soon my surprise gave way to gratification, some amusement, and not a little dismay.
 
I have long been accustomed to the paternalism of all too many hearing educators toward the deaf. Until then it had seemed a subtle and silent paternalism, not an overt one. But when Jane Spilman brought it to the surface, she set in motion a tidal wave that is still lapping on the shores of deafness around the world.
 
She made the remark in attempting to justify the appointment of Elisabeth Ann Zinser as the new president of Gallaudet University, the nation's only liberal arts institution for the deaf. Spilman and her board of directors had chosen Zinser, the only one of the three finalists for the position who was not deaf, despite months of urging from both deaf and hearing people that the new president share the students' deafness. By all accounts, Zinser, who was then vice president of academic affairs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, was a competent and even brilliant administrator. But she had no experience with the deaf and, like Spilman, could not speak sign language, the most common method of communication at Gallaudet.
 
To the students and most of the faculty, the appointment—never mind Spilman's incredible remark—was incendiary. It was as if a white had been chosen president of a college for blacks because they were too incompetent to produce one themselves. But, as with blacks, there are successful deaf scientists, lawyers, journalists, professors (at hearing colleges as well), deans, dentists, and doctors.   Why not a college president? Especially at their own university? The ensuing events were like a replay of the campus  demonstrations of the 1960s. The Gallaudet students, galvanized into uniting against the ignorance, thoughtlessness, and paternalism that for so long had been their lot, took to the streets. They waved placards, blocked traffic, and chanted slogans in sign language. The nation's news media, weary of a long and dull presidential primary campaign, descended on the campus. Jesse Jackson, that canny campaigner and old civil rights worker, was photographed clasping hands in victory with student  marchers.
    
At first I was appalled. After all, I considered myself  the unlikeliest person to sympathize with campus upheaval of any kind. I am middle-aged and vividly remember the abortive college sit-ins and takeovers of the 1960s and 1970s. Today I'm paying thousands of dollars a year in tuition for my own collegian. I had expected I would have little accord with anything that disrupted the expensive process of higher learning.
    
But within a day or two I began marching with the  Gallaudet students in spirit if not in person. After all, right was on their—our—side. So, it turned out, was might. The students’ storming of their Bastille was no noisy and ineffectual campus rebellion, but a true revolution in which an oppressed but bright and well-organized group succeeded in seizing its rightful share of power.
 
 To my considerable delight, the board of directors, under enormous pressure, caved in to all the student and faculty demands: that there be no reprisals against protesters, that Spilman resign, and that a majority of the board be constituted of the hearing-impaired. (Only four of its members were deaf, and all had voted against Zinser's appointment.) They also gave the presidency to one of the deaf finalists they had passed over: Irving King Jordan, Jr., the popular dean of the Gallaudet college of arts and sciences. The board immediately elected a deaf chairman, Philip Bravin, a New York business executive, and began restructuring itself to give hearing-impaired members a majority.
 
 And so the good guys won. The victory seems to have been a heaven-sent opportunity, too. It may unite the hearing-impaired of America in facing a larger task: to prove to an indifferent (and sometimes hostile) hearing world that we are capable of taking our rightful places in society. Everywhere.

  It won't be an easy job. Because the rhetoric during the Gallaudet demonstrations sounded so much like that of two decades ago, some journalists and commentators misunderstood what had happened. One ultraconservative syndicated columnist, for example, likened the uprising to separatist Black Power tactics of the 1960s. Superficially that's true. If deaf people sometimes appear self-segregated, working and socializing chiefly among themselves, most (like American blacks) have had little choice in a world that has tended to ignore and even reject them. But the deaf have not echoed the militaristic rhetoric and implicit violence of the Black Panthers, nor have they rejected the values of the hearing world, as the black militants loudly repudiated those of white America. The deaf have hardly been perceived as a threat to the stability of the hearing world. Apart from their brief flurry of revolutionary grandiloquence at Gallaudet, they have quietly asked only that their community be accepted as a proud, legitimate member of the plurality of cultures that makes up the United States.
 
Other journalists displayed abysmal ignorance in their eyewitness descriptions of the demonstrations. I was highly amused when reporters used the terms “silent” and “soundless” when writing of the marches. For the deaf tend to be noisy people, both vocally and in their actions. Even if most speak in sign, many use speech as well.
 
 And I was chagrined when it became apparent that journalists covering the Gallaudet story tended to write as if all deaf people were members of the self-contained “deaf culture,” relying exclusively on sign language. Homogenizing the deaf in this way is like assuming all black . Americans to be Democrats.
 
We are not all the same. Though I have been totally deaf for forty-six of my forty-nine years, I .am a member of a minority within a minority: I am what is called an “oralist.” That is, I depend wholly on spoken language and lipreading, however imperfect they might be, to help me live and work in a hearing world. I do not know sign language at all.
 
For centuries there has been a gulf between the few speaking deaf and the many signing deaf, and not simply because we cannot, for the most part, communicate with one another. For a long time, especially in recent years, we—and our teachers—have quarreled over whether deaf children should be taught speech or sign.
 
Deafness frequently begins in the womb, the advocates of sign often point out. The normal fetus hears its mother's crooning, and during the first two years after birth the child constantly soaks up sound. Missing all this, deaf-born children almost never catch up, the argument continues. If they learn to speak at all, it's usually in an almost intelligible pidgin. Only sign language, its advocates declare, can give deaf infants an easily learned, natural, and efficient way to communicate. It's undeniable that sign can be rich, dramatic, and powerful. The National Theater of the Deaf and such compelling plays and movies as "Children of a Lesser God" are proof that those who master sign can be as poetic as the Irish. But sign, counter the oralists, is not the best way to communicate with a hearing world that employs a wholly different language. Without speech, a deaf person will always be an outsider.
 
It is often contended that those like me—the deaf who master English and speak intelligibly—tend to have lost their hearing after having learned language. And their ability to lipread varies widely.
 
Nowadays many deaf children learn a compromise called “total communication,” the act of speaking and signing English at the same time, often with the use of residual hearing if the child has any. In theory it's a sensible idea, say oralist critics, but in practice the simultaneity slows down both speech and sign and distracts the listener, hearing or deaf, who does not know sign. And for most children speech tends to be overshadowed by sign, for the latter is far easier to learn. Likewise, those who favor American Sign Language, which has a syntax of its own utterly unlike English, complain that total communication forces its users to sign in English word order, an almost incomprehensible pidgin version of ASL.
 
With such wrangling about methods of communication, it’s hardly surprising that popular books on deafness tend to be intense and one-sided. Almost all in the last twenty years have favored sign, for until a sea change in the education of the deaf that occurred in the 1960s, most of the history of deafness in America was the history of oralism, the unrelenting and largely unsuccessful at-tempt to teach all the deaf to speak and read lips without relying on sign language.
 
 Though I was reared in the oral method, this book is not an attempt to discredit one side of the issue and advocate another. The abilities of the hearing-impaired to communicate by one method or another differ vastly, as do the degrees of their hearing loss and the ways in which they cope with it. The loss may be total, severe, modest, or slight. It may have occurred in childhood or in adulthood. Some born without hearing also suffer from other handicaps, such as cerebral palsy.
 
 Some hearing-impaired people, both speaking and signing, are bright, vital, aggressive personalities for whom no challenge is too great; some are dull, timid, and withdrawn, and prefer the path of least resistance. Most of the hearing-impaired, like the hearing, fall between those extremes. Sign language is best for some, lipreading and speech for others, and a combination of the two the most sensible compromise for many.

 In this book I intend simply to tell my own story. If at times I sound like an advocate for oralism, it is because many deaf people who speak and read lips believe that they and their accomplishments have been minimized as unrepresentative and therefore unimportant by those who champion membership in the community of the signing deaf. To ignore the advantages of speech and lipreading for the few is as foolish as belittling the benefits of sign language for the many.
 
 Still, I have no axes to grind, although from time to time I have taken issue with professional advice (often from oralist educators) given to my parents and me through the years. My experience may help some parents decide on the best course of action for their hearing- impaired children. It also may offer insight to educators— especially those sensitive enough to recognize that studies, statistics, and laboratory testing do not reveal the whole potential of an individual deaf child and that parents' insights and wishes are not to be dismissed.
 
 Most important, this volume is intended to help the hearing public understand something of what life is like for those who cannot hear. Deaf people share certain similarities with blind people, for each has suffered the loss of a sense. Our afflictions, however, are not the same. The consequences are profoundly different. Blindness is a handicap of mobility, deafness one of communication. Terrible as is loss of vision, it does not distance the blind from the sighted the way loss of hearing separates the deaf from the normal. Deafness opens up a huge social chasm between sufferers and nonsufferers. In the hearing world, deaf people tend to be solitary and ignored if they are lucky, lonely and rejected if they are not. That is why Samuel Johnson called deafness “the most desperate of human calamities.” Can deafness be “conquered”? Nonsense. That's a sentimental notion beloved by writers of inspirational literature. But, like a wolf at the edge of the forest, it can be held at bay. (1990)

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