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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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