Deaf culture, Deaf pride, and Deaf gain
Montreal, circa 2000
“Use your voice when you talk to him,” a parent asks — no, directs me.
I am at Deaf camp. Their child is at Deaf camp.
I am 17 years old and volunteering as a camp counsellor at a sleepover camp. This week is for our youngest group of campers, aged 6–9, so there is a parent and caregiver visiting day halfway through.
We’re sitting at lunch in a noisy cafeteria, enjoying conversation in American Sign Language (ASL), the primary language at this Deaf camp. All the children are Deaf and all know ASL.
I volunteered at two different Deaf camps for several years in my early teens, and there were some commonalities I observed. For one, most children who wore hearing aids or cochlear implants (CIs) abandoned their technology within the first day, sometimes within the first few hours.
My personal experience
I’m Hard of Hearing but grew up in a mostly hearing family. My immediate family does not sign. I have 3 Deaf second cousins, two of whom are fluent in ASL, but didn’t even know this until I met them at a funeral when I was 14 years old.
I started learning sign language when a Deaf teammate joined my hockey team, I think we were 11 or 12 years old at the time. I learned ASL from her throughout the season, and we became close friends.
That summer, she invited me to go to a Deaf hockey camp, and I experienced a mixture of emotions. At first, I was overwhelmed. ASL was the first language of most of the campers. Their signing was so quick, and I had been learning for less than a year.
Once I adapted, I was enthralled. I had originally registered to stay at the camp for one week but volunteered to work the following weeks when the younger campers attended and ended up staying the entire summer. And the next, and the one after that.
I very quickly became fluent in ASL and fell in love with the Deaf community and Deaf culture. It was a relief to not have to speak, to strain to read lips or to strain to hear something that wasn’t quite loud enough. Everything was loud. Everything was visual. Everything was beautiful.
When I saw those children free themselves of their hardware and relax into a community that totally got them, one that spoke their language and wherein everything was accessible, I understood to some extent.
Everything was loud. Everything was visual. Everything was beautiful.
It is a relief to finally be in an environment where your needs are considered first and foremost instead of as an afterthought (or sometimes not at all).
At least 90% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents — some studies have estimated the rate to be as high as 96%. Some families learn to sign, many do not. Twenty years ago (and beyond), many families were actively discouraged from using sign language with their Deaf children.
Instead, professionals instructed parents to have their children fitted with hearing aids or CIs, to engage in speech therapy, and have them learn how to read lips. This was the case for some of the children attending Deaf camps back in my youth.
Back to Montreal
There I am, eating my lunch and enjoying conversation in ASL when the parent admonishes me for not using my voice while signing with her child. At Deaf camp. He came to camp with a CI on but quickly left it in his cabin, now mom is unhappy to see her son not wearing his CI and not practicing his speech.
There are so many reasons this is wrong.
For one, ASL is not Signed Exact English (SEE). ASL is its own complete language, with its own rich grammar and syntax. When speaking and signing at the same time, one has to muddle one (usually both) of the languages in order to make them fit together.
Think of the sentence structure when translating French to English, or any spoken language to another. They’re not word-for-word translations because they’re different languages. Such is the case for ASL and English.
Secondly, the children are at Deaf camp. They’re supposed to be having fun, enjoying their summer, and enjoying a reprieve from constantly trying to fit into the hearing world.
I get it, to some degree. The parent is worried her child won’t “succeed” in life, and won’t be able to go to university and get a job if he doesn’t know how to “function” in the hearing world. This is what parents are often told by so-called professionals who discourage parents from learning and using sign language with their Deaf children.
This is both morally and objectively wrong. Research has clearly shown that language deprivation is harmful, and learning sign language helps Deaf children achieve academic and professional success. Most importantly, Deaf children who grow up in a Deaf-affirming environment — which includes sign language — are happier and have better mental health outcomes.
Lastly, it is completely inappropriate to ask a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person to “use their voice”. They may not be comfortable doing so, they may simply not want to, and that is their choice.
Deaf Gain is a term coined in 1998 by an artist named Aaron Williamson. Deaf gain refers to the benefits we gain as a result of being Deaf — for those of us fortunate enough to be involved in the Deaf community, Deaf culture, and learn sign language.
There exists research detailing the strengths of Deaf people, but I have discovered a few things from my own personal experience. I have excellent peripheral vision, I notice things out of the corner of my eye. Although I wear glasses for reading, my peripheral vision is greater than average.
I am extremely observant and notice things others tend to miss. Despite being neurodivergent and often misreading people’s tones, my visual abilities compensate, and I am very perceptive to people’s body language and non-verbal communication.
I also notice changes in the environment, which may be a result of both my neurodivergence and being Hard of Hearing. If something has changed, however subtle or minor, I tend to notice when others would not.
Most importantly, Deaf Gain has allowed me to learn a beautiful, rich, complex language. I have made amazing friends in the Deaf community and have been privileged to experience the joys of Deaf culture.
So, sure, I will “use my voice”. I’ll use my voice to speak out against ableism, eugenics, oppression, and language deprivation.
© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB
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