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If I were asked 2 years ago to describe the world Deaf people lived in, I would have assumed it to be dull. As a hearing person who was raised in a hearing household within a hearing-dominated society, I did not understand how a Deaf world could be exciting without being able to hear speech or listen to music, and I always assumed that most Deaf people were simply waiting to get hearing aids or cochlear implants. Thankfully, however, my impressions of the Deaf community have been thoroughly changed thanks to my increased exposure to Deaf voices through social media and this class, and have since formed a deeper understanding of the world according to Deaf people.
As previously stated, I grew up with the assumption that Deaf people lived in a silent world, relying on mostly lip-reading to comprehend the world around them. While watching the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with both the sound and captions off, I found myself understanding the general gist of everything but was unable to describe specific moments or directly quote from the episode. Although I was able to comprehend some of the easier to recognize, more enunciated expressions such as “Stop,” “I’m staying here,” and “No” (“Kimmy Goes Outside!”), I felt mostly bored and confused throughout the half-hour segment. The actors spoke at a very quick pace and constantly varied their expressions. In the end, I was not entirely sure how all the characters related to each other or how any of the events contributed to the running plot of the show, and kept wondering how much of a difference it would have made if I just turned the audio back on. Even if I had the option to, I would not have continued to watch the show in its silent form.
Contrarily, when I moved on to watching The Daily Show with Trevor Noah with only closed captions on, it felt less strange because I already had a childhood habit of watching movies and TV programs in their original language with English subtitles. However, I still found myself having to concentrate more on the closed captions than the images being shown on the screen, which was already a challenge in itself, but definitely would have given slow readers a tougher time as the captions were paced to stay in time with the presenters as they spoke. Also, contrary to how the ever-changing facial expressions of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actors added to my confusion, the presence of closed captioning allowed me to rely on Trevor’s facial expressions to determine his tone of voice and better understand his jokes. However, similar to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I started losing interest towards the end of the show. Despite its clear arrangement of a news commentary segment, a comedic segment called “Where do you get the BALLS?”, and an interview segment (“September 21, 2016 – Wendy Williams”), I was too used to being engaged both in terms of sight and hearing when watching programs, so while it didn’t make the show less enjoyable, it did unfortunately dull the overall experience.
On the other hand, watching the ASL vlogs presented a different sort of challenge. Seeing as my ASL vocabulary is still very limited, the Daily Moth video was difficult to understand. I will point out, however, that I was quite familiar with some of the topics, as I had to read articles relating many of the events covered for my Journalism class. Similar to watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I had to rely on the little context I had and the provided images to piece together a vague guess of what the host Abenchuchan was conveying through signing. Perhaps it was my attempt to conceptualize The Daily Moth as something more recognizable to me, but something about Abenchuchan’s dynamic signing reminded me of the specific tone of voice news anchors use to maintain their hearing audiences’ interest, how his quick, sharp movements seemed reminiscent of the shifts between high and low vocal intonations to keep his viewers engaged.
Another comparison I drew between the news organizations I was familiar with, or shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and The Daily Moth was the onscreen presentation of images and the hosts themselves. While big news organizations often use flashy scrolling text banners and semi-distracting backgrounds in their televised reports, The Daily Moth kept its layout and design simple and minimalistic, presumably to allow better focus on Abenchuchan as he delivered the news. And though I couldn’t fully understand the things that were being signed, it definitely looked to me like Abenchuchan was trying to provide as many details as he could for the small, concentrated number of headlines he was referring to, rather than leaving his audience with just brief taglines for a large number of newsworthy events (“9-26-16”).
As I progressed into watching the PBS NewsHour segment entitled “Technology and Deaf Culture,” a clear picture of the struggle between the medical world and the Deaf world was slowly painted before my eyes. While the Craigs chose to have their son, Dylan, undergo surgery to get cochlear implants, and were immensely proud of Dylan’s progress since the procedure, the Bahan family with three generations of Deafness was completely content with their lifestyle and communicating through ASL. When asked about whether he would have his 1-year-old daughter Juliana get cochlear implants before she turned 3, Ben Bahan said, “She gets to an age where she can make that decision if she wants it, it’s up to her. I won’t stop her. It’s not too late for her [to gain speech], because she already has language. She already signs. She already has that” (“Technology and Deaf Culture”). While many of the students at Gallaudet University shared Bahan’s sentiments regarding the power of ASL as a language and Deaf culture, the greatest concern still looming over the Deaf community was whether the rise of technology would eventually wipe out the need for ASL. Simply put by the Gallaudet provost at the time, Jane Fernandez, “I believe technology is going to change the Deaf culture just as technology is changing the whole society. No one is going to escape the influence of technology. But the culture itself will stay” (“Technology and Deaf Culture”).
The next component most certainly fell in line with Fernandez’s view that Deaf culture would evolve alongside technological advancements in society: using Sorenson VRS®, a service which allows Deaf people and hearing people to call each other with the help of a professional interpreter. When I was first introduced to the idea of contacting my ASL professor via phone call, I had no idea how it would be carried out. I assumed it would have been a video-calling process similar to Skype or FaceTime, but even then, there was no guarantee that we would be able to understand each other without the help of an interpreter. I did not realize SVRS existed until this project introduced this service to me and was amazed by how the Deaf community, just as Fernandez said in “Technology and Deaf Culture,” was adapting to the new developments in the telecommunications industry. In addition to this, the fact that this company operates 24/7/365 shows just how dedicated it is towards providing Deaf people with effective means to communicate with other people across various distances and lifestyles. Whether it is to exchange early morning well wishes or convey important work-related information, this service has most definitely bridged a gap between the Deaf and hearing communities, and shown that communication barriers can still be overcome.
Conversely, the PBS documentary “Through Deaf Eyes” portrayed sides of American Deaf history that I had never gotten to explore, including the rise, fall, and eventual revival of ASL in relation to oralism, and the fight for Deaf leaders within the Deaf community. To begin with, I had no idea historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Graham Bell, both of whom are widely known in the hearing world, played such important roles in the development of ASL and Deaf education within the American Deaf community. While one pushed for progress, the other seemed to pull it back. Learning about the rise of oral education through Bell’s beliefs in nativism and eugenics really upset me, knowing that that movement stifled the formation of Deaf communities and the development of ASL for a long period of time, and that much of that stemmed from a fear of immigrants and the assumption that Deaf people were born broken or “defective” (“Through Deaf Eyes”).
The subsequent isolation of Deaf people from each other and their shared culture was the part that hit me hardest, how they attempted to force Deaf people to acclimate to the cultures of the hearing world instead of allowing them to have that support system to fall back on. As the saying goes, “History repeats itself,” and the thoughts behind these movements of segregation and separation still exist today, as depicted by The Late Show with Trevor Noah. This idea of Deaf people being something beyond the scope of what made a human being “normal” or “functional” reminded me of how I learned about Helen Keller’s story in middle school: She was tragically left Deaf and blind following an illness, and miraculously learned to write and speak thanks to her blind governess Anne Sullivan. It was always portrayed as a joint triumph above both women’s disabilities, and that solidified this belief in me that being physically impaired was undesirable.
It also greatly saddened me to see how the switch from silent films to talkies affected the Deaf community, and I found myself empathizing with how many Deaf people felt towards the film Johnny Belinda, which featured a Deaf, but frail and timid, female protagonist. As Stan Schuchman pointed out, “The fact that this dummy character blossoms by using sign language was enough – the Deaf community was excited and proud of the film, even though the stereotype itself was terrible” (“Through Deaf Eyes”). When your community is so underrepresented in mainstream media, it becomes far too easy to settle for even the most stereotypical of portrayals, all because the character on the screen was someone you could identify with, and I completely understood why the Deaf community held this movie in high regard despite the inaccuracies of Belinda’s character.
If I were to do a specific portion of this project again, I would choose the world without sounds component. This, coincidentally, was also the most challenging component, in my opinion. Personally, I feel that immersion is one of the most powerful tools anyone can use to increase understanding of new concepts, and it is because I immersed myself in my own “world without sounds” that I managed to develop a deeper understanding of how hearing is a privilege. To many people within hearing communities, being able to hear is no big deal, and it is those who cannot hear who deserve pity. However, as the larger mass of voices within society, we should be using our privilege and visibility as a community to spread education about the Deaf community and learn how to better support Deaf people. For instance, prior to watching “Technology and Deaf Culture,” I was under the impression that reading lips was second nature to Deaf people, but now I realize how difficult that is to do, even when the speakers are pulling dramatic faces like the actors in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
The world according to Deaf people may be one absent of noise, but that does not make it dull or empty or void of life. The Deaf world is rich in culture, history, knowledge, and deeply rooted in self-identities as a Deaf person. Deaf people are capable of producing music, films, movies, literature, communicating profound ideas, and spreading so much more information than they are given credit for. It is an unfortunate truth that many TV networks of today tend to solely rely on closed captioning to accommodate for their Deaf audiences. This can potentially create challenges within the information delivery process, as mentioned when I watched The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, while shows like The Daily Moth, on the other hand, are lending a helping hand in providing information to the Deaf community through a shared communication tool: ASL.
Oftentimes, it seems as though many hearing people believe that sacrificing Deaf culture in favor of urging Deaf people to adjust to a hearing society is more ideal, but this simply fuels further misconceptions. Chris Soukup, the Student Council president at Gallaudet University at the time “Technology and Deaf Culture” was produced, said this, ‘They say, “Oh, these poor people, we have to do something to help them.” And what they don’t realize is we are fully capable of helping ourselves. We’re fully capable of living the lives that we want to lead without anyone’s help, and I think that’s something people need to wake up to.’ His opinions were then echoed by Jane Fernandez, the university provost at the time, “I wish hearing people would understand that I am very happy to be Deaf. My Deafness is not an issue. I don’t think about it every day. I just go on with my life the same way hearing people do” (“Technology and Deaf Culture”).
In many ways, the issues the Deaf community faces reflects much of what numerous other communities and social groups have had to and are still facing. The protests for a Deaf president at Gallaudet was an amazing show of solidarity by both Deaf and hearing people alike, and we carry this concept with us to this day in our demands for justice and peace. By letting go of the very things that separate us and box is in, like immersing yourself in a silent, captioned world, or showing support through using ASL rather than speech (“Through Deaf Eyes”), we open our minds to new ideas and concepts that may contradict what we thought we knew, but in the end, only remind us of our shared bonds as humans. In the words of CJ Jones, “Knowledge is the most powerful vehicle to success, not hearing, not speaking, reading, yes. Reading and taking in all that book knowledge and being able to use it. That’s the power of the universe; the force, knowledge, not hearing. So thank you very much. The end. Roll credits” (“Through Deaf Eyes”).
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