Written on the Occasion of a Bionic Upgrade

Some pithy musings and lessons learned, as I prepare to get a cochlear implant device upgrade later today:

It’s been seven years, and this prosthetic device has molded itself into my body, my nerve circuitry, and my psychology. The boundaries of my body, as I now know it, are no longer pure flesh: truly, my body, how I hear and make sense of the world, is now part machine. I know this is encapsulated in the word “cyborg,” but the concept still astonishes me at times. On the occasions when my current cochlear implant has died, for hours but sometimes for a few days, I feel like part of my body is gone. But it’s not my body, not really. It’s a piece of metal in my skull. Yet, my brain persists in telling me, this once-unfamiliar sound is now me, it’s now part of me. This machine, this box of sound, has traveled the world with me.

At the same time, this unique capability – to be able to switch back and forth between sound and silence – is still something I savor. I still like silence. No, given the right circumstances, I love it. I still crave it at the end of each day, when I am alone. It brings me back to myself, ensconced inside my mind, in tune with how my body feels, how it moves and sees and how my heart beats.

I no longer feel like I need to reconcile these parts of myself. It’s possible to have both: sound and silence. To know that beneath the machine’s pulsating waves of sound, there is still silence. That is still there, a deep calm at the core of my being.

Sensory experience is messy. It always changes. Maybe there’s no such thing as stable hearing, no such thing as perfect hearing, even if we still tend to idealize (or oversimplify) those concepts. “Hearing” as a sensory norm is something our culture takes as a given, but truly many different hearings exist. What I hear isn’t at all what you hear, whoever you are, and I’m constantly aware of that – but I think this with a spirit of awe and sustained curiosity, and not out of self-comparison.

I’ve experienced several of those disparate, wildly different, evolving hearings. Everything I hear is mediated by that great mass of my brain, calculating and making sense of what the machine gives me. This interpretation always changes; new neural networks constantly spring up and form. Something rustles, rumbles, stands out to me today that didn’t yesterday. Evidence that on a neurological level, I am not the same person as I was yesterday. New meanings have arisen. I am aware, in a way that I wasn’t seven years ago, of my own capacity to learn, to shift and change and discover new dimensions to the world, while reflecting upon where a deeper sense of self lies. I’m more comfortable with change. I have to be.

Every time the implant upgrades, or gets a new map, I feel myself thrown back into flux. This instability, I know, will pass. I’ve seen it often enough by now, the marvels of my own brain’s plasticity and persistence. Yet I wonder what exactly happens in that black box, to make sense of the chaos, each time I place my auditory nerves under a fresh assault. Yes, “assault”: for there is no denying the violence that the cochlear implant can enact upon one’s senses and one’s self, even as it welcomes one into a world of newly engineered prosthetic sound. There is no denying that the cochlear implant sometimes doesn’t feel good. Overstimulation is real, and silence is still better, at times. The difficulty of talking about this auditory experience, neither in terms of over-sentimentalized “medical miracle” nor in terms of invasive destruction, still fascinates me. I am still deaf, and yet I hear. What exactly does that mean? It may seem like a paradox, but there it is. I am still in between, in flux. But in the last seven years, I’ve become more okay with that.

Here’s to the latest technology, and to whatever I hear in weeks ahead. (Or don’t. That’s also fine with me.)

On Reclaiming Scholarly Time and Space: Or, Keep Calm and Read On

Here’s something I keep thinking about, during this summer where quite essentially my only job is to sit down and read. My PhD exams are coming up this year, and I’m currently carving out a schedule of sitting down each morning and trying to make it through a lengthy list of texts from the American literary canon (as well as many substantial works of theory relating to disability and deaf studies). Each day is starting to unfold in a similar way: wake up, putter around a bit on email and read the news, then put it all aside and open a new book and plow through a couple of hundred pages of prose, poetry, criticism, what have you. Do some writing as I have the chance. Close the books and do it all over again the next day.

So, I sit down in the company of my books, and I think: here I am, absorbing myself in a torrent of words, sitting in silence with these ideas that past authors have honed and worked to express, for hours on end. And then I can’t help but also think: this skill set I’m exercising and cultivating, not only during this grand summer of reading but also during my entire PhD (and, let’s face it, other life and professional pursuits ahead), is absolutely antithetical to the frenetic, fragmented pace and rhythm of the rest of modern life. What I’m trying to do is the opposite of reading (and/or responding to) a tweet, a text message, a meme, a quick gratuitous email, one of those “breaking news” headline notifications that pops up on my phone every couple of hours. It’s even the opposite of what I’m writing on this short blog right now, when you think about it. (Writing 1000-word blog posts, I admit, can be another form of of self-gratification, when you think about the far harder and more focused labor inherent to other kinds of reading and writing. Guilty as charged.) It requires time, space, patience, solitude, quiet, a place to sit without rush or anxiety and just focus and breathe.

This type of reading can be hard. It doesn’t stimulate any kind of contemporary reward system, beyond the absorbing pleasure of the words and ideas themselves. There’s no instant gratification in it, of the type that stimulates reading other types of media: Wow, another page down! Wasn’t that great? Now only 499 left to go! It becomes easy, at times, to feel lost in the sea of American literature and American thought: I just read this one book today, and there was so much in it, but now look at everything else I haven’t yet read. Thinking of it in terms of speed, or rapid accumulation or accomplishment, becomes counterproductive. Rather, I need to find the kind of groundedness in myself to put my head down, to become absorbed in the words on the page, to lose myself and the transient, flurried, distracted modern world in these lines upon lines of prose (or poetry), and attempt to do it all entirely for its own sake, or for the sake of the larger ideas I might tease out or engage with someday. With some authors, it’s easier for me to do that than with others. And I’ll also confess how susceptible I, as much as anyone else, can be to the pleasing distractions and fleeting tasks and activities that define the fast-shifting pace of today’s world.

This summer of reading is forcing me out of that rhythm, even more than any of my previous coursework pursuits ever have. The days spent only with books are making me think more about the long labor of cultivating patience, and focus, and discipline. They are making me think about the kind of mental clarity it takes to absorb oneself singlemindedly in an idea, a pursuit, or even just a long, well-crafted story. The act of prolonged reading is something I’ve always enjoyed, but now learning to do it well and to do it critically, thoughtfully, over long periods of completely self-directed time (when there are so many other things potentially clamoring for my attention) is literally my job. It’s a task that will bear fruit only with a lot of time – far more time than I have in a summer, or in even a couple of years. The human desire to know, to become, isn’t something that can be immediately satiated, for all of our desire after epiphany and self-gratification, and this slow wisdom lies at the core of doing a PhD. Rather, acquiring any rich body of knowledge involves a gradual accumulation of thoughtful time and energy, something that earlier eras have accomplished better than we have. I’m thinking not only of monks laboring for their lifetimes over precise illuminated manuscripts, but also of earlier and less interconnected eras when reading itself was more of a quiet, solitary, removed pursuit. Now, in order to seek that kind of absorption and solitude for myself, I have to actively make sure I’m less connected than normal before I begin: I put aside my phone, shut off my computer, lock myself away in a place I think there won’t be any distractions. Then I stay there for a long time, longer than feels normal to me at this point, and maybe eventually come out. Not to exaggerate, but this pursuit of redefining time and space in my own terms feels like a radical act in 2017.

This summer, my task is to put one foot in front of another, with the faith that I’ll one day reach the top of the mountain, or something close to it, even though I can by no means see those heights yet (and can anyone ever reach the top of the literary mountain, anyway? it keeps on going up). My task is to “keep calm and read on,” or some other obnoxious twist on that British meme. And my task is to sip tea until it becomes cold, and then just boil some water again, and keep turning the pages and reading the words. It all adds up. Certainly not instantly, certainly not with a flash or bright pulsating notification, but the time passes and grows and expands upon itself all the same. Here's to rewiring my brain to embrace more of that slow, deep, self-sustained focus. And, with that, signing off... back to my reading hermitage.

What Does It Take to Create a Signing Community?

Here’s a question that’s been on my mind. What prevalence of deafness (or other type of embodiment) must exist in a given population or community space, for it to be considered something ordinary, common, and unremarkable?

Put in another way, with further implications: what quota of deaf people, or sign language users, must we reach in order for deafness to become normalized more broadly, and for everyone to go ahead and get on board and learn sign language to communicate with each other?

Is this number fifteen percent, twenty percent… thirty percent? Do cultural and behavioral shifts only happen once a given characteristic is in the majority? Is it even possible to pinpoint a numerical tipping point for such behavioral changes, to begin with? What influence does statistical frequency have upon culture, especially given cultural tendencies to organize around a perceived ideal of normalcy?

Enough questions for now. All of these musings have lurked in the back of my mind for several years now, but they rose to the surface again today, as I read Nora Ellen Groce’s classic book Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. (Much recommended, especially for anyone who wants to think more about how language use, community, and ideas about disability are socially contingent!) In this book, Groce relates an ethnohistorical account of deafness and sign language use on Martha’s Vineyard, where genetically recessive deafness became so prevalent in several pockets of the island population during the 18th and 19th centuries that everyone on the island started using sign language as a way to communicate. Sign language and English were used so interchangeably, and by so many members of this population, that Vineyarders stopped thinking of any meaningful distinction between deaf and hearing in the way we do today. During this time the deaf did not form a distinct minority or linguistic group, separate from hearing people. In contrast to communities on the mainland (and throughout much of history), these deaf people seem to have had no real disadvantages in language access, education, social and cultural influence, or career opportunities on the island. Instead, it seems that they simply lived, alongside other deaf people but also equally alongside other signing hearing relatives, neighbors, and companions. Groce’s book gives an oral history account of older residents’ memories of sign language use among hearing and deaf people alike; they overwhelmingly describe how deafness amounted to a mere difference rather than a "handicap" (and even forget who was deaf on the island and who wasn’t), how hearing people used sign language with each other as well as with deaf people, and how knowing sign language was an expected skill for anyone who moved to the island.

Martha’s Vineyard has become such a linguistic Eden, such a locus for cultural nostalgia among later-day deaf community members and artists and activists, that I was aware of this secondary cultural significance as I read Groce’s account of life on the island. (I was also aware that I, too, experienced my own response of cultural longing and nostalgia while reading. Someone needs to write a literary narrative about the significance of this “lost” world of Martha’s Vineyard sign language, vis-à-vis the lens of cultural memory and imagination and our fraught relationship to the past.) Indeed, as I imagine most people do when they encounter this history, I wondered: what would it take for that type of fully (or nearly fully) signing community to arise again? What would need to happen for sign languages to take a renewed place at the core of a cultural space, with all of their possibilities for visual and embodied communication beyond the mere existence of deafness? I’ve written briefly before about how not knowing sign language puts hearing people at a disadvantage, but I still wonder what it takes for this idea of sign language use to spread among all members of a population. Is it simply a numbers game? Is it just a phenomenon that can arise where the circumstances are right, like they seem to have been on Martha’s Vineyard during that space of around 250 years – where the community was sufficiently small, isolated, and self-contained, and where just enough people were deaf that everyone else caught on and started signing without a second thought? And, as I asked earlier: what would that quota of deaf people need to be, exactly, for this to happen?

I also wonder if cultural conventions of using sign language are an issue of visibility and conventions, and not simply numbers. Naturally, the more deaf people there are who use sign in any given space, the more visible sign language is, and the more likely other people are to pick it up and use it, out of cultural pressure – the stories I’ve encountered about signing (hearing) baristas and waitresses around Gallaudet University in Washington, DC attest to this idea. With enough deaf people around, hearing people will notice the signing and conform and pick up some sign on their own, just because it makes communication easier. In other cases, though, increased visibility in media and other cultural spaces can get us closer to this signing tipping point. Although many problems still exist with awareness and engagement with deaf issues, ASL is rising in popularity in mainstream America, and is becoming more present socially and culturally. I’ve noticed in recent years that I’ll go out to coffee shops and restaurants far from any deaf social epicenter, and the hearing folks there will have caught on and will have picked up how to sign “thank you” or anything else relating to my order. (Yesterday, when I was browsing a bookstore: the hearing man working there came up and signed/fingerspelled to me to let him know if I needed any help. Nice job, dude!) Representation matters, beyond any mere quota of community numbers, and links to larger cultural ideas about the body and the value of different types of communication. And in our media-saturated world, I do think film and online and written and other media have a tremendous impact on social and communicative practices.

Social use and larger social formations also matter. At certain times in my life, I have seen how even a strong-majority group of hearing people can be swayed to use sign much more regularly, once that becomes part of the social culture. I’ve been part of social circles where enough of my close (hearing) friends have learned to sign, at least a little bit, that many others who came into the group saw that prevailing convention and immediately seemed to feel pressured to try to sign, too. Said in another way, as more people started to sign, it became easier to get others to do it. This wasn’t an issue of sheer deaf numbers or deaf representation – I was the only deaf member of the social groups I’m thinking of, but a cascade effect soon triumphed, as enough people bought into signing and as it simply became more normalized to use some sign around certain people (versus only speaking, which became a bit weird). Similarly, while I was growing up, my (all-hearing) family used sign language so much at home that I think in retrospect that other people coming into the family household noticed that they didn’t know sign and felt immediately self-conscious. Does language use just come down to social pressure and widespread convention? What are the social expectations we express when we choose to speak versus sign, and how do these matter on a broader scale? When “everyone else” is communicating in a certain way, will more people naturally catch on and start doing it too?

One of the larger issues that the contemporary Deaf community faces, I think, is what to do with the idea of a Deaf community versus a signing community (where said signers may or may not be deaf). Groce’s book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language, made me think about this core idea further. Indeed, the identity label “deaf” stops mattering as much (or at least takes on a different type of cultural meaning) if one enters a community where communication access and sign language are more of a given, even if I imagine actual hearing signing ability and use still fluctuates. This is part of why I believe hearing allies continue to be so important to the morphing future of any sort of deaf experience. The cultural salience of deafness shifts depending on cultural context, as the history of Martha's Vineyard clearly shows us – and I’d be curious to keep exploring more of what forces can shape and create a true signing community, only loosely connected to fixed notions of deafness. This will be food for thought for future historical/literary writing and research!

A New Longing for Visuality, or: How My iPhone Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Emoji

With the latest iOS update to my iPhone, I started noticing something strange. Now, when I type into my phone to send someone a text message, the autocomplete function offers word suggestions as it usually does, but it also suggests related emojis and images for whatever I am typing.

Hence, it is quite possible for me to accept my phone’s suggestions and send messages like these, punctuated with words but also with emoji:

I [heart] you

Do you have a [present] for me?

I am going to [sleep] now but [see] you tomorrow

That is a really cute [dog]

I am buying new [shoes]

When will you be [home]?

Brr so [snowy] outside

I’m old-fashioned and text-only with this blog, but fill in the brackets with emoji using your imagination and you’ll understand what I mean.

With this technological update, emoji are taking on an added form of communicative currency they didn’t have before. Before, they functioned more as addenda: cute expressions to insert to the end of a text message, or to indicate a particular emotional response to a friend’s comment. Objects to cluster together for emphasis, humor, or effect. But usually separate from words, independent from the text-based modicums of communication in the phone itself. Before, emojis were fun accessories. Now my phone seems to want them to be more central to the act of communication itself. An emoji, an image, now wants to stand in for the actual word or thing.

“Next thing, we’ll be texting in hieroglyphics!” my mom recently teased me when I pointed this novelty out to her. (Yes, both my parents regularly text in emoji, far more often than I do. Such goes the divide between the so-called Boomers and the Millennials.)

But, this turn back to iconographic writing aside, something else struck me about this programming change in the iPhone, and also about our recent state of image-centric communication. The ways technology and media are promoting image and visual representation as central to the communicative act – through videos, graphics, GIFs, emojis, memes, and so forth – contradicts some of the earlier impulses in text-based culture that have privileged the written word above the “mere” image. (It also is far more complex than any bemoaning of “writing is dead” or “the written word is dead”; no, human communication is flexible and multifaceted, and it will continue to evolve in unexpected ways.) Above all, for me, this increasing centrality of the image ties back to some of the underlying mainstream cultural assumptions that have historically helped make a case for, or against, alternative visual/physical modes of communications such as sign language.

I won’t go into the full history of how sign language has been understood alongside other text- or speech-based systems of communication, but in short it is complex and ever-shifting, like the history of language itself. Suffice it to say that sign language enjoyed a moment of flourishing in the nineteenth century, bolstered by contemporaneous cultural ideas about “natural” language and gesture and also the establishment of schools for the deaf in America and Europe, before advancing ideas about the supposed superiority of oral communication, even for deaf people, stifled it even from deaf institutions from the 1880s onward. Sign language nevertheless survived underground in deaf clubs, social circles, and establishments for decades before finally being recognized as a complex and unique language by academic researchers in the 1960s – since which time it has seen a renaissance of sorts, even as anxieties persist about the influence of technology and normalization on how d/Deaf people communicate. Nevertheless, contemporary mainstream fascinations with image and visual representation, for me, drive to the heart of what makes sign language so useful and appealing. They also point to some of the reasons I think hearing people in the twenty-first century are becoming newly aware of ASL, in ways they weren’t before.

One of the early Romantic ideas about sign language, which enabled its rise in the nineteenth century, was that sign language was in some ways a more “natural” form of language, linked to gesture and the innate connection between an object and an communicative idea. In keeping with the Romantic turn toward nature and intuition, nineteenth-century thinkers and social reformists were fascinated by the “innate” or “immediate” form of representation they saw operating in the sign language used by “Deaf and Dumb” persons – even if they didn’t always give it equal standing alongside spoken language or systems of writing. Now, we’re not living in the Romantic period anymore, but when I turned on my iPhone a few weeks ago, after its recent system update, I felt struck by how my phone had a similar sort of impulse. It wanted me to substitute the “mere” written word with the image, which by my phone’s little computer-logic seemed more analogous with the thing itself. (Or what other impulses are operating here? Humor? Playfulness? A bit of self-irony? The novelty of using images to subvert words?) One of the most unique aspects of ASL is its visual-spatial classifier system, in which signers use handshapes combined with physical space and movement not just to illustrate the string of words describing what happened at a particular time, but to enact some aspect of how the event itself took place. I’m an aficionado of all forms of written words, but nevertheless the visual richness of ASL can sometimes get closer to the thing itself than a written sentence can, or at least can approach that thing in an entirely different way.

So, here’s what I asked myself when my phone started prompting me to insert cat and dog and bird emojis all over my texts: where might signing fit into this new and accelerating fascination with the image and with direct visual representation? What kind of cultural moment are we living in, and how might this turn toward the visual affect how sign language is seen, used, and understood beyond traditional Deaf communities? Note that by no means am I buying into the romanticized (and often simplified) notion that every sign in ASL is somehow gestural or immediately iconographic, or somehow more “actual” or “representative” than its verbal equivalent – but I am acknowledging that, in a more nuanced way and especially through the creativity of classifiers, signs can indeed lean toward a unique spatial and visual immediacy. Contemporary mainstream culture is already playing with the undisputed superiority of the written word over the image or the physical object, and challenging these assumptions in new technology-driven ways – so how might this existing subversion affect the larger social perception of signing systems of communication? What might it mean to be a signer, within this environment? What hybrid systems of communication might arise next? Is there an unexplained longing for some alternate form of communication, beyond the written word, going on here?

The above set of questions, I hereby propose to you, my readers and fellow emoji-users (and fellow signers). Replies hereby accepted by form of emoji text messages, or alternatively via signing Glide video messages.

When a Deaf Time-Out is Necessary

A few days ago, I came across this vlog by Mhairi Brown via the AI-Media Facebook page, about the idea of “deaf time.” Now, I’ve just written a seminar paper for grad school on some other historical applications of how deafness can relate to different cultural frames of time and temporality (a la Alison Kafer etc etc) – but Brown’s main point in her vlog is more contemporary, and more personally relevant, than this. It made me nod my head in recognition, and was rather timely to boot. (Pun intended.)

In short, Brown points out, deaf people need to take our own “deaf time” out from the hearing world in order to preserve ourselves and to preserve our energy to keep going. Deaf time might look like any other form of personal quiet time, it might look like time in silence with hearing aids and cochlear implants out, it might look like time away from lipreading and talking and normative modes of conversation. Regardless of what shape or form one’s personal deaf time takes, it’s necessary. Let's be honest, the hearing world is an exhausting place, and what might come easily to hearing people (conversation, keeping track of what’s going on, environmental or situational awareness) can quickly wear on deaf people. Not to mention the ongoing personal load of advocating for oneself and seeking to enable one’s own access all the time, I would add. We may make it look easy, because we’ve become good at it, but these things require constant energy and constant work, and also constant vigilance about our own boundaries and what we feel is realistic for us to do, on a particular day.

This very idea of “deaf time” is a lesson I had to fight hard to learn in high school and college – particularly during my undergraduate years when I was living full-time in the hearing world for the first time, without recourse to my signing home/family environment, where communication isn’t really a struggle. I remember asking myself during those years: Why do I feel so exhausted all the time? Why do I get home from a day with hearing people and just want to sit in silence? What's wrong with me? Is this normal? Friends, time in the hearing world is indeed exhausting. Everyone needs a time out for themselves every once in a while, no matter who they are, but for me recognizing when I need a bit of “deaf time” (as opposed to just introvert time or writing time, or what have you) has been crucial to helping me keep going. Deaf time, for me, is simply time away from worrying about everyday communicative struggles or logistics.

I realized when I watched the above vlog that, in truth, I’ve spent the last two weeks taking an extended bit of “deaf time” for myself as I enjoy being home over the holidays. I feel fortunate that I belong to a family where I can do this. I return home and recognize how nice it is that I never have to worry about communication while I am in this house. I have no shortage of great things I love about my family, and I could go on about those things, but foremost is how my parents and sister have always prioritized communication in our home environment and our family dynamic. Inclusiveness is second nature to them by now, in a way it isn’t with very many other hearing people. I can let my guard down, I can relax into not having to worry about how well I will understand what’s being said, I don’t need to fret about missing something or being left uncomfortably in the dark. If it’s the four of us, if we are together chatting, I know I will understand what is going on – and if I don’t, I don’t feel at all bad about interrupting, holding everything up, and loudly insisting that they inform me, in a way I never quite do with other people, except for maybe a very rare few close friends. Many deaf people with non-signing hearing families, I realize, do not have this luxury of having a “time out” with family – which I feel is one of the most unfortunate things, based on my own understanding of what family means. The way my family creates a space for me to take time out from the rest of the hearing world is something I will always cherish about them. Their communication habits and their consciousness are things I no longer take for granted.

When I take my own “deaf time” out at home, too, I find I can relax about my daily routine in a way I usually can’t elsewhere. I’m on vacation! That means there will be no last-minute meetings to figure out, no ASL interpreter requests to make, no back-and-forth emails to the disability office, no worrying about whether I have accessibility arrangements for me wherever I go. We don’t go on very many outings where accessibility is an issue, and if we do – well, family is there to help, and I feel assured it will all work out. I don’t worry about my social life or my social energy when I’m having my personal deaf time in New Mexico, either. There are few pressures or expectations, so I can choose whom I see and spend time with, which these days are mostly other people who sign or who communicate well. I cannot say how nice it feels to go for two weeks and be able to forget about whether or not I’ve sent that email to the disability office, whether or not I have interpreters. It doesn’t matter, when I am here, and so I settle more into feeling like myself rather than worrying about how Rachel the Deaf Person is going to function in that situation. Here, on vacation and at home, I am simply me. I read, write, think about other things, and this in itself feels recharging.

I’ve realized, since my undergraduate years, that the reason I spent so much time at home over college breaks and vacations was because I needed this deaf time, this time out with family and beautiful landscape in a place that let me opt out from everyday hearing-world pressures that wore me thin. Now I have a vocabulary for this recharge time, in a way I didn’t before, and I can let myself get on with the things I need rather than wondering why my personal needs are different than other people’s might be. Time away and a time out can be necessary for anyone, once again, but for me it also serves a particular purpose. Extended time away, in addition to everyday time-outs either by myself or with certain close friends and other signing people, helps me to fill a gap. It gives me the food I need to keep going in the world I live in. It tells me that I am okay, if I find certain ways to feel like me, rather than trying to fit standard molds of hearing behavior all the time.

On that note, here’s to this bit of vacation, and here’s to jumping back into the usual grind in 2017! Here’s to doing the lipreading/interpreting arrangements/socialization/[fill in the blank] game all over again, and to figuring out new strategies to do it better to live the lives we want. Finally, other deaf friends and readers, here’s hoping you had your nice bit of deaf time away over the holidays, too.

Mountain-Perspective

I grew up under the watch of a massive mountain. Namely, under the Sandia range, Spanish for watermelon, named for the deep radiant pink transformation they undergo each night, when the sun sinks low in the sky.

Those mountains were there as I played, learned, and lived for nearly the first two decades of my life. They’re still the first thing I look for when I get off the plane in Albuquerque, their massive rocks and cliffs nestling the city to the east.

Now, every time I return home, and also most other places I go, I find that the mountain is in me. The grand, sprawling Southwestern sky is, too, the view that races out from one’s small self to just about forever along the horizon. Here the tinge of the atmosphere glows a crisp, clear blue, and the light pierces golden white. Some days, from on top of the mountain, I have contemplated how much closer I have climbed to the curvature of the earth itself. The sky complements the mountain in its space and scale.

This feeling of space and scale crouches in my breast, or lingers like a taste in the back of my throat as I wander to other places and witness other views. Growing up in New Mexico, I realize now, gave me an early and continuous exposure to outdoor grandness. Growing up in the shadow of this mountain taught me what it feels like to be large and small at the same time. I am always looking for similar size, similar feats of everyday color and harshness and beauty, wherever I go. I admit I am always comparing.

Growing up, I always knew which direction was east. The mountain was always there, in the east, marking the compass with which I directed my days. I never felt lost or turned around with it there. In other places, I still get dizzy amidst the trees and rolling hills. I feel as if I have lost my bearings and therefore lost some elemental sense of direction. I can’t see the horizon in these new places, I can barely see the sky, all I see is gnarled branches that go on and on. Within this tangle of vegetation, I feel like I've lost a part of myself. In my hometown, I look up, and there the mountain is, huge and watching the sun sweep over the horizon.

In this way the mountain marks time, too. It is green in the summer, frosty and snow-capped in the winter, always tinged with the purple-gray of cliffs and stone outcroppings. Its color changes throughout the day: navy blue and purple in the morning, as the dawn breaks over its peaks and splashes across the sky, often illuminating dozens of hot-air balloons floating in the early, crisp midair. Then varying shades of blue-purple-gray-green during the day, accentuated sometimes by billowing clouds and their shadows. And then at night: Sandia, watermelon, deep radiant glowing pink. It turns a pink that belongs on a Navajo tapestry, that rivals the sky and sunset in its brilliance. These colors dance across the mountain face just for a moment – then the mountain turns a dark purple again and retreats into the night.

As I go through my days in Albuquerque, the mountain draws my eye. My gaze roves over its contours and its texture, taking in its steadiness but also its ever-changing fascination. It is too much to take in at once, not just its colors but also its cliffs and canyons and foothills. I have learned from hands-on experience just how much exists up there, cacti and piñon pines and juniper trees and wildflowers. It is reassuring, ever-present on the eastern horizon, but also complex and deep and in many ways unknown.

In short, growing up beneath a mountain like this gives one an ongoing dose of perspective. Driving about in the city, or taking a walk, I look up and there it is, near but also far-off, formidable. And I have felt far-off from civilization, too, when I have hiked up to its crest. Several times, early in the morning, I have set off to hike from its foothills to its tallest peak. This is an ascent of nearly 5,000 feet from the valley elevation of my home, and on the very top I find myself breathing hard, gasping for air in its thin 10,000-foot altitude. A small peak this is, compared to the other mountains in the north, the high Rocky Mountain ranges of Colorado and Wyoming, but these Sandias are my mountains, the watchmen of my home, and they too hold their height right over the edge of city living. As I sit on the top of the mountain, the dusty horizon of the desert sprawls out to the west, and Albuquerque suddenly rests at my feet, rows and rows of city streets running down to the green strip of Rio Grande River. Shortly after the river, civilization stops and transforms into volcanoes, endless desert, more mountains in the distance. I am witnessing the entire city right here, and it simultaneously feels like it is all mine to grasp and like its everyday humming is too small to matter. From up here, I can see and contemplate. I am as large as the hundred-mile radius of this spectacular view, and I can sit and inhale it all, but from a distance. However, I, too, am small; no one at the bottom can see me here as I sit, alone or with a friend, on top of the mountain.

This mountain-perspective is the kind of perspective I also get from sitting at a window seat in a plane, gazing down at the land as we take off, marveling at the tinker-toy scale of houses and streets, watching civilization and its problems shrink as the plane banks and soars upward. My own thoughts and contemplations, in turn, crystallize and become more solid. Except that when I sit on top of a mountain like this, the rocks are stable beneath my feet. There is no thrumming of the plane’s engines, no stomach-lifting feeling of flight. I am solid, rooted, within this view. It took tremendous geological force to thrust the rocks up like this, and indeed they are ever shifting, but for now they are still. Sometimes the wind blasts and howls, indeed sometimes I have been at the top of the mountain when there is snow and a blizzard isolates me in a white sheet from the city below, but other times I have sat in stillness, feeling the rocks beneath my feet, some wildflowers blooming up from between their cracks. Butterflies flutter, hawks soar. Balloons and sometimes paragliders drift in the distance.

This remove, this perspective, but also this vivid stirring of life all anchor me to this mountain. Always, in Albuquerque and in other similar places, it is possible to live one’s own mundane life with this sense of sweeping geology and also intimate, wild detail. The mountain itself becomes mundane, if one stays here long enough, since, after all, it is always there. But once one leaves and comes back, or once one looks up and sees a new slant of light across its stone face, the mountain again arrests with its presence. It somehow seems to see everything, at once imposing and personal. And, I wonder, how can I have gone so long without seeing it like this?

On Turning Non-Problems into Problems

So, one more academic semester almost down. I am nearly done with one-third (or, to be more accurate, and not that I'm counting, 3/10!) of my PhD. I realized earlier this year that I’m currently at something like the equivalent of 21st grade, with my penchant for staying in school. But… as I still ought to have learned by now, none of those postgraduate letters after my name will stop accessibility hurdles from sometimes getting in the way, even at convenient times like final exams week. I see myself as a problem-solver – or at least I’d like to be, all of the humanities-scholar joking about “problematizing” arguments aside – but that won’t stop me from sometimes turning into a “problem” for someone else.

As ever, I’m writing to problematize assumptions about the world (see, there it is again!!), not to play a game of particular blame and grievance, so I’ll keep the following at the level of a rough sketch, but this is the backbone of a conversation I recently had:

“You can’t sit there. That’s reserved seating. Someone else is sitting there."

“But I have an interpreter. This is the only place I’m going to be able to sit in this auditorium and see my interpreter.”

“Oh… Yes. Okay. But we’re really sorry. You can’t sit there.”

“Can’t I just take one seat?”

“No. We’re really sorry. That’s already reserved seating, and we can’t change that.”

“I’m asking you for accessibility reasons. You see, I need to be able to see my interpreter, and this is the only seat that will work. This seat will be great. Please, could you be flexible?”

“Well, let us think about how to solve this problem.”

“I’ve already told you how to solve it. I can sit here, and everything will work out.”

“Oh. I think we’ve come up with a solution. How about sitting in the back, in our handicapped section?”

“No. I just told you, I won’t be able to see my interpreter back there. And I’m not in a wheelchair. Look at me. I’m deaf.”

I won’t drag this out any further. Essentially, this sort of recent run-in got me thinking, when is disability a problem? When is access a problem? I wouldn’t describe accessibility as a “problem,” per se, just as an opportunity to think more flexibly about our own orientation in the world, to embrace perspectives and embodiments different from our own to try to make a more inclusive place for everyone. But it struck me anew that accessibility sometimes does become a “problem,” unnecessarily so, when other people turn it into one.

The stark lack of flexible thinking can be astonishing.

Ask me what I need for my interpreter, and about how I communicate, and then accept my experience and my knowledge. Maybe I can teach you something new about communication, if you give me the chance to try.

Ask my friend in a wheelchair about what she needs to go to the party you are hosting, and let her take the lead and tell you which space will allow her to participate. Don’t assume you know, and don’t create additional problems with your assumptions. You’ll all have a great time.

Ask another friend who uses a service dog how you can create space for both her and her dog, and then let her take her service animal there. You’ll be fine having them both around.

Ask my other friend who is prone to chronic fatigue or to sensory overload what kind of conversation or environment is best for her. Allow her to take the lead in managing that environment. It could make the space nicer for others, too.

In other words, don’t create problems that don’t need to exist. Don’t let your preconceived ideas or institutional “rules” overshadow essential humanity and behaving (and connecting) with grace.

Other “problems” I’ve faced aren’t just about where institutions tell me my interpreter is “allowed” to sit. They relate to other settings, too. To the waiter in a restaurant insisting that the lights remain dimmed, that they are fine and it’s restaurant policy to leave them low, even if I ask to turn them up because it’s too dark for me to see. To the movie theater steward insisting that the captions will be turned on for a film showing, but nevertheless forgetting to check that (oops!). To the person who assumes that she can give me a scant printed outline of her remarks, and that this will be enough for me to follow, even if I’ve asked for a full print-out of her talk. To the acquaintance that proceeds to speak to me in a hyper-slow, hyper-enunciated version of English (which feels rather condescending), even when I tell her I can understand her just fine if she talks normally.

These are “problems,” but they truly do not need to be. They’re ways of creating rifts and distance between people. But access frameworks are there. Solutions are there. I know them, and I can show you. You’ll be surprised – delighted, even – by how easy it is for us both to occupy this space. Please let me show you.

Sometimes accepting someone else’s authority – even if they are deaf, even if they are disabled, even if they don’t “fit” into an established order – is enough. Sometimes accepting another form of embodied knowledge is actually pretty easy. And, heck, that person doesn’t need a postgraduate degree (or any other kind of credential) for us to give them that courtesy. (Not that people always give me this courtesy anyway, so I concede, this is a moot point!)

I love to problematize things (it’s more or less what I do for my job), but not this one. I also don’t believe I’m a problem – even if I may sometimes turn into one, in other people’s minds. I don’t want to see other people as problems, either, but as opportunities for me to humble myself and learn about their versions of embodied knowledge. What am I assuming? How am I right and how am I wrong? Maybe writing here isn’t really a way toward solving these non-problems, but still, it’s a path toward bringing clarity toward matters that could otherwise go unexpressed, unseen, unrecognized within our “normal” way of doing things.

Now, let’s form a problem-solving committee to come up with approaches to solving all the non-problems that we turn into problems, shall we?! (New absurdist comic novel idea, right here. I think I’ll write the next Catch-22!)

Tit for Tat

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to publish one of my essays in the New York Times as part of their new ongoing series about disability. (The piece is available here.) That piece, about how using sign language can sometimes become a spectacle in normative hearing public spaces, has elicited many responses and conversations among friends and acquaintances and also strangers, for which I’m grateful. It’s also led to some interesting moments and interactions – for instance, a few conversations in which hearing friends and colleagues (who do not sign) have told me that they’ve now been reflecting on the unique value that sign languages add to the world, or on the unique perspectives that signing brings to human communication and connection. Some of those people have told me about how they’re now curious to learn ASL, or how they regret not learning it earlier when they had a chance.

Speaking as someone who has not always been sure how to reconcile my own signing and speaking modes of communication, as well as how to reconcile some overall Deaf and hearing expectations for living in the world, receiving these comments about the “value added” from sign languages gives me hope for more future mainstream conversations about greater equity and diversity of communication. Also, speaking as someone who is aware of the historical (and continuing) reduction or dismissal of sign languages versus more “standard” modes of speech and writing, I am grateful for these moments when I see hearing friends and acquaintances stop and ask themselves, “Wait, what am I missing, since I don’t sign?” For some of them, this is truly a novel question. I hope it's provocative. Helping to guide these re-examinations of self and world, based on our larger cultural assumptions about language and communication, is something I care about doing and continuing to do.

That being said, I’ve been examining myself, too – this discussion about the richness of speech and sign does not go in one direction, nor does it only apply to a presumed “hearing majority.” Following on earlier considerations of when I choose to speak and when I choose to sign in the world, I’ve reflected more lately on what each “version” of myself embodies in me or brings to my life. Separating my “signing self” and my “non-signing self” is in many ways an artificial division, since there’s so much entanglement between the two, but I do code-switch between the two languages and modes, and I do find different insights in each.

For the sake of intellectual exercise, here are a few differences and complications, between myself in signing and non-signing situations:

My signing self feels like it is embodying fuller access to communication.

My non-signing self can conform. It can pass. (Sometimes.)

My signing self isn’t sure how it feels about passing. It doesn’t have to try. Though sometimes it is aware of the complications of seeming hearing, in a Deaf environment.

My non-signing self, honestly, used to feel more embarrassed by signing and the attention it drew. My non-signing self knows it can get by without further comment from hearing people.

My signing self, in a non-signing space, sometimes feels like it has to explain why it is signing, or feels like it has to explain a whole bunch of other things. My signing self sometimes doesn't feel like explaining these things.

My signing self used to only come out around certain very close friends and family. To some extent it still does.

My non-signing self used to try very hard to be “good enough,” to master the rules of hearing social interactions. To some extent it still does.

My non-signing self has been able to master these hearing rules reasonably well. Though there are still hearing conventions (such as reduced eye contact, or rules for group conversational exchange) that confuse my non-signing self.

My signing self, on the inside, sometimes watches my non-signing self struggle, and sighs and shakes its head.

My non-signing self is more serious and often more reserved. It is more likely to hang back and observe. My non-signing self second-guesses itself.

My signing self feels more relaxed and open. It is more likely to be participatory.

My signing self can make more choices about which conversations to partake in, and feels more at ease interjecting into those conversations.

My non-signing self can be nervous about encountering humor in other people, since jokes (or other intense emotion) are likely to fly off people's lips. My non-signing self tries to keep the conversation controlled and predictable.

My signing self feels more unafraid of jesting and joking around. My signing self can more easily follow tangents, off-base comments, and side conversations and integrate them into the main conversation.

My non-signing self works hard to follow one idea at a time.

My signing self is more expressive.

My non-signing self gets tired. It eventually has to retreat or turn itself off.

My signing self does, too, but much less easily – and more as a function of personality rather than communication restrictions.

My non-signing self regulates itself: how loudly it is speaking, which words it is choosing and whether it can pronounce them, whether other people seem to understand. My non-signing self has been highly trained to do this.

My signing self regulates itself, too, but more based on the other signers and their stylistic use of ASL. It also asks itself other questions: can people see properly, is the environment decent enough for communication?

My non-signing self delights in verbal wordplay and puns and turns of phrase, but is simultaneously wary of missing these when spoken by hearing people.

My signing self can sometimes feel self-conscious about being “behind the times” on Deaf/ASL slang, when it lives in the hearing world. At the same time, my signing self picks up new signs easily when it encounters them.

My non-signing self loves the feel of its own voice, of rendering spoken words out loud.

My signing self loves the feel of phrases or words in sign language. Also: the crispness of fingerspelling.

My non-signing self recognizes, pursues, and appreciates genuine connection with other non-signing people, but welcomes a communication switch into signing, when available.

Both my signing and non-signing selves gravitate toward people who sign (whether hearing or deaf). Both my signing and non-signing selves have recognized that this feels natural and okay.

Both my signing and non-signing selves appraise a situation when I walk in, and try to figure out which one “fits.” Which can lead to frequent, private debates.

Both my signing and non-signing selves are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes they commingle, hybridize, switch back and forth. Sometimes they look at themselves, and at each other, and they honestly do not know which is which.

On Change, Education, and Self-Care

Be the change you want to see in the world.

This is the sort of philosophy I’ve learned to embrace, more and more, as I think about forming the kinds of inclusive spaces and communication styles that matter to me. Engaging with others, talking over topics and issues about deafness and disability, and teaching them more about my worldview (while learning more about theirs) have been at the heart of how I’ve tried to form relationships with various people in the last few years. This has been a core part of my process of self-realization, both professionally and personally: if I want to clear out a space for myself to thrive, in a predominantly hearing world, oftentimes I am the one who is going to have to go out and do that work. It’s advocacy, it’s education, it’s proactivity. Sure, the work is often repetitive and a bit frustrating. But it’s also rewarding, when people respond and engage and learn how to be more inclusive for me and others like me. It helps me feel more like myself, and it helps me feel like I am being more true to myself by allowing the deaf part of my worldview to show, to be present for others to see (rather than hiding it or pretending it doesn’t matter). The often-invisible things need to become visible, in this world.

Another tenet of this reality of constant advocacy, though, is: being any kind of “change in the world,” to cite that high-flown ideal, is exhausting. Answering questions about deafness and ASL, inviting well-meaning but (at least at the beginning) unknowing hearing people into my world, and asserting my rights to gain access are all exhausting. I’ve realized I need to recognize my own energy levels and my own personal limitations, and also realized that to keep going as a scholar and advocate and overall person, attention to self-care is tantamount. The importance of self-care and self-preservation is a topic of discussion that I’ve seen arise among other minority groups. If you are in any kind of minority, what kind of toll does it take to keep asserting yourself and asking for diverse worldviews and also for accommodation from the majority?

I’m not writing this because I’m in a situation of duress right now. I’m really not. In several ways, it’s quite the opposite – as I enter another year of my graduate program, I’ve been excited to see how the promise of planting seeds is starting to pay off. I’ve seen how certain communicative dynamics and accessible spaces are starting to bloom, for me and for others around me. Inclusive communication practices are becoming more routine among the people I see professionally and personally each day. I’m seeing more people start to learn and use ASL around me, and I now recognize that ASL use as an important part of my feeling of belonging in any space. My days of starting from square one with sign (which I experienced when moving to a new place last year, and which I’ve written about before) are mostly over. Thank goodness for that. But I also recognize how much time, how much work, it has taken to get here. The time to plant those seeds, for me, was worth it. But I also find myself reflecting on that time, that energy, that expectation for continual investment and education. What balance am I striking, between what I invest in others and what I reserve for myself?

What I’m getting at here is this: education and awareness are important, when introducing deaf/disability/access issues into any space. These topics about inclusivity and communication and disability are topics I will keep working on for the rest of my life. At the same time, I wonder, who performs that education and that advocacy? Does it always need to be the deaf person, the person with the disability, the person who doesn’t quite fit? Is it really always that person’s responsibility? And, speaking for myself, at what point can I decide to stop and to just leave it to hearing people to go educate themselves?

This question is a tricky one for me. It’s a bit of a conundrum. I’ve recognized that, oftentimes, when I leave it to hearing people to go educate themselves, they don’t. They may not even realize they have to, without me speaking up. Granted, a few rare, special ones will. They’ll recognize problems arising. They’ll go read up on deaf topics for themselves or watch YouTube videos or go take a sign language class. But most people need to be prompted to think in a new way about visual language, about how their own hearing or able-bodied behavior and assumptions promote or preclude access, and so forth. In a way, I don’t blame them: being in the majority conditions certain ways of thinking about what is normal and what is acceptable. Other people’s experiences and realities become invisible within that mainstream assumption of normalcy. It’s like what I experience, as a white person who has simply never had to think about the discrimination that black communities face. (I’m slowly trying to read and think more about varying topics like this, as part of my larger social responsibility to others. But I digress.)

This question of education and personal investment, like so many questions, is about finding balance. It’s also about deciphering and setting boundaries, something I keep talking about with friends in grad school – as my fellow PhD friends talk about a lot, and as I’m also discovering, any line of work or investment will consume your life if you let it. Is it always my responsibility to educate New Hearing Person about communication/sign/inclusivity/access/the ADA/interpreters/what it is like to be deaf/generally how not to be a jerk? Maybe I feel, personally, as if it is. Maybe I don’t. Maybe it depends on the situation: my mood that day, what else I’ve had going on in my life, how worthwhile I feel this relationship is, what kind of response I think I might get in return. But it is also okay to say no and to stop educating, if only to be myself. It’s okay to tell someone, I’m excited you want to learn about this, now here are some books to go read about it instead of asking me. It’s okay to say, I don’t feel like talking about this question with you right now. I am still learning all these things, while thinking about what education and advocacy mean to me.

In other words, sometimes it’s right to go and be the change you want to see in your immediate surroundings. Other times it’s also okay to head outside and take a hike, or read a book, or completely disengage and stop thinking and talking and advocating and explaining. (Well, except for the “stop thinking” part. I still can’t figure out how to get myself to do that!) Here’s to more of that change, however incrementally it happens.

To Speak or Not to Speak?: Part II

Looking back, I’m certain my decision to use spoken English in my everyday life was socialized. As I said in my last post on this subject, growing up in a hearing family and going to mainstreamed, all-hearing schools, speaking seemed to me like the standard toward which I should strive, in order to be accepted and to be successful. It’s now what I would call (in more academic parlance) a normative ideal. Scholars like Brenda Brueggemann have written about this, about our culture’s imperative toward speaking and hearing as the predominant sign of intelligence and eloquence. These historical impulses, which have shaped so many events in d/Deaf history and also the history of education and rhetoric, are still present today, even as contemporary interest in sign languages grows (albeit in an often voyeuristic way). My purpose here, though, is not to trace the conceptual history of speaking and voice in culture and rhetoric, as interesting as that might otherwise be to me. It’s rather more personal.

I’ve just written about the assumptions that accompany the speaking + hearing equation, and how the decision to speak can strand or fail deaf people like me. This is something I’ve thought about pretty intensively for several years now, as I’ve reflected on how the assumptions of verbal communication do not necessarily fit with my body. Oh, when I was younger, how I thought I could make it work. Practice more, work harder, pay more attention to what others said, be smarter, be faster on the uptake: if I did all of these things, certainly I would teach myself how to dispel the comments I got from hearing people about my voice being understandable or not. I would sound great. I would talk well, and speaking well (to the hearing world at least) is a classic marker of the “successful” deaf person. (I would now dispute or problematize this in the strongest terms.) Speaking would become my bridge to the world. I was stubborn, then. I think being stubborn got me through those years of speech therapy and mainstream assimilation, which I’m thankful for now but which now raise questions for me about the complications of passing as hearing, which I internalized when I was young. As I’ve described, these complications of passing include projecting an illusion about my inner sensory reality, about my actual level of understanding, and about how I truly prefer to communicate.

The truth is, I like speaking, but my preferred communication mode always includes at least some sign language – even if it’s signed English.

The truth also is, there’s no way for me to get away from this, even if I wanted to. Being deaf always calls me back to certain people, conversations, ways of being.

Also, certain situations make me face the fact that this speaking/hearing ideal is out of reach for me, which is perfectly fine, since there are other ways to communicate that also contain value. But I still sometimes need to figure out how to work with this normative speaking/hearing imperative. The other week, I went to a TA training workshop for my current graduate program. We sat through many sessions on pedagogy, grading, the value of teaching, developing syllabi, and so forth. One of the sessions was entitled “Voice and Body,” and I showed up feeling very skeptical about its entire premise of “teaching” us graduate students how to “effectively” communicate with an audience using, what else, our sonorous voices. As it turned out, I was right; the entire workshop wound up focusing on how to maximize our vocal quality and intonation, through a series of spoken/auditory exercises. Let me tell you, even if I’d tried, even after my years of working through speech therapy, I couldn’t have done this, not like the other hearing students did. I couldn’t hear what they were doing, could conceptually sort of vaguely understand what the voice-training exercises were intended to accomplish, but certainly not physically. I encountered a barrier between my sensory reality and what I could command my body to accomplish. My deaf voice is what it is, at this point is its own sort of asymptote, tangled within the reality of what my body does and does not do. Even with a cochlear implant, my ears are what they are, even if they're now ever-changing, never stable. In this workshop I realized, not for the first time, that I needed a separate Deaf model for communication and self-presentation; I indeed will find some version of this Deaf model for when I do teach, whatever that turns out to be. Was this hearing model for effective classroom communication (effective communication skills, period) really the only possibility? I didn’t think so.

The instructor at this workshop frankly didn’t know what to do with me. Using ASL and communicating through an interpreter, I asked him if I could leave. He stammered, searched around a bit, and then said no. “Just sit it out,” he told me, and when I asked what this meant he said, “Just watch. With your interpreters. You’ll still get something out of it, I hope."

I didn’t – except for perhaps a bit of amusement at watching other grad students yammer and make weird expressions with their faces. Meanwhile, I considered how entrenched these academic assumptions are, about what makes someone an effective communicator and a good teacher. Is it possible to be a good teacher without speaking well, or speaking clearly? Is it possible to occupy a different sort of body, and use that body to bring its own rich insights into a classroom, even if doing so might violate assumed norms about how classic pedagogy works? I believe yes, but this belief involves challenging ableist assumptions that are so deeply engrained that they’re difficult to wrest out.

I do decide, once in a while, not to speak. I did so at that “Voice and Body” workshop (though mostly out of perverseness and a desire to prove a point). I always go voice-off at Deaf cultural interactions and in Deaf spaces, of course, as well as with most d/Deaf friends. In situations where other d/Deaf people could be around, I always try to make sure to at least sign, to grant access to those who deserve it but might be excluded otherwise. (Though I admit I’ve been to a few events where I’ve prepared a presentation for a large group of hearing people, while an interpreter signs my words to the smaller contingent of d/Deaf folks. This still is something I feel conflicted about.) Recently, in noisy environments, I get frustrated by shouting and just let my interpreter take on the job of speaking for me. When talking to hearing groups about very specifically Deaf topics, such as the issue of cochlear implants or Deaf cultural issues in healthcare and education, I have chosen to use ASL only, to ally myself with that language and those cultural issues. This in many ways complicates the ethos I internalized when I was growing up: speak, always try to speak for myself, always strive to reach the speaking/hearing ideal. But in those spaces, with those topics, it feels only right to raise my own challenge to that ideal. How else will we create alternatives for communication in the world?

Other spaces feel best for me if I talk: I am often most comfortable expressing complex academic ideas in English, for instance, and I also value being able to use my own voice if I wish, to communicate directly to a class or audience or group of friends, instead of speaking through an interpreter’s version of my words. (This is especially an issue when finding ASL interpreters knowledgeable enough to interpret and express high-level academic vocabulary. More developments for the field of interpreting in the future!) Having command over my own language and my own use of English, in those situations where these qualities are most relevant, feels important and enjoyable to me, even if I also love signing. I love writing in English, playing with the nuance of vocabulary and the flow of the words on the page; I doubt I could give up the joys of speaking it, too.

Mixed groups are sometimes hardest for me to choose: I feel the pull to sign with d/Deaf friends or acquaintances, but at the same time I dislike the feeling of leaving people out, and I want to include the hearing folks, too, by talking. (Maybe I should get over this and let the hearing people sort it out for themselves for once. I’m still figuring out these social politics.) Inclusion and effective communication involve these constant attempts and re-negotiations. They also involve flexibility and creativity, a good amount of code-switching, and also self-forgiveness when we get these things wrong. Some people I know have chosen only voice or sign as their primary mode of communication, which in some ways could be better, more truthful, and more consistent than this constant twisting-of-oneself-into-a-pretzel. That’s absolutely their choice and something I always support. Better resources such as more Deaf awareness and more access to ASL interpreters can also facilitate access across this communication divide – and that separate, signing Deaf way of being is also something I wish the hearing world engaged with more often.

I can’t quite give up fiddling with life in these margins, though, or on these thresholds. Sometimes the most fascinating (as well as uncomfortable) questions I find occur in these moments of cultural and linguistic collision. I’m sure I will keep fiddling (including in my thought process about how to lead my first college-level class session next week, using interpreters!). I’m also sure I’ll change my mind about some things, and make some mistakes. But I’m looking forward to considering for more years this question, to speak or not to speak? It’s a question that, for me, actually does comes down to: It’s complicated. (What a humanities-scholar answer!) And: It depends. It depends on where, when, who, why.

To Speak or Not to Speak?: Part I

My entire life, I’ve experienced a constant question and a constant divide: do I speak, or do I sign?

My answer has always been: both.

But then further questions arise. When to speak, and when to sign? With whom? For what purpose, and to what audience? What values do these decisions reflect? What impact do all these communicative choices have, on me and on others and on the broader world? For they do have an impact; the way we communicate shapes who we are or aspire to be. They also shape our communal ideas about the possibilities in the world, about who is allowed to inhabit it and how.

Yes, I am one of those deaf people who speaks. I’m often told I speak well, very well, remarkably well, how did I learn how to do that? (This can come across as patronizing. Or I’m told, by unknowing but otherwise well-meaning people, that my voice sounds a little different, why is that or where am I from? There’s no way to win, to pass, to blend in – if that is even the goal to begin with, which I truly don’t believe it is or should be.) Speaking, for me, wasn’t a personal decision, even if years of personal commitment (aka speech therapy) figured into my speech development. I grew up in a hearing family. I was always immersed in a hearing world. Speech therapy was a decision my parents made for me from the beginning of my life, even if I also used and communicated in sign. I did see and have exposure to other d/Deaf people, but it always felt natural that the world around me was speaking and hearing. Did I want to connect with other people? Yes. So, what was the way I could do that? Talk. Back then, that seemed obvious, if frustrating and not fully accessible to me. It’s what my family did, even if they were also wonderfully supportive about sign. It’s what everyone else seemed to do, “everyone else” being the larger hearing world I lived in. I used sign when I could, still feel most comfortable in it or in sign-supported speech, but so few people knew ASL, so few people were willing to learn and come over to my little slice of the world.

So, yes, I am proud of being able to speak well – even if it’s often a bit of an uneasy kind of pride, a voice that asks, Well, what if I didn’t? or Why does this one thing alone distinguish me as more successful, more normative, more approachable in the hearing world? It really shouldn’t. And, in recent years, I’ve reflected more and more on how speaking well, as a deaf person, sometimes sets me up not only for success but sometimes for a certain kind of communication failure, a failure that doesn’t occur with signing.

Let me explain. Most of it (aside from the question of Deaf representation or communicative difference/pride, which is also important) comes down to the very simple fact that I can speak far, far better than I can or ever will hear. Meaning that, despite the help that lipreading can give, I often express myself more clearly than I can actually understand. So, the following scenario arises:

Hearing Person meets me, maybe gets the usual introduction and disclaimer that I am deaf and reading her lips. She says okay, sure, no problem. We talk. I am very comfortable in spoken English – I’d really say that, aside from annoying “silent reading words” (aka words that I know perfectly well and use all the time in writing but that I cannot pronounce for the life of me), I am just as comfortable expressing myself in spoken English as in ASL. Speaking feels natural to me at this point. It feels good. Less natural: trying to grasp words that are spoken aloud versus signed. I can do it, in certain contexts and with certain people, but my new Hearing Person companion is very likely to underestimate how much I might miss. She’s likely to assume I understood everything she said, because she understood everything I said. She can’t see into my mind. I can’t see into hers either, to interpret what she says. Overtly, to her, nothing seems “wrong” with me. From her perspective, the conversation seems to be going well – and I, like many other deaf and hard-of-hearing people, have unfortunately become very good at smoothing things over even when I do not understand perfectly, or at all. So, unless I say something or interrupt or make it obvious that I didn’t understand what just happened, Hearing Person is likely to assume that I am fine. Even if I am not.

Hence the many experiences I’ve had when I eventually confess to a hearing companion, “You know, I didn’t get very much of that,” or “That conversation was lost on me,” and Hearing Companion says, “Oh! You seemed so natural,” or “I’m sorry, you seemed like you were doing all right.”

The reason I seemed like I was fine? I can talk. Talking in our culture is equated with hearing. Less familiar is the idea of being able to speak well but not hear.

This speaking-equals-hearing assumption is not news to anyone who is deaf. I’ve discussed this many times with other deaf friends and acquaintances. Speaking can get us in trouble. I’ve had hearing people ask me, “But you can lipread, and you speak just fine. Why do you need an interpreter?” Or: “You can come over for this large group dinner, right? No one signs, but you seem really comfortable talking.” If I only signed and did not speak, the stakes would be clearer to these folks. Hearing Person companion would likely be more aware that she needed to sign, needed to be clear – because it would be obvious that, bingo, ASL was the way I needed to communicate. (This is why several deaf people I’ve met have answered the common “Can you lipread?” question with a blunt, “No.” They just don’t want to deal with it. I don’t blame them.) Signing makes it obvious that the hearing world needs to adapt to a different way of communication, comprehension, and self-expression. Speaking, because it’s so normative, does not.

This is a large reason why I’ve struggled with my speaking deaf person identity – if you will – in recent years. I’ve seen more and more how speaking can fail me, how it leaves me stranded or in the dark or having horribly misunderstood something, and how people genuinely can make more of an effort to sign, to meet me halfway, if they think that signing is their only option to talk with me.

So far, I speak because I like it. My family teases me about how I enjoy the sound and the feel of my own voice. (They, alas, are right. Touché.) I enjoy small conversations with hearing people, in decent circumstances, where I can talk and lipread and ask for clarification where I need to. I have many hearing friends who do not sign (as well as a few who do!), and talking to my non-signing friends allows me to get around the communication barrier we might otherwise experience. Speaking just makes things easier sometimes – I can get away without an interpreter in some contexts, for instance, or can handle off-the-cuff interactions (with strangers in public places, say) without needing to stop and turn everything into an ASL education moment. Not that more ASL education moments would be a bad thing, honestly, were it not for the energy it takes to deal with them. I don’t want to let go of speaking, of this core part of who I am. But speaking is sometimes less than faithful to my deaf side, my signing side, which is important too. Speaking tends to deny, negate, or even demote that part of myself.

Speak or sign? The answer, then, is still both. I’m navigating when to do each, though. There are compromises either way, and also no perfect answer – I had to give up on perfection in communication a long time ago. Still, I’m aware of how my own communication choices shape the world I live in, and also the world beyond myself. There are some situations where decisions in my speak vs. sign debacle become crystal clear, some situations when they’re more murky and could go either way, and some situations where the jury is still out and I’m still figuring all this out. But more on that next time, when I return to this topic. Signing off, pun heavily intended.

Short Reflections on the Horsey Life

When I returned home this summer, I knew I would have a couple of empty stalls waiting for me.

Granted, the barn on my family’s property has been empty for a while. The last time we had horses there was probably around 2011. The barn still stands, now home to meandering chickens and random storage and some of my dad’s construction equipment. It’s become a fixture in our yard, a common sight out the back door or out my bedroom window. I still remember vividly the way it felt to look outside and see horses standing there, looking inside and waiting for their dinner. (Doing antics to beg for their dinner, more like.) I still remember late nights and early mornings out at that barn, or winter snowstorms where the pipes froze and we hauled steaming water out from the house. In ways that I won’t attempt to describe here, that daily rhythm of life with horses made me into who I am today. (And someday I'd like to add to the already-rich and wonderful oeuvre of equestrian writing to pay my own homage to this subject.)

This is the first time since 2002 (!!) that I’ve been back in New Mexico without a horse here for me, at our barn or someone else’s. The barn on my family’s property has been empty for a while, as the horses moved on to other homes and other pastures, but for the last fourteen years, I’ve always had a horse around, close by, or waiting for me when I got home. I haven’t talked much about it, except with a few people, but this past spring I sold my mare Scarlett, who I love beyond words and who was a constant, gorgeous, stubborn, feisty, exciting, reassuring mainstay in my life since my teenage years. It was the right decision, I know, but it still feels strange and unsettling not to have her here. I still feel like she is with me, can still conjure up the physical memory of the rhythm of her gait and the soft texture of her nose. Of my two previous horses, one lived a grand long life until we put him down two years ago, and another is still close by, growing old and adorably grizzled, but not mine anymore. I still call myself a rider, and always will, but the truth is: my current life does not involve horses, not like it once did.

This is something that’s difficult to explain to non-horse people, and it’s something I’ll attempt another time, another place, in longer form: the deep, robust, emotional connection we form with these animals. My self on or beside or with a horse, as I experience it, feels like an extension of my lone two-legged self. The connection I find with horses, from a purely personal standpoint, has always been one of a physical and visceral longing toward communication. Riding a horse, or being in the barn, always stirred in me a palette of sensations I have found nowhere else: the power of handling these animals, combined with the finesse and dedication and empathy and understanding it requires. The barn was also a place where I could be silent, a place where I could see and feel and grasp towards understanding. Horses always took me at face value. They worked from the honesty that an animal cannot help but give, from their own immediate reactions and instincts and emotions. Our beings, in those moments, collided, and the horses reflected back to me more of what I was, or could be. Was I frustrated, distracted, rough, inefficient that day? My horse, any horse, would quickly show me that, and probably make me regret it and be better. Or was I willing to flow, to feel, to observe and think and respond and request what I wanted, in an effective way? I would find the rewards of that, at least over time. It all required a tremendous focus on the present moment, which I now miss. Horses do nothing but live in the present. And the rewards of the work of riding – for it is work, to do it well – gave me some of my greatest moments of joy.

Horses also gave me a tremendous sense of self-esteem. When I was younger, I may not have always felt capable of communicating well with the hearing people I met at school or in the rest of life, or of things like understanding spoken words or speaking well or keeping up with bewildering group conversation. But I got on the back of a horse and those barriers disappeared. Those demands fell away. I was simply myself, in my body, trying to figure out how to connect with this enormous muscular body that would carry me and jump and gallop and do these things with incredible generosity and grace, if I learned how to ask well enough. That feeling of security is still there, whenever I encounter a horse and just get on and ride. I’m grateful for it.

The past two weeks, I’ve been going through my tack. I’ve been selling some of it, giving other pieces away, keeping other items with the plan of getting back in the saddle someday, whenever that happens. All of these everyday objects of a life with horses, from liniment and standing wraps to various bits and spurs and riding gloves, are saturated with memories. They're the objects of habits that have long since become instinct. They’re saturated with emotions, too. I am thankful for the experiences and people and places that have entered my life since other things – living abroad, graduate school – intervened and took me away from the horsey life a few years ago. I’ve had more time and freedom, and have met some of the most incredible friends and gotten to work on and learn many new and exciting things outside of the barn. All of those things feel right, for this season of life, and the work and the experiences matter. At the same time, I still feel like I have a huge horse-sized hole in my heart. I know other friends, horsey friends from over the years, who will be well-acquainted with this feeling. The smell of leather tack and of rich horse, the exhilaration of a fast gallop or smooth jumping round, the feel of reins or of a lock of mane in hand: the longing for these things never quite goes away.

For now, until life slows down a bit and I again have more time (and money) to balance these other things and make it out to a barn on a regular basis again, I’ll hold on to these memories, and to that sense of self I still feel that I forged through horses. This summer I've remembered that the horse-crazy girl who appears everywhere in my house, in the various pictures and accouterments that still deck my room, is still there. She also can’t wait to keep up with the equestrian events in the Olympics next week. So, here’s to that, and here’s to the next time I dig out the good old leather boots and put them to use.

A Visit to the Albuquerque ASL Academy

As many deaf people, including me, have found out firsthand, the promise of a mainstreamed education isn’t perfect. I’m the product of a mainstreamed education system, through-and-through since preschool: public school for elementary school, private school from then on out, all the time as the only deaf student in the schools I attended. Since kindergarten I have never had another deaf student around, never really been in an environment built for me (aside from providing access to interpreters and other accommodations). Do I regret it? No, but that’s because along the way I had access to some of the most incredible teachers, academic experiences, and peers I can imagine. I feel very fortunate to have had those options, with the support of my parents and other mentors, and they’ve helped me get to where I am today, to a life I am happy to have.

But that doesn’t mean my time in the education system has been all easy, or that it was all effective – as has been well-documented among researchers, deaf children alone in the mainstream (to borrow the name of Gina Oliva’s well-known book) frequently feel more isolated, less capable of connecting socially and linguistically, and more uncertain about their identity in a hearing world than do either hearing students or deaf students attending a deaf program or deaf institution. Without going into details, that was all true for me for a long while. Mainstreamed deaf students may be very successful academically, as I was, so it’s then easy for teachers and administrators to ignore something else: the importance of community and diverse/accessible language options in learning and communicating. I frankly missed out on some of that – something I’m not bitter about, really, just interested in continuing to explore for future generations. Because of personal experience and ongoing systematic factors and education debates, I continue to be curious about the options that are available for deaf and hard-of-hearing students (and other students who have their own diverse needs) to pursue an education appropriate to their individuality.

That’s why I was excited, earlier today, to visit a new charter school in my hometown of Albuquerque that is the first of its kind in the state, and also in the country. The Albuquerque ASL Academy was first founded in 2009 by a group of local parents and educators concerned about the education options available for deaf and hard-of-hearing children in the state of New Mexico. More or less, at this time, those children faced the same kinds of education options that I did when I was younger: go to the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe, far away from home, or attend schools in the Albuquerque Public Schools system, which are sometimes not the best fit for a particular deaf or hard-of-hearing child. (I got out of this set of choices when I had the opportunity to attend a private secondary school. No, there wasn’t a deaf program there at all, but I got by and did very well, academically, with an interpreter. Still, for my family for a while this education conundrum was a true dilemma.) The idea the ASL Academy is founded on is unique: instead of creating another school for the deaf, or figuring out how to fit deaf kids into an essentially hearing-centric mainstreamed program, how about building a diverse and bilingual school, to benefit both deaf and hearing students, that puts ASL at the heart of its curriculum?

One of the ideas I’ve become most interested in, during the last couple of years, is how sign language, in itself, isn’t just beneficial for deaf people. It’s a full-fledged, rich, beautiful, and uniquely useful language that can confer advantages, joys, and new perspectives on all people who use it, whether deaf or hearing. It thrives and has a unique role in the Deaf community, for sure, but the more people we can get to learn and use ASL, the better – for equality, for inclusion, and also for community and solid forms of communication. As I’ve written about before, hearing people are missing out, too, if they don’t have the opportunity to learn and use ASL. And they truly still have so few opportunities to do this, or to be exposed to the gains inherent to the signing Deaf worldview. I’m a firm proponent of bilingualism, since I love spoken and written English, too, and love the different understandings that come with multiple modalities and linguistic flexibility. Seeing this bilingualism embodied in an education setting made me excited about all the possibilities: how can we use the positive aspects of deaf education to broaden that community and also include hearing students, for everybody’s benefit?

This morning, the executive director of the ASL Academy was kind enough to show me around and chat with me about the school’s future goals and education philosophy. This program, which is the first and only ASL/English bilingually-certified program in the nation, enrolls deaf students, hearing students (many of whom have ties to deaf family members), and students with a range of other disabilities. Some of their students give firm credence to the idea that ASL can be essential for students who are not deaf: students who are nonverbal, for instance, or who have speech delays or other conditions that make communicating in ASL a logical option. (Before the Albuquerque ASL Academy, these students had no option, through the public school system, to communicate in or use ASL – since they, after all, are not classified within their Individual Education Plans as deaf.) Still, walking around and seeing a diverse group of students communicate in sign reminded me of how powerful this approach can be. Sign language remains primary in the school’s educational model: although hearing students and other students can receive some periods of separate instruction in spoken English or other communication methods that benefit them, the heart of the community centers around conversing, learning, and connecting through ASL. The school also is working toward something I truly believe in and wish I saw more of: offering more freely accessible ASL classes to the community, including parents and families.

I’m glad students in New Mexico now have the option to attend a school like this, where communication, community, and the needs of the individual student become commingled. I also left and hoped we someday see more experimentation and research on this approach to education. Mixed educational models, that bring the benefits of ASL and deaf education (and other more individualized approaches to education) to a diverse group of students, bear promise to richen our understanding of what we mean by “an appropriate and inclusive education.” I’m not sure mainstreaming or separate programs/institutionalization are always the best fit for “appropriate” or “inclusive,” either for the individual or the broader community – even though they may work well for some students, and should still be available. The Albuquerque ASL Academy’s philosophy is new, untested, and radical, but its spirit strikes me as a step in a good and novel direction. Those of us interested in education, at different levels, will need to learn more and try more about this bilingual approach and the ways it impacts students, but this particular school provides yet more education options to students in the Albuquerque area – and maybe someday to other places that will try similar things.

What is more, one idea struck me as I left: having deaf and hearing students, and students with other disabilities, learn together and learn to connect and communicate with each other, on a daily basis, also gives me hope for how these young people will eventually understand how to interact with others in their world. My guess is they’ll be more insightful, more collaborative, and more flexible about communication with others and about expressing their own needs, compared to students who never gain exposure to this kind of community. They may well be more innovative, too, in certain ways. Our world really needs this. Our world needs those previously separate spaces to collide, and it needs to figure out how to facilitate this collision, in useful ways but also in ways that may be unexpected or may deviate from a perceived norm. I’m so looking forward to seeing how various educational models and schooling options like this develop and evolve in the future, for the gain of all students.

What Makes the Light Bulb Switch On?

In this post, I will be putting forth a question that I cannot really answer. But it’s a question that comes up, all the time, in discussions with others about deaf education, language, and communication, and also about accessibility in general.

What makes some people really get it, and not others?

I have been trying my entire life to figure this out. And I’m all ears, as they say, for anyone with a pet theory.

I had this conversation, again, last week when I attended AHEAD/Pepnet 2. Every single time I get into the same room with teachers of the deaf, or general deaf ed folks, we wind up discussing the theme of parental buy-in. What makes some parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing children “get it”? What makes them learn to be involved in advocacy and all aspects of their kids’ education, communicate visually with their children, give them equal language access at home, and develop other additional tools to be successful? And what makes other parents, even otherwise loving and well-intentioned ones, not do this? What is more: what can deaf ed people do to encourage more parental buy-in and language engagement?

Language deprivation is a critical issue for deaf and hard-of-hearing children. (Yes. Still. Even in 2016.) This post doesn’t intend to replicate the wealth of research literature about this topic, nor does it intend to dive into the academic studies out there about strategies for encouraging parental involvement and buy-in – which is certainly a complex issue in itself. My current approach to this question is more general, more philosophical, if you will.

Furthermore, a disclaimer: I do know there are many ways to raise a deaf child and to be deaf, within a spectrum of d/Deaf identities and phenomenologies. I agree with this in a general sense: one size really doesn’t fit all for deaf kids, and flexibility is important. But nevertheless, bilingualism and access to a visual language or a visual coding system, meaning ASL/signed English/cued speech, are essential, and also well-supported by research. (Ongoing debates about this continue to spill over, a la the recent disputes between the Deaf community and the AG Bell Association – lots of web ink has been spilled about this, but I may weigh in another time.)

So, what makes certain people “get it,” whether parents or not? I see this conversation arise outside of early intervention and deaf education, too. When talking with deaf friends about various people in our everyday lives – bosses, teachers, friends, acquaintances – I notice that we often use this phrase. So-and-so just “gets it,” just communicates naturally and picks up on certain nuances of access, whereas such-and-such does not. We deaf folks can sometimes feel like we have little control over who “gets it” and who doesn’t. We're nothing if not flexible! We work with whatever we have. The odds of “getting it” may rise with more resources, larger systematic factors within certain communities, more education opportunities for hearing people, more exposure to ASL, more inclusive settings, more advocacy campaigns and different cultural narratives about deafness and disability, or just sheer peer pressure (i.e., if surrounded by others who embrace and expect inclusive behaviors, you’ll probably wind up doing some of those things too). But there are still people who, in one way or another, feel closed-off, unwitting, resistant. They don’t ask questions. They make assumptions. They hardly make the effort to communicate differently, even when asked. They sometimes get hostile, defensive, and frustrated when asked to change.

I encounter this phenomenon of hearing people who “get it” in my daily life, too. Almost everyone who has become a close friend of mine has been someone who has “gotten it,” in some way or another. The defining quality of these people is an eternal openness to difference, flexibility, and egalitarianism. My “Spidey Sense” for this, as it were, has gotten pretty acute over time.

Since I realize that, at this point, I’m verging on abstract discussion, consider the following two scenarios. Both are general, composite versions of past encounters with various hearing people.

When I first meet Person A, we get into the usual introductory conversation about deafness and how I communicate. She seems genuinely curious, and asks some interesting questions, but doesn’t grill me or make me feel like I’m being interrogated. We are also capable of talking about many other things, since she already recognizes that I’m much more than deafness. Asking her if she’d mind looking at me and speaking clearly so I can lipread comes easily: but of course. It seems to be natural to her to do this. And she remembers, and gently helps keep other people accountable, too, to encourage a culture of accommodation. She thinks about accessibility for various things she attends, or invites me to, as we become friends. This is so I don’t have to, and it feels like a welcome gesture. Sometimes, after meeting Person A, I find that she goes off and teaches herself some ASL from YouTube, or via a local class, even if she doesn’t need to. She otherwise asks how she can learn more and become better. I discover that this is just her way of approaching the world, and diversity more generally: she believes in fairness and access for all, and she wants to do her part to be friends and make sure that equality happens.

Person B is unexpressive. When I meet her, I quickly feel uncomfortable because her manner does not feel open to me. I ask her to look at me and speak clearly (blahblahblah the usual). She looks at me, maybe nods, but she looks confused, or simply blank. In whatever case, she continues mumbling, or talking fast or looking around, and I see that my words have had little to no impact. I’m not sure if she’s just nervous, or if she genuinely hasn’t understood me, or if she feels that changing her communication style isn’t important. In whatever case, she puts me off balance. Sometimes I run into Person B with an interpreter, or with another friend who signs. She is sometimes that person who gives my interpreter a startled look, or who embraces a series of excesses that make me feel invisible and patronized: wow, look at that, that’s incredible… tell her I said such-and-such… thank you so much for helping her get by in the world… These are common initial hearing-person notions, but Person B sometimes holds on to them willfully. Or sometimes she embraces blatant misunderstandings: if I can talk, why do I need sign? Look at me, I can lipread! Shouldn’t I be fine without such-and-such accommodations? Can’t the interpreters go somewhere else so they are not as distracting? How did I even get here to begin with? Person B is not going to make accessibility happen, or change her behavior. At first I try to explain, and sometimes it does help, but in sum I back off. I start to avoid her altogether, or find other solutions and more sympathetic allies.

These scenarios, of course, vary. Most people are somewhere in between. But what makes Person A “get it” and work to connect, whereas Person B does not? I can toss out the usual possibilities, some of which I suggested earlier: openness, curiosity, empathy, education, personality, prior exposure to difference. I’m not sure all of these fit the bill, though. Just as one example: I have found that many highly educated people I’ve met, in some elite institutions, and who are otherwise curious about what they study, can be the most clueless about difference and access. (Given contemporary conversations about the “disconnect of the elite,” perhaps this observation is not totally unexpected!) But others are just the opposite. Furthermore, I’m not sure discernible patterns always arise. Some people might have more of an inclination toward understanding diversity – which, again with everything happening in our contemporary world, is an important conversation that goes far beyond this blog’s focus on deafness and communication.

What makes that happen? As many people in deaf education have often told me: “This parent just gets it, you can see that right away. The light bulb goes on and it’s easy.” I feel the same about people I’ve met in different places: sometimes, the light bulb goes on and communicating feels easy and enjoyable, and other times a request for accessibility leads to more struggle. Why?

I started this post by saying I would not answer my own question. I’m not sure I can, beyond these general musings, though I intend to keep discussing it. I’m just wandering through life, fiddling with different wires and looking for the radiant shine of the light bulbs when they do switch on.

Accessibility Conversations at AHEAD/Pepnet 2 2016

This past week, I had the opportunity to travel to Indianapolis to participate in the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and Pepnet 2 conference for this year. AHEAD and Pepnet 2 partner every two years to put on a conference that brings together disability access service providers at colleges and universities around the United States, combined with people who work on education provision for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. These types of conferences are always fantastic opportunities, I’ve found, to meet interesting people and have important conversations about accessibility, education, and equality at different places in the U.S. I’m firmly a humanities person, but I still enjoy being able to mingle with the d/Deaf education crowd – especially since these warm-hearted people always inspire me to remember my continuing interest and faith in education and equity.

The presentation I gave yesterday sought to give these folks some personal perspectives on skills, services, and experiences that are important to DHH students as they make the transition from high school to the college/university environment. I also included some insights from my master’s thesis in higher education at Oxford last year, which focused on direct DHH student perspectives on accommodations use and overall accessibility attitudes in their mainstreamed colleges and universities – a great chance to dig out that research from gathering dust and share it with others! (Again, I’m very grateful I was able to chat with a group of these students about their experiences in several interviews for that project last year.) A couple of tidbits from this talk:

I think I’ve always been interested in the idea of well-roundedness and being well-balanced in academics and in life and skills and accessibility. The areas of my research speak to this. In talking about accessibility in the university environment, I drew on three smaller (but each very important) themes: accommodation, awareness, and advocacy. The larger point: to strive for an accessible university campus, we indeed must focus on how to achieve a flexible and efficient accommodations system that can suit the needs of various DHH individuals. But providing accommodations, in and of itself, is only one piece of the puzzle: it’s not like the job is done once the interpreters or CART providers have been scheduled for class. We also have opportunities to spread larger awareness, among hearing people and the larger campus culture, about how those accommodations do and do not work well, about how to use them, and about how to interact with diverse individuals and communicate effectively. (I didn’t say these things were easy.) We also need to address the all-important skill of self-advocacy – which, as I talked about yesterday, is one of the most important skills I’ve needed to learn, but which was often taken as implicit knowledge when I entered college. I’ve spent years figuring out how to become a more effective advocate, even in mundane everyday situations, and figuring out how to spread the awareness that maximizes accommodation provision or just plain effective human interaction. These are the things that few people ever talked to me about when I was 18.

How I wish my freshman-year self had known what I know now, about this dance between fitting accommodations (which for me mostly means requesting and using ASL interpreters) into the larger academic culture and social landscape in which I find myself. Still, all college students are similarly figuring themselves out during their freshman year, discovering which services and which communication style work best for them. This self-discovery is okay, and necessary. I enjoyed being able to expose more disability service providers to these student perspectives. The other students from my thesis research emphasized many of the same things: flexibility is key. One size does not fit all. Campus awareness is key, if DHH students will have the same chances to participate in various events as other hearing students. And students speaking up about problems and issues as they arise, or furthering their self-determination skills, are also key. (Though one issue I keep running into about self-advocacy, as essential as I believe it is: do DHH students, or any other minority students, really need to have that responsibility of constantly advocating for themselves? Is this fair? How much of this can be solved through a sheer increase in awareness? Alas, fair or not, so it goes.)

And a couple of general takeaways from the conference itself: I love attending conferences where accessibility is at the core of event planning and organization. Although most of the conference attendees were hearing, there was a decent small contingent of d/Deaf and signing people, as well as people with other disabilities. There’s nothing nicer than walking into a room and being able to find a cluster of folks signing. We talked about larger education systems, strategies for achieving more equal access and communication, places we’d been and people we knew and books we’d read. Even several hearing people in the conference hotel, including some who weren’t there for AHEAD at all, saw us signing and tried to sign hello! I’m a believer in deaf folks, and ASL, out in numbers. Having people with various disabilities, or various access needs, out in numbers also creates a welcoming environment that feels palpable. I so value being in an environment with several blind people walking around with service dogs, many people using scooters or wheelchairs, and people who immediately stop and ask how they can best accommodate you before making any assumptions. Many of those people broke out on the dance floor the first night of the AHEAD conference, regardless of their embodiment, and with ASL interpreters signing the song lyrics onstage. Inclusive spaces like that remind me why I keep feeling called back to consider these questions of access, and what accessibility does have to offer – for everyone.

So, cheers to all the DHH educators and service providers out there – some of you are among my favorite people, as you wear many hats and juggle many ideas and responsibilities. I’ll be going back to my humanities/book-filled world the rest of this summer, but I’m glad I got to step out into the education/accessibility field again for a bit!

Brief Reflections on Connecting with Deaf Strangers

One of my favorite parts about being deaf is the instant - and unique - sense of community it can create, wherever I go.

I lived in the UK for two years, and although (as far as I know and ever discovered) I was the only signing deaf student at Oxford, where I was studying, every time I had the opportunity to meet fellow deaf people, especially other American expats, in London it was a highlight of my week. These deaf and signing expats took me into their lives and introduced me to other people and hosted gatherings and outings in various parts of the UK, with a connectedness and a hospitality I probably would never have found so naturally among another group of randomly-connected hearing people.

I remember one trip I took with a hearing friend to Albania, where I wound up (long story) being introduced to a wonderful hostel owner whose long-term partner was an interpreter, and being whisked out at night to a friendly Albanian deaf club where we both made our best efforts at signing in Albanian sign language (!!) with a group of locals. A couple of deaf folks from Finland and Sweden and the United States were there, too, and we all worked together to figure out how to communicate around our lack of a shared, common language. I discovered then that a common language doesn’t actually matter as much as people think it does, as long as people are willing to be creative, gesture, look silly, make mistakes, smile, learn, and still try and try again, for the sake of grasping something – even something small – about the other. Of course, it wasn’t perfect or seamless, and there were still barriers, but being able to learn about other deaf people’s lives despite being continents apart in terms of upbringing and experience still felt magical.

I visited China about a year later and a deaf friend put me in touch with some of her other deaf friends (two Chinese friends and one American) who lived in Beijing and Shanghai. When I was in town, those wonderful people came and met me and showed me around and told me about life in China, about what it was like to be deaf in various parts of this country. They came despite distance across crowded cities, despite long rides on public transportation and the busy demands of their regular lives, all for the sake of connecting and learning about each other and signing about our respective experiences. Also, just sheer hospitality. One new Chinese friend did all this despite not speaking any English at all – we communicated via the “translate” function on WeChat, the Chinese version of WhatsApp, messaging back and forth in mismatched English and Chinese to figure out where to meet and how. When we did meet, though, again our shared sense of deafness, and of signing, allowed us to figure out some way to communicate. The other two I met did know ASL, and discovering my language in such a far-flung, unexpected place cast a warmth over that entire trip.

The deaf people I’ve had the privilege to meet in various places give me faith in human connection and community. I know my experience isn’t unique, either. I’ve had other deaf friends tell me stories about traveling through diverse places – Ireland, Italy, various other parts of Europe, Ethiopia, South Africa, India, China, Mexico, and of course Canada and the United States – and encountering the incredible hospitality and friendliness of new deaf connections and hosts. Often we’ll find that we know someone in common, wherever we are, and wind up swapping stories about that person or that place. We chat about shared experiences, hopes, dreams, and everyday occurrences. To deaf people, this intense interconnectedness is not news. To hearing people, it might be. I believe hospitality among strangers is possible anywhere, but I doubt that hearing people encounter it, within their culture, as often or as easily as I do with other deaf folks. A Chinese-speaking hearing person trekking to meet an English-speaking American, an hour across Shanghai, on short notice on a Sunday? It might happen, but I doubt it would have felt as natural or as joyous as when a deaf friend-of-a-friend did this to take me out to tea. Deaf people tend to reach out toward each other. This international sense of community transcends borders, nationalities, and even languages. Our shared sense of deafness, and our shared experiences in a hearing world, eliminate many of the other differences and boundaries we might otherwise feel. It is an altogether pleasant way to connect, among many other pleasant ways to connect with strangers.

Of course, this also happens in America, closer to my current home. Every time I drop in on a new city nowadays, every time I pass through a new place or return to an old one, I feel like I have a deaf friend-of-a-friend to meet and spontaneously talk with. I did this earlier this year in DC, in Boston, in Austin. I did it just last week, and I’ll do it again later this month. This sense of connectedness doesn’t need to happen in physical places, either. Deaf people put me in touch with their other friends they think I would hit it off with, and straight away – we email, we text, we set up times to have Skype conversations and establish a distance friendship, all without ever meeting in person. Technology now enables this, which I love. And this sense of a global network and community, bound by deafness and various sign languages, is extraordinary. The only things I’ve encountered like it (though, for me, they are not quite “like” it due to linguistic modality and communication) might be shared faith, or perhaps certain sets of shared institutional ties. I live surrounded by hearing people most of the time, as all deaf people do. Perhaps this is why, when I encounter another deaf person somewhere doing something interesting, something inside me startles in excited recognition. There that person is! Like me, in a key perceptual sense, and doing things that I am proud of, that I feel I can understand. Many other things about us may be different – and I also have many hearing friends I feel extraordinarily close to, based on other factors – but the network of shared deafness goes on and on.

With this global community of signing peoples, and also of signing allies, it’s not like all communication barriers go away. It’s not like all differences go away, or like instant friendship or rapport always arise, or outweigh existing close ties with other non-deaf people. They don’t. But, I think, we still have a shared and deep-etched sense that this communication is worth it, despite any obstacles. That goes unspoken and unexplained. We often have a sense of striving for that connection, of having an elemental common experience of embodiment and beauty and struggle. So, here’s to surpassing difference, and language and nationality, within these unexpected signing connections – and here’s to all the conversations that haven’t happened yet, or been articulated in this all-too-short post.

Roadside Americana

Quirky examples of roadside Americana, mined from recent personal experience:

•    A life-size replica of the Holy City of Jerusalem, quite naturally located in rural Mississippi
•    A swamp attraction apparently featuring life-size animatronic animals
•    The proud prowess of the Gulf Coast Stamp Club
•    The world’s largest gummy bears
•    More sites, buildings, and roads named after Jefferson Davis than I cared to count
•    Screaming hot, suicidal, positively lethal hot sauce – of course all proclaimed to be the world’s hottest
•    Billboards beseeching passersby to stop and see a REAL LIVE TIGER, or HOLD A BABY GATOR!
•    A gator rodeo, aka motorboat swamp expedition
•    A local (and apparently annual) frog festival
•    A local (and apparently also annual) rabbit festival – in a different place
•    Texas flags and home decor and pickup trucks
•    The ever-so-Texas institution of Buc-ee’s, or as a friend of mine put it, “the Disneyland of all gas stations”

What is all this, America? Tourist trapping, grand spectacle-raising, hyperbolic proclamations and celebrations of flavor and symbolism and voyeurism and sometimes just simple, undeniable kitsch. Both the local and the supposedly exotic, the expansive and banal, spinning out against the landscapes of the interstate. Cultures collide and then consolidate into one thing known as Americana, centered in its own attempted sense of the marvelous and the extraordinary. That extraordinary can be found here, yes, even among the otherwise unremarkable stretch of land in between rural Southern towns, if only one stops, pulls over, looks for it – and of course doles out a couple extra bucks for the privilege. The little-known wonders of America proclaim themselves as such, for any lone traveler in search of that wonder.

I didn’t stop and see anything on this list – with the exception of Buc-ee’s (quite the destination) and the stamp collection, which greeted me (along with an earnest sign celebrating all the welcoming smiles of Louisiana) at one interstate rest stop/tourist information center. Still, the senses of disorientation, hucksterism, and spectacle that I’ve encountered on this trip have brought roaring back all the complex, strange things that amuse, trouble, fascinate, puzzle, entertain, and provoke me about America. On the road, in its unfamiliar unfolding scenery, these signs beseech us to believe that anything can happen – even in a place where the mundane sweep of capitalism is at its best and nothing more surprising actually does happen than Wendy’s and KFC. Anything can happen, and anything can make claims to being the world’s largest, most astounding thing. Yes, even gummy bears in south Louisiana. Where does all this kitsch end up? How do the traditions develop? Where does it all come from? Who drives it? Who believes in it? Who simply wants to believe? And why?

I’ve almost been prompted to read more on the idea of American kitsch and American roadside spectacle based on this road trip – proving that one, indeed, can turn anything into an object of theoretical academic inquiry. But, that joking aside, the most rewarding part of this drive, and any other travel, is spending time with people. I’ve taken time to stop and see some close and very dear friends on the way, to explore and chat and sit and read and write. (Among the week’s reading: Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. Along with another book on the confusions of travel, called Bewildered Travel. I did allow myself a fitting reading list.) We’ve eaten and complained about the Texas heat, and also discussed and complained about politics and Brexit. Further continuing my faith in the rewards of Deaf networks and the global Deaf community, I met some new friends-of-friends for drinks one night. More on the power of this network some other time. These people and conversations continue to be my favorite parts of travel, all side curiosities aside. But, oh, how we've also all talked about these American roadside gems and the lingering relevance (and oddity) of place.

Now, one more stretch of driving ahead, through the exciting plains of west Texas into New Mexico, and then I’ll be back in the Land of Enchantment! Upcoming: several more hours of surprising, spectacular Texas roadside kitsch.

Ruminations on the Road

Wheels on the road, car full of gas and revving beneath me, wide open highway, the West calling my name. I love road trips. My youthful memories brim with recollections of driving with my family all over the Rockies and the American West and the Southwest. In college, I drove back and forth many times from New Mexico to California, wheels spinning out over endless desert and then fields and hills before getting to the Bay. I remember some of my most provocative conversations (and also some major life moments) unfolding against that backdrop of open sky and highway.

Now, I’m doing it solo, driving from Atlanta back to Albuquerque for the rest of the summer, with some stops in between (primarily in the Great State of Texas). I also do enjoy driving alone. Like taking a walk alone, driving gives me space and time to be by myself and think. With nothing else except the hills and trees unspooling around me, as the car sails by on cruise control, I tumble into my own breathing and reflection.

Yet, there is the question: when I am driving all day alone, taking pit stops along the way (and enjoying signs for America’s astonishing variety of roadside attractions), how am I to amuse myself for hours? Most of my hearing friends talk to me about listening to a music playlist on a long drive: diving deep into that new favorite soundtrack and committing it to memory, say, or singing along. Or they tell me about listening to a riveting new book on tape, or a podcast – or even two or three! Or they’ll explain how they skipped around on radio stations and found an interesting new show to listen to, and learned something, just to keep themselves engaged and while away the time.

You’ll notice that all of these activities involve – bingo! – listening. Driving, it seems, can become prime audio entertainment time for hearing people. I’ve sometimes been curious to ask my hearing friends how many of them ever drive alone, to an entirely silent car – or how long this silence lasts. Do they listen to music, to audiobooks, the entire time? Is this road trip a gap of silence waiting to be filled up with some kind of noise, some kind of pleasing or informative auditory novelty? Or are these auditory preoccupations, like mine, only peripheral? I’ve had enough conversations with friends about “how we keep ourselves occupied in the car” to wonder about this.

I, of course, have fewer options if I’m going to “entertain myself” while driving. I can’t listen to audiobooks or radio shows at all. I really can only have conversations with certain people, mostly people who sign, when I drive – if I am driving with someone else, that is. Since getting my cochlear implant several years ago, I can listen to music. I had vague plans of pulling together my (first-ever!) playlist for this road trip. I imagined myself selecting a list of songs I truly enjoyed, rather than the random assortments of music I find on the radio, and I imagined spending my entire drive westward getting well acquainted with them. It’d be part of my ongoing music self-education project, and would be far nicer than skipping through radio stations! Imagine how well I’d know those songs after 20 total hours of driving! Alas, before I left: 1) I got sucked into packing and reading and writing instead of thinking about music, and 2) I confess, I was a bit too intimidated by the task of assembling a playlist to even start one. What would I put on it?! (Friends and family, I will need to rely on you for this one next time.) So, no playlist. Maybe another time.

I am starting to realize that even a playlist might not be my M.O., though – since, as I recognized today about two or three hours into my drive, I really cannot listen to music for more than a few hours straight. I don’t know if this is a common experience. After about two and a half hours, I have a headache. The beat and the melody, which were once so catchy and pleasing, which once had me drumming my hands along on the steering wheel, just become annoying and nauseating. My brain feels foggy, full, suffused with too much music, too much stimulation. I need quiet time, alone, in my mind. This is an extension of a rather common experience I tend to have with all kinds of sound, from ambient background noise to speech to music: it’s all fine for a certain amount of time, but then I need it to stop. I crave silence. What is more, I crave the feeling of myself that I get from silence.

Fortunately, driving provides a prime opportunity to have this quiet time to myself. I shut the radio off and the road draws me into a reverie. I think, recollect, ponder, and pray. I sometimes simply let my mind go blank. I marvel at space, distance, speed, time. In these hours, I know no one will talk to me, I know my phone will not distract me, I know I will not be tempted to go off and do something else. The driving, the road: for these hours, this is all.

How often, in our scattered modern world, do we have moments to sit with ourselves, with no other distractions, and think? I become my own way of passing the time. Being deaf has, if you will, put me in a place where I can sit with myself, with no other outside words or auditory input, and think. I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful to sink, for a few hours, into my own depths, spaces, and silences. No music or audiobook needed to pass the time. Now, we’ll see which surprising roadside amusements arise on the highway tomorrow...

Touring While Deaf

I am writing this 30,000 feet in the air, not long after a flight attendant came by and asked me what I wanted for lunch and immediately began fingerspelling C-H-I-C-K-E-N or P-A-S-T-A. I was so pleasantly surprised at her signing that I looked up and said, Wow! Good job! We both had a laugh over that one.

You see, encountering sign from hearing strangers while on travel is something I have not come to expect, so it is always a pleasant surprise. Today, for whatever reason, my transatlantic flight ticket got marked as “DEAF” under the section “further details/comments,” so the attendants from check-in counter to gate to plane have been extra attentive to me. Sometimes I’m not sure how I feel about their solicitousness, such as when they ask me if I need special assistance to find my gate or the bathroom, but other aspects, such as the fingerspelling and additional communicative mindfulness, are what I wish I saw more when on travel.

I could write an entire series of posts about what it’s like to travel as a deaf person (truly!), but I’ll focus this one on a few aspects and will also start with an overt statement: it’s often not that big of a deal, folks. Even if there can be frustrations and inconveniences along the way. These mostly derive from the current nature of the world as a less than accessible place, but I’ve usually found a way around any issues that crop up, and being comfortable with thinking of different strategies to communicate with other people in a foreign country can be a huge asset, too.

In the last few weeks of travel around the UK and Ireland, and also in the last few years (during which I was fortunate enough to get to travel a good amount), I kept thinking about accessibility and how it shapes my travel experiences – specifically, tour experiences, guided tours, and public places that often circulate visitor information via auditory means. Everywhere I go, even when I am not on “travel” per se but perhaps visiting a guided exhibit or lecture at a local museum, I run into the same situation: I want to go into a museum or attraction and need to figure out how to make it accessible for me. Sometimes these events do not present a problem: most self-guided auditory tours have a transcript, which I think I would prefer anyway since it lets me read and understand the information faster and more completely! And, in the US at least, it’s possible to request an ASL interpreter in advance, or negotiate how to get one. Some (though not enough) places are aware enough to have ASL interpreting options already on hand.

But what about traveling abroad, where accessibility might be more questionable and where there certainly aren’t ASL interpreters even if I were to request them? (Remember, ASL is not a universal sign language.) What about spontaneous decisions – say, like my friends sometimes make when they decide they’d like to go to a museum exhibit or guided tour this afternoon, or tomorrow? What about the time and energy it takes me to 1) schedule going to a tour, 2) request an interpreter, 3) go through the process of getting said interpreter, which usually involves explaining my ADA rights to the contact person at said institution, unless said institution is really on top of stuff and has a system in place, no questions asked? Sometimes I don’t want to go through that. Sometimes the payoff honestly is not worth the effort.

This keeps recurring for me as an adult: what do I do when I want various tours, exhibits, and other educational public materials to be accessible? How do I respond? More and more as I get older, I realize how much I took this for granted when traveling as a child, and how fortunate I was (in a sense, even if everyone deserves this too): I would simply go to something, either locally or while on travel, and simply trust that my parents would be there to sign for me. It seemed so easy. Neither are professional interpreters, of course, but they sign and they communicate well with me and they can help me grasp the information I need. A few times, such as when we visited Disneyland or a national park with a guided tour or open talk, I recall my mother scheduling ASL interpreters – shout-out to some of those parks for being amazing about this. Otherwise, I just didn’t think about accessibility as much. Again, thanks to the nature of my family, this was a privilege some deaf people don’t have while growing up.

Now I do need to think about it, though. Now, for the reasons I just mentioned, I sometimes find myself in a bind. I’ve had friends ask me many times if I want to go to a non-accessible exhibit or venue, only to need to back out of our plans when I realize there’s no way for me to understand what’s being said – because of short notice, because it has happened overseas, because other obstacles ramp up. Often these friends will tell me afterwards, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize…”

Of course you didn’t, I want to tell them – not spitefully or bitterly, but just because accessibility provisions are often invisible or overlooked. They are not (yet) mainstream. These hearing friends have never had to deal with the extra worry about accessible content when on travel, so why would they realize it? Until they meet me and suddenly start thinking about the topic, that is. They’ve had the privilege of not having to think about it for themselves.

Another kind of dynamic does exist, though. Sometimes, I do have certain friends who, even though they don’t have to and even though I would in many ways prefer for them not to, so they can enjoy our day out or our travels for themselves (!!), have picked up enough ASL and nevertheless freely offer to sign to me to keep me updated whenever I ask, as we go on a tour or to a public exhibit together. These friends form a small subgroup of my friend circle, and as I get older I appreciate more and more their offer of communication, which also feels like an offer of deep-seated friendship. Moreover, I’ve learned that, among the best of them, they truly don’t mind. They know this solution isn’t perfect: they know they aren’t interpreters, they know they might not be able to sign everything, but they also know that even a little bit of sign can be better than a lot of lipreading and a lot of missed information. “You don’t have to do that,” I tell them – and, of course, they don’t have to, of course another setup with an interpreter would be better. After endless discussions, we are all on the same page about this. But sometimes the choice lies between not going to something at all, and going and knowing that a trusted friend will (and will want to) make sure I understand, if I ask. Why not?

Sometimes this is how a certain kind of understanding develops between me and my family and some of my hearing friends, in a world that is still behind the accessibility learning curve. These people and I know this world isn’t designed for deaf people, we know that at every turn I’ll have to go up to the customer service desk and ask if there’s a transcript available for this exhibition, or any kind of written/visual content, or that I’ll have to catch our tour guide before the tour begins and explain that I’m lipreading or watching my companion sign (sometimes to slightly confused looks). We know that sometimes, if my friends slip information to me in ASL, we’ll occasionally have to deal with puzzled looks from the other tourists, or that other people will approach us afterwards and marvel at ASL or marvel at the sight of my friend “helping” me – or, as two friends and I recently experienced while on a tour through some dark spaces, that we’ll have to try not to shine our iPhone flashlights inadvertently in other tourists’ eyes. (Ooops.) We end up learning these things. But, together, we’ll make the best of it that we can. What a patchwork access can be sometimes, and how it depends on people of all sorts - even if, let me reiterate, requesting institutional accountability and pushing for more actual access provisions is still important.

Learning to trust friends, and to lean on them when I need and want, but also learning to hold my own and assert myself in other ways and recognize when that is appropriate: these are two main ongoing personal lessons about travel. I’m hoping that more exhibitions and tours will get access right, eventually, once and for all, somehow – but, in the meantime, after another just-completed trip overseas, I’m feeling appreciative of all the memories I’ve forged with friends even when the situations we’ve encountered are stubbornly imperfect. If nothing else, some good travel stories have arisen out of the mix!

On University Life and Deaf Forebears

Back in my day, I wanted to go to college, I wanted to get my PhD, but I couldn’t get an interpreter.

Interpreters were not provided back then, you see. And we also didn’t have the technology we have now.

I had to fight for my right to be there.

I still went to school, I still worked for my degree, but I sat in the front and tried my best to lipread. I knew I wouldn’t get everything, but it was better than nothing.

Or I sat in the back, next to friends, and read their notes. Then I read up on everything, studied up, and worked as hard as I could.

Or I never went to class, because I knew I wouldn’t understand anything. It was a waste of my time. I borrowed notes, I studied, and I still passed the examinations.

Back then people viewed you much more negatively if you were deaf. It’s not something you disclosed very much, unless you had to.

I could tell that the hearing people in those places didn’t know what to do with me when I showed up and let them see I was deaf. They’d never seen that before.

I still had great friends and mentors, who helped me through those days. They wrote things down, kept me informed, read my papers and my work. They were very supportive, and I still had a good time.

I didn’t know sign language was an option. I’d never met another deaf person before. I thought I was the only one.

I wish I’d had the education opportunities you’ve had, even if things nowadays still aren’t perfect.

*

These are all comments I’ve received from older deaf people over the years – particularly those who attended college or graduate school in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, before universal accessibility laws and the ADA. Every time I have the opportunity to talk to or correspond with members of this “old guard,” I walk away feeling astonished and humbled by their ability, their intelligence, and their perseverance to get an education and create opportunities for themselves even within contexts that were far less accessible than they are today. It’s, frankly, a treat to learn about their experiences. While I’ve gotten a range of different stories from different people, I always wind up thinking about how academia and higher education have changed drastically for deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the last fifty years, even if there still are barriers and still progress to be made.

Accessibility in higher education settings was something I spent a lot of time thinking about here last year, since I wrote my master’s thesis on perceptions on accommodations and access among contemporary mainstreamed deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the United States. But it keeps returning to my mind. While in Oxford earlier this month, I had the serendipitous opportunity to meet and have lunch with an older deaf professor, who was also American and also an Oxford alum, while he and his family passed through for a day. How we actually ended up back in Oxford, on the same day, after each traveling several thousand miles across the world, I’m not quite sure, but a mutual deaf friend was gracious enough to introduce us and I’m very glad our meeting worked out. During this professor’s recollections of Oxford and his times there, several decades ago, I found myself reflecting on my own time in this place. How different our respective experiences were, and also how similar – in certain ways. Certainly I had far more access to interpreters, accessibility resources, and other opportunities than he did, because of my position in this day and age. Those factors alone, and also more progressive cultural attitudes about deafness, made mine a different Oxford than he must have experienced. But he also used the traditional Oxford education system, very focused on individual encounters and independent study, to his own advantage, and with that he succeeded – in a way I realized that I also could succeed, if called upon to do the same. And some elements of Oxford, such as sports and pubs and conversation and the English countryside, never seem to change. (Cue more reflections on the odd sense of time one encounters in this place.)

One thing I get out of conversations like this one, I suppose, is not to take things for granted. The opportunities I’ve had, and the existence I lead, are very much a product of my time, and also of the energy and effort that my deaf forebears (so to speak) have expended in generations past. But also: one does what one has to. Those forebears fought to assert a place for themselves in mainstream contexts that did not accommodate them, and as I grow older this seems to me a profound and inescapable truth that I ought to keep close in mind – just as I must remember how, as a woman, there was recently a time that I wouldn’t have been able to attend Oxford, either, all questions of deafness aside. Institutions like Oxford are already not always the most accessible, precisely because they were designed for a certain kind of student: white, male, upper-class, able-bodied. I know this already, and I tend to encounter it more often in the context of race and gender, upon discussions with other women or with minority groups from previous generations. Similar encounters with other deaf people are comparatively more rare. But these encounters with the older deaf generation, who lived a different reality than I did, in the same place, are still essential. These conversations give me a sense of my own history. In this vein, they also give me a stronger sense of myself, of how my puzzle piece fits in with a larger human tapestry.

This visit back to Oxford has already been a time of reflection on what I got out of this place, and how it continues to lend itself to where I am going, so I’m glad I got to weave some other unexpected pieces into that fabric, too. Now, for the enjoyable day when I return to Oxford for some decades-off reunion and find myself able to chat with another, younger, deaf student who has also made her way there…!