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.