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.