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.