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  • Writer's pictureCamryn Lexow

Talking Hands

I am a hearing person. My first words were “mama” and “dada.” As I grew up, I was able to improve my English and communicate with my family and the people around me. As I made my way through elementary, middle, and high school my experience was similar to that of most students who were hearing. However, I didn’t understand that other people weren’t able to experience these moments and instead, experience the world differently.

I had the opportunity to take another language in high school. I ended up taking Mandarin Chinese for 5 years, which was another experience I took for granted. It was only during my high school experience that I started becoming aware that there was a whole other community, the Deaf community, who shared a language, culture, and values separate from the hearing community.

A remarkable memory I have was when I took a trip to Georgetown with my boyfriend’s family. As we were walking by some shops, one special moment became an eye-opening experience. I saw an Uber driver with a passenger driving by. The driver looked back and his passenger started signing to him. She was Deaf and I was curious how the hearing driver would understand and communicate to her. I was amazed when the driver signed back to her. I stood there in awe that the driver happened to know American Sign Language (ASL) and was able to communicate with her. This was the first time that I really thought about the world’s accessibility to and inclusivity of the Deaf community and became fascinated with ASL.

When I came to the University of Virginia, I took my first semester of ASL. I still didn’t have much knowledge of the culture of the Deaf community, but I was determined to improve my signing. I soon experienced how challenging ASL was to learn, but it was my favorite class to attend. I am currently in “Contemporary Deaf Studies”, one of my favorite classes that I have taken. My professor, Professor Krentz, is a late-deafened individual who can talk but can’t hear. He teaches with an interpreter in the room and the dynamic of the class is fascinating. When he asks his students questions, we can either answer verbally, which will be interpreted to him, or we can sign directly to him. If I am able to sign back the answer, I do so every chance I get. This class has opened my eyes up to many aspects of Deafness and Deaf culture.

My story's purpose is not only to share my experience, but to advocate and inform about the Deaf community and Deafness. Not so long ago, I didn’t know there was such a thing as “deaf culture.” I thought of deaf people simply as people who couldn’t hear. I thought signing wasn’t really a language, but just a way of communicating. It is so much more than that.

Through learning sign language, I have begun to see how difficult things can be for Deaf people, but also see the true beauty of the language and culture.

People who are Deaf experience oppression and struggle similar to those who have any other disability. Deafness is considered a disability, leading the outside world to view Deaf people as disabled because they are unable to hear. However, people who are deaf take pride in their deafness and take offense when others imply that because they are Deaf or hard of hearing, they are incapable.

I think if people could understand all that the Deaf and hard of hearing can do, as opposed to what they can’t do, the prejudice against them would diminish.

Learning ASL would bridge a gap between two communities and make our society more inclusive. Similar to how children are taught to embrace French or Spanish culture, those who are taught ASL and about Deaf culture would be able to embrace the values and shift what our society determines disabled. Think about how common it is to learn a foriegn language. When someone comes to the US and does not speak English, we as a society don’t label them as disbaled. We utilize interpreters and translators for these individuals all of the time to overcome this barrier. So why does society see a Deaf person using ASL and label them as handicapped? Is it because they are different? Is it because hearing people think that sound is their possession?

Despite the popular belief that sound belongs to hearing people, the role of sound plays a significant role in the lives of Deaf individuals. Deaf people sense vibration in the part of the brain that other people use for hearing. The experience Deaf people have when “feeling” music is similar to the experience other people have when hearing music. Music is just an example of how sound is a shared possession, simply translated differently.

At the end of the day, it is the nature of the information, not the modality of the information that gives Deaf people access to this shared possession.

Deaf people can do everything hearing people can do. We know that Deaf people experience the world differently than hearing individuals, but this does not make them incapable. Both communities are able to do the same things, but they accomplish them using different methods. Not only is it important to understand that deaf people are capable just like hearing people, but also focus on the gain that deaf people have in this world. An example of this is a phenomenon called Deaf Gain.

Not many people outside of the Deaf community know about Deaf Gain, an idea that redefines commonly held notions about normalcy, disability, and human diversity, and takes a more in depth approach to sensory and cognitive gain. The point of this term is to help society to look at Deafness in a more positive light. On the surface level, you are presented with having a different perspective of the world, a different creative outlet, and better visual ability than people who are hearing. However, Deaf gain is so much more. Deafness and the Deaf community offer a passionate and strong culture, a vibrant community, a rich history, and a beautiful language. Being a part of the Deaf community gives you access to these aspects that you wouldn’t otherwise have as a hearing person. Deafness also provides many individual benefits, such as increased spatial recognition, and enhanced visual capabilities. Deaf individuals have overcome the view that language has to be spoken, and transformed the definition of communication entirely.

In addition to the personal benefits, Deaf people benefit society and contribute to the diversity of the world. Did you know that the signals now used by baseball umpires to call plays were developed by Dummy Hoy, a deaf person? Did you know that Gallaudet University, the world’s only University for the Deaf, created the huddle in American Football, which has translated into a religious act in almost every sport? The numerous benefits of Deafness extends past historical milestones and is still positively impacting society today.

As a society we choose to view Deafness as an inferiority and a disability, but we fail to understand the benefits and positive impacts that Deafness provides the hearing community and our society as a whole. Hearing people overlook the advantages and unique perspectives of being Deaf and fail to educate themselves about Deaf gain. Although there have been many attempts to cure or fix deafness, many Deaf individuals value being a part of the Deaf community and resent this. A leading perspective from the Deaf community is that these attempts at a cure are "the ultimate invasion of the ear, the ultimate denial of deafness, the ultimate refusal to let deaf children be Deaf" (Deaf Life Magazine). The Deaf do not believe that deafness is something that needs to be, or should be, cured. Instead, Deafness is a characteristic that should be embraced.

While our society is becoming more inclusive and understanding, there are still many impediments to those in the Deaf community. They still have to live and navigate a world using hearing people’s terms. So why not change the stigma and learn the ASL language and the enriched culture that they value?

Educating yourself is the first step. Allow your mind to deviate from the societal norms surrounding Deafness and accept and support the equality of the Deaf community. By being a Deaf ally, you will make a difference. It is important to be open-minded, educated, and immersed within the Deaf community. Everyone, no matter if they are hearing or deaf, has a different story. There are different ranges of Deafness. Every Deaf and hard-of-hearing person is different and has different stories of how they grew up. Deafness is an identity, and Deaf people are proud of their identity and are proud to be Deaf. If this seems like a lot to take in all at once, start by acknowledging any Deaf people you encounter. Communication might be challenging at first, but make eye contact and turn your voice off. It is all about singing, using gestures, body language and facial expressions to communicate with each other. If you take anything away from my story, I hope that you are able to view Deafness as a gain and not a loss. I hope that you can make a first step, no matter how small, toward the normalcy of ASL and Deaf culture and the equality for the Deaf community. Taking a first step could open your eyes to the beauty of it all!

I am very passionate about hearing people’s role in the inclusivity of Deafness in our society. Although my ASL journey has just begun, I have made it a goal to become a Deaf ally. As a hearing person, I want to join the Deaf community, show support, and promote equality for Deaf people. I don’t want ASL to be just the language that I took in college. I want to learn all of the fascinating aspects of Deaf culture, and carry them with me after I graduate. I am very committed to educating myself and fostering an inclusive atmosphere wherever my future lands me. I have fallen in love with ASL and Deaf culture and I want it to be a part of me. I would love to continue my studies of ASL and Deaf culture when I attend graduate school and once I graduate, continue working with Deaf individuals. Although I am not sure exactly what this will look like, I ultimately aspire to bridge the gap between the hearing and Deaf communities. One day I hope to inspire someone to love ASL as I do, when I am the one able to communicate with any Deaf person I encounter. I want to illustrate the beauty of Deafness and aspire others to embrace their language and culture.

That is my goal.


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