Just because we can’t hear you doesn’t mean we can’t understand you

Mark-Anthony Valentin

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If you know me you’ll know that one of my more unique aspects is that I’m deaf in my left ear and that I know American Sign Language (ASL) because I have a deaf mother and other deaf family. I also run a club at North that teaches ASL. So one could say that it’s a pretty big part of me. I sign every single day and I have to deal with my own deafness. It makes it literally impossible to tell where sounds come from and sometimes I don’t quite catch everything that people are saying to me. Still I have adapted to it all and my life works pretty much like any other except with more hand motions. But there are still some things that frustrate me about it all. Not my life but the way that other people react to learning that I’m deaf or that I know ASL.

I can remember some weeks back, I was talking to some friends and I made a joke about my deafness and my friend gave me a strange look and asked me if I was actually serious. Of course I was, I told her. Then she looked at me again and said something along the lines of, “Huh. I would have never been able to tell. You don’t seem/sound deaf.” Well of course I don’t seem or sound deaf. What does a deaf person look like? What do they seem like? It befuddles me when people say that and I’ve had that phrase thrown at me more than once over the course of my life.

I don’t think that most people really understand the concept of deafness as well as they think they do. Many people ignorantly ask what it’s like to not be able to hear. First, I can hear. I just can’t in one of my ears. Now assuming I plugged up my functioning right ear my life would be like this: exactly the same but with less noise. Don’t get me wrong, I like answering these questions. People are genuinely curious and I can’t blame them for wanting to know; I’m kind of a bridge between hearing and deaf because I can still hear but it’s limited and I’m obviously very immersed in deaf culture. I’ve been hit with some pretty interesting and thoughtful questions. Questions like “How do deaf people think?” It may seem like a silly question at face value but think about it. Deaf people don’t have that little voice in their heads. They can’t hear. I couldn’t tell you for a fact what goes on in a deaf person’s head but according to my mother, they just sign in their heads in lieu of that little voice most of us hear.

I have dealt with some pretty ignorant people though. In middle school, I remember talking with supposed youth counselor who was at this conference I was attending. She was asking me questions about myself, if I spoke any languages other than English was one of them. I told her that I spoke Spanish and ASL. She thought that it was cool that I could sign but she immediately threw a metaphorical bucket of cold water on me. She ended up telling me, “Oh that’s cool but I mean you can’t really put that on a resume or anything. It’s not like it’s a real language.” I very strongly believe in respecting my elders but I had never wanted to slap anyone more than her in that moment. Not a real language? I’m sure she’s an intelligent woman but it infuriates me how someone could be so ignorant. ASL, like all other systems of signs, is a real language. It has grammar and syntax and it is used by millions of people as a mode of communication. Sign Language isn’t just a bunch of random hand motions. There is a correct way and an incorrect way to use it. There are dictionaries full of signs and there are even debates raging on what is the proper signage for certain words and phrases. That experience and many similar to it push me to try and get people to understand the reality of deafness and ASL.

As I mentioned earlier, I am president of a club that teaches ASL but it doesn’t just teach the language; it also teaches deaf culture. There is a pretty wide and complex culture in the deaf community. We have our own etiquette and we have our own social rules. For example, it is extremely rude to not face someone when they’re signing to you and it is seen as lazy and somewhat disrespectful if you don’t make an effort to sign well and correctly, with your hands at an appropriate level with whomever you’re talking. There are also other universal customs. For example, deaf people don’t clap. Why would we clap if we can’t hear it? Instead we sort of do jazz hands so the presenter can see the “applause.” We even have our own comedy and poetry. It’s so much more expressive than spoken language because another thing that people tend to think is that sign language is just using your hands. Sign language, as with most languages, is also based on body language and facial expression. When you sign the word for “happy,” you cannot keep your same, somber face, you’ve got to look happy. You need to smile or at least look excited. And so you get so much more out of comedy and poetry and the like when combined with the sort of expressiveness that ASL requires. Too many people don’t get this. Too many people don’t understand that taking away one of our senses actually creates this sort of new culture and this different perspective in life.

You cannot blame anyone for not knowing but you can blame yourself for not doing anything about it. So my culture, my club and my language are important to me. I want them to thrive because I honestly think that they open up a whole new world of perspectives for the hearing. There’s a whole world, completely silent but filled with conversation and jokes and passion that I’m very happy to be a guide to.

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