Monday, 11 March 2013

The People of the Eye

Lately I’ve been reading a very interesting book called ‘People Of The Eye’[1], a collection of life-stories by New Zealand deaf people.

Due to a family connection, I’ve known a deaf woman since I was in my teens and she was a child. Communication with her and her younger sister (also deaf, who tragically died in her twenties), though limited to interpretation through their mother, gestures, lip-reading and the few signs I know, soon showed me that ‘deaf’ did not mean ‘dumb’. They were lively, intelligent girls, with a great sense of humour. On one occasion, for instance, the younger girl asked me through her mother what I’d had for dinner. I couldn’t remember the sign for chicken, so instead bent my arms and flapped them like chicken ‘wings’. They almost rolled around the floor laughing! I also knew, through overhearing conversations between our mothers over the years, some of the deaf ‘issues’ of the day.

However it wasn’t till reading this book that I began to understand the depth of the problems deaf people in NZ (and elsewhere) have faced over the past century, and continue to face.

Briefly, the story is this. In 1880, the International Congress on Education of the Deaf passed a resolution to stop using signs to teach Deaf students. Being deaf was considered a ‘deficient’ or pathological state, and it was decided it was best for deaf children to learn to lip-read and talk, ie make them as ‘normal’ as possible. Speech, they declared, was vastly ‘superior’ to signs, and therefore the latter must be eliminated.

As the first School for the Deaf in NZ didn’t open till that same year, this approach, known as ‘oralism’, was used from the start. Older generations of NZ deaf were punished for using signs, and made to feel ashamed of it. Nonetheless, those children who did know some signs taught each other when teachers weren’t looking. As you might expect, the most profoundly deaf never learnt to speak well (my family friend included) as they simply can’t hear what they are supposed to be reproducing. Eventually as adults they began to form their own Deaf communities, where signing was the main method of communication, as this was the one most natural to them.

The deaf being considered to be ‘incapable’ of any work other than the most menial, vocational education was the focus in their schools, and this, together with the huge amount of time spent on oral speech training, meant the standard of education suffered. Many older Deaf people have been limited in their academic abilities and achievements as a result of this, and it’s only in recent decades that some younger Deaf people have made it to university. (I speak here of the NZ situation of course, this book makes it plain that this doesn’t apply in other countries, especially the US, and many NZ Deaf in this book express amazement and envy of the support American Deaf enjoy, and their educational achievements.) From the 1960s on, many deaf children began to be mainstreamed in regular schools, which was done with good intentions, but as few teachers had any idea how to support their deaf students (eg by simply remembering to talk facing them), and they had no interpreters, their educational achievements remained, not surprisingly, generally low.

It wasn’t till 1979 that a form of signing was allowed in deaf schools – and even then, it was not NZSL, but a method known as ‘Signed English’ or ‘Total Communication’, which corresponds ‘word’ for ‘word’ with spoken English. This method however is not natural to the Deaf, true sign language being vastly different to spoken English. NZSL interpreters didn’t begin to be trained till 1985, and the number of them is probably still small. NZSL was finally allowed in Deaf classrooms in 1993, the first Deaf teacher of the Deaf qualifying in 1992. Things are slowly changing, but many Deaf people still feel far more comfortable with other Deaf, simply because communication is so much easier. They have their own clubs, social events, sports, and even Deaf Games; in short their own culture and community, and most definitely do not regard themselves as ‘disabled’ or ‘handicapped’. The Deaf people in this book express pride in their way of being, see nothing ‘wrong’ with being Deaf, and were not bothered at all when some of their children turned out to be Deaf. They are proud, self-reliant, and amazingly strong, worthy of admiration and respect.

The ‘pathologising’ of one’s condition, one’s difference seen as ‘inferiority’, attempts at a forced ‘normalisation’ or at least outward elimination of this ‘inferiority’, restriction of hand movements, being educated in a way that is inharmonious or injurious, being treated as though one is ‘stupid’, insistence on communication by methods foreign and unnatural to one’s being, and which moreover in most cases can never be fully learnt, the slow forming of communities ‘away from normal eyes’, the equally slow formation of culture and pride in one’s own natural way of being….

Does any of this sound familiar to you spectrumites?!!?

[1] Rachel McKee, People of the Eye – Stories from the Deaf World, 2001, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, NZ.

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