I am a hearing person. I can hear birds outside, the alarm clock in the morning, and other people’s voices. My American Sign Language teacher, Ms. Zahnen, is deaf. Most people would call her disabled, but she doesn’t see herself that way and always tells us not to feel sorry for her. This seems to be the general attitude of those who are deaf - they do not want sympathy because in their opinion, they are perfectly normal. In fact, most hearing people do not know that they have their own culture.
The Deaf are united by the fact that they cannot hear, and have created their own language and culture. American Sign Language is the third most widely used language in the U.S. after English and Spanish and uses a variety of gestures, movements, and expressions to communicate. ASL, as it is called, is adapted from spoken English but uses only important concepts with a different sentence structure. In English we would say “I need to go to the store.” The ASL equivalent is closer to “Need go to store, I.” Each sign represents an English concept rather than a specific word. Deaf people are required to learn written English, however, and most become adept at reading a hearing person’s lips. Many deaf people also learn to use their voice but most of them sound strange to us.
Like anyone, the Deaf become offended if they feel their culture is being intruded upon. Our teacher showed us a documentary called “The Sound and the Fury.” In the documentary, a young deaf girl asks her deaf parents for a cochlear implant so she can communicate with her hearing friends. To her father, this is out of the question, having been born and raised deaf. Her mother is more open to the idea but they finally decide that they want their daughter to grow up with the Deaf culture, which sparks a disagreement between other family members (some of whom are deaf and some are not). This turns into an argument with some pretty hateful things said. The hearing see the deaf as disabled and a minority group impaired by their inability to hear.
If there is any solution to the tension between these two cultures, I think I have it. The hearing are not educated enough about Deaf culture. Before I took this class I never knew about it. A fellow student mistakenly believed that deaf people could not drive cars. Many deaf children describe being harassed by the hearing. Basically, I feel that the best solution is simply to respect one another. Whether we are deaf or hearing, we are all human beings. I strongly feel that each side needs to be more educated about the other and learn to respect one another. I feel that I have achieved a new level of understanding by being a hearing ASL student.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.