Deaf-Centered Topics,  Life

The Tightrope Across the Chasm (or why hearing families should learn ASL for their deaf loved ones)

ACROSSToday in explaining the value of learning American Sign Language to hearing family members of deaf individuals, I used this imagery to give them a sense of what it means, to a deaf family member, when they make the effort:

Imagine you see your family, not too far away from where you stand. There they are: the ones you have known and loved your entire life. Parents, siblings, a favorite uncle, even your children. You walk toward them, wanting to join your family and spend time together. Then, suddenly you halt, for you have reached the edge of a chasm. A deep, wide gulf that separates you from your family, one that you cannot jump across. This chasm is your communication, or lack thereof. You see your family and you reach out, but you cannot understand them. The gulf is too wide. The chasm is too deep. You cannot see the bottom, nor a way around. You see your family that loves you, talking to each other, but you feel left behind.

You try to build a bridge across and it feels shaky. You struggle. The bridge collapses again and again, and you find yourself constantly lunging for the solid ground, pulling yourself back up, and never on the side with your family.

Now imagine this: Your family is creating a rope of words. It’s thin, for the vocabulary is not a large one. Just one sign and then another, until they have just a good enough vocabulary to create this lifeline. They fashion the rope with their words. They twist it around and around. They sign small phrases and the occasional word, crafting this rope with care. They make a loop at one end, and when they’ve learned enough that the rope can bridge the distance, they twirl it in the air and throw it across. The rope is flying your way, soaring high and fast, and it lands at your feet. You pick it up quickly, and you fasten it to a tree. There. You have it. A tightrope crossing that chasm. It’s only a tightrope for now. Thin, frail, fraught with danger that it may break for neglect, but it is something. You can get across, and so can they.

Perhaps in time, the tightrope will have a twin, alongside. Then one day, planks. The bridge will get built, one piece at a time.

To my deaf peers: will you ask your family to create this tightrope?

To our hearing treasured ones: Are you willing to begin?


This post was first featured on another site of mine, years ago.

J. Parrish Lewis was born and raised in Maryland. In his youth there, he and his brother had many adventures in the dogwood forests near his home. His nostalgia for these adventures has strongly influenced his characters, their relationships, and their perspective on the world they inhabit. He moved to California’s coast to earn his degree in communications and now lives with his family in the San Joaquin Valley. Lewis is profoundly deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate. He enjoys hazelnut coffee, captioned movies, and walking his dog.

10 Comments

  • Sheila Jacobs, MFT

    I am the only hearing child in a large deaf family. I have this experience yet in reverse (and still different because I grew up with ASL) but this image speaks to me deeply about how many bridges I have helped build in one lifetime. This is the PERFECT description of how we need to build MORE COMMUNICATION BRIDGES for all of us in the Deaf Community! I am also a Family Counselor and help deaf clients and their families build these tightropes to bridges too! I also helped CODA with first CODA Conference in 1986 and CODA helps Codas build better bridges too! Thank you for this INCREDIBLE story! I will be sharing it this weekend at a workshop for Deaf Women who come from Hearing Families who do not sign. Thank you again for your wisdom, patience, and loving approach to solving the chasm in our families. Please visit my website to learn about Double Pride Programs for Home, School, and Work! Double Pride means having PRIDE in BOTH our Deaf and Hearing Worlds, families, and within ourselves–loving BOTH the Deaf and Hearing parts of our own personalities! Smile and hugs!

    • J. Parrish

      Glad you enjoyed it, and I love the idea of double pride. I completely agree. We need to embrace all of those we care about, and we need to appreciate the hearing individuals who do reach out to us. I think of, in particular, the ASL students who shyly sit in corners at deaf events, wondering if anyone will take the time to sign with them. I’m always encouraging my deaf peers to do so, and for the ASL students to join the group.

  • Christie Loyd

    I love the idea of what you do research on this ASL rope with hearing family topic.

    As, I grew up with hearing family without using ASL was so difficult for me that I was affected by family’s neglected, phyiscally abused, audism the way they treated me like I was worthless because of my inability hearing and talk.

    I myself, am deaf, and ADHD, and, I know in my heart that that I will not let them to continuing or trying to destroy my self esteem as for who I am. I was surprised at myself that I survived. I did not learn with ASL until I was 13 years old at Deaf Institute School. I believe it’s good thing that ASL certainly saved my life big, big, big times. If I did not learn with ASL, my life would be diaster like maybe live on Street or end up criminal. I struggled to keep myself to stay positive on my own life. BUT, the problem is …. how about especially Home for the Holiday such Thanksgiving or Christmas Family reunion, and however, most of times, deaf people tends avoid from their family due lack, uncomfortable, or struggle to access communications such as not equally laughing with them or missed out the share important message from family’s. Really embarassing. So … Keep up on your doing researching on the Tightrope cross the Chasm.

  • Dina Hooks

    Jesse,what a wonderful way to explain the dynamics of a deaf individual in a hearing family. I too am anticipating the Thanksgiving holiday. I am comfortable with a 1 to 1 discussion, but at the dinner table with many family members, I volunteer to sit at the bar with my food (no room at table). It’s exhausting to try and follow their conversations!

    Thanks for your article I will share this with my family and friends.

  • Melissa

    The problem is that a child cannot develop a true language this way, with the family only knowing one word at a time. The child will lose years that way. What do we do for the deaf child for the first 5 years of life, when they don’t have fluent language because their family is still learning ASL?

    • J. Parrish Lewis

      I am looking for a specific infographic from a research study that outlines this clearly, will try to repost it. In my experience, parents that are using ASL with their children at an early age actually give the kids a boost with their English. Often, the kids in these families start school and already know their ABCs and a lot of other words, because they’ve been including fingerspelling all along.

      I know it is a challenge for parents to learn a language, but it’s also a challenge for the kids to learn to communicate with those who don’t sign. I advocate for both parents and children to be challenged. I am very much in favor of a bilingual education, with both ASL and English.

      • Melissa Jensen

        You didn’t answer her. HOW do you teach a language to a child that you don’t know? A few single words is not a language. ASL has a separate grammar and structure from English. Parents need to provide fluent models to their child in order to have them have good language skills so, what do they do?

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