Deaf-Centered Topics

AG Bell has got it all wrong, but we can win hearts and minds anyway

Sadly, it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke that AG Bell (as we tend to call the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) decided to diminish the achievements of Nyle DiMarco by essentially saying they needed to “dispel the myths about deafness.”

In reading their article, I felt sick. I felt physically ill, and I was angry. If someone at AG Bell met me in person, I’d probably seem like someone they’d consider a success because I can speak. I can interact with hearing people, even though it’s difficult because lip-reading is such a challenge. I even had a cochlear implant, which should make them happy, except that it has sat covered in dust in a drawer for a decade now, broken and useless. And like I’ve said in other posts, I’m not inherently opposed to CIs. I’m not opposed to hearing aids. I’m not opposed to speech. I’m not even opposed to SEE, Cued Speech, or any of that, although I don’t really understand why anyone would choose them over ASL since I find ASL far more efficient, meaningful, soulful, and connected to the root of who we are as deaf people. We live and breathe this language, even when we love other languages, as I do. I am a lover of language. I savor English, I adore other languages, and I revere ASL not because I think it’s any more beautiful than any other language but because it’s a part of me. It’s a part of the people I care about.

So my stomach clenched in reading AG Bell’s post.

But.

I am not that interested in trying to change the minds of the people in charge of AG Bell. I don’t even think they are bad people, at all, though I completely disagree with their outlook and I think they do real harm toward our cause. I’m not that interested in trying to change their minds because I don’t think there’s much chance of that happening. They don’t represent people like us, who cherish sign language. They may not even understand us. They might not get that so many of us are in favor of a bilingual approach, that we believe ASL is beneficial in teaching English as well. Trying to change their minds is, to me, like trying to turn a Republican into a Democrat or vice versa. It’s just not likely.

Image by John Hain via Pixabay
Image by John Hain via Pixabay

Yet we can be more powerful. We can win this fight. I do believe this. I believe we can win it the way that Martin Luther King, Jr. won, the way that Gandhi won, the way that other spiritual leaders of the past won. With a peaceful movement borne out of love and unity and not hate, not even against AG Bell. Hating AG Bell is a waste of our energy and only poisons us. It changes no one’s mind.

Anger, on the other hand, has a purpose when wielded calmly. Anger does not need to be a lashing out, but a quiet fire that sparks our passion. Passion for what we believe in doesn’t need anything more than a spark. Love for our community and our languages will drive us further. We need to be united.

I’m not an academic. I’m not going to fill this post with facts, many of which we’ve already seen. There are fantastic posts going around right now about the facts regarding language acquisition, written by far better experts than me, such as this short post by Dr. Peter C. Hauser in which he cites research that supports what we know. Although I am not an academic, I am one of you, and I have my thoughts and my dreams and my hopeful ideas, so I wracked my brain to see what I have to suggest as just two of many strategies that I hope we will see.

Truly connecting to hearing people before it’s even necessary, when the stakes aren’t as high

I feel we are reaching out to hearing people too late. We are connecting with them far more often after they’ve already discovered years earlier that their children were deaf. By that time, doctors with a medical-oriented approach pushed “solutions” like the Cochlear implant. Educators focused on speech therapy and training on learning to hear with their CIs and hearing aids, often to the detriment of the children’s education. Other subjects fell by the wayside or were minimized, but the kids were already getting support from those that are not what we normally consider our allies. Then one day, we come across these families, and we try to make our case and we’re met with doubt and resistance. In the backs of the minds of parents, they are hearing the voices of their children’s doctors and teachers. They are listening to this doubt.

We get there too late. Not always, but often.

So what I want to see happen is that I want to see more of us making an effort to reach out to hearing people every day that essentially aren’t that much a part of our lives. Take time to talk to the mail carrier. Use paper and pen if you have to, or find a way to teach one ASL phrase now and then. Meet your neighbors and do the same. Tell strangers about Deaf Culture, about ASL, about us. Do it all with love. Reach them now, not later. You don’t know what lies ahead in the lives of all these hearing people that don’t yet have a immediate reason to connect to us. The mail carrier may have a new son next year, and the son is discovered to be deaf. Then he remembers you, and he remembers how much he laughed over that joke you taught him in ASL. The neighbors discover their daughter’s new baby is deaf, and she remembers your kindness and how your intelligence and can-do attitude radiated through everything you signed.

And the ASL students! Thousands upon thousands who take ASL one and then fade away into the hearing world after not being able to find anyone willing to take the time to sit with them, to connect, to have a conversation even though it’s slower than you might like. Some of those ASL students may very well have children that are deaf one day. We just don’t know.

Even if all of these hearing people aren’t the ones who have deaf children, we would be making allies every single day in so many ways, that we will be the richer for it. And so strong, so strong will the community be with them as our allies. AG Bell and those who would diminish us would not be as much of a threat to our community.

Peaceful demonstrations that show our solidarity in ways that touch the hearts and minds of hearing people

It’s not a waste of time to educate the hearing world about AG Bell and how they’ve got it all wrong. While I don’t personally feel we can change their minds, that doesn’t mean we need to ignore what they’ve said or done. So I would love to see a peaceful demonstration happen outside AG Bell’s office. I’d love to see a crowd of the deaf community and our allies coming together there, peaceably, and joining together with hands raised in sign language. With smiles, smiles that come easy with the appreciation of how we are all connected, rather than let anger dominate our expressions. I’d love to see that, though I am thousands of miles away.

I believe the media would find it as fascinating as they did back during Deaf President Now in 1988, and I believe that if we reached out to the media ahead of time, we would be able to really raise awareness in our country like we have from time to time. It wouldn’t be to change the minds of AG Bell’s staff and Board of Directors, but to reach the hearts and minds of those not yet boxed in by the medical approach to us.

Although I wouldn’t be able to be there in body, I’d be there in spirit. Like so many of us, I’d do what I could to call attention to what is happening and why it is happening. We are all in this together. Others may doubt what we can achieve, but we don’t need to be doubters as well. We can believe in the potential for what a community like ours can achieve when we work together to make it happen.

Isn’t that worth doing?

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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.

21 Comments

  • catrina tsara

    thank you so much for every information you give us .Your writting is amazing! I am Greek mother of a profound deaf 22 years doughter Melina who is a student in Fine Arts.She rarely wears her hearing aids ,but she can communicate by lips reading,and sing language and she feels very comfortable.Melina grew up in a hearing familly and she gave a fight in order to exist into the community,school,friends,and now in the univercity but she is a survivor and i admire her for her courage.Even now some times she feels isolated and lonely cause of communication harding but afterwhile she continues ….she believes in communication without barriers…We as a family we are so proud for her and we will support her no matter what without care for peoples foolness!
    GREAT JOB !!Thank you

    • J. Parrish Lewis

      You have a beautiful mindset to support your daughter the way you do, and I really appreciate every parent like you. It makes such a difference, perhaps more than you realize. Thank you!

  • Melow Meldrew

    I’d much prefer lesser emphasis on ‘Hearing’, and ‘Deaf’ we aren’t at war or anything…. I tend to think all this ASL versus A G Bell is childish, and non-productive too. It looks like sign using deaf are deliberately seeking out battles to fight, instead of agreeing to differ and respecting the views of others, or just plain reading what isn’t there. Just because one area supports an oralist approach, (and certainly appears to have a fair amount of support for that), they should be respected on those grounds. Mutual respect engenders mutual acceptance, it doesn’t HAVE to be ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’.

    • J. Parrish Lewis

      I agree that it doesn’t have to be ‘us’ versus ‘them’ but I disagree that it’s childish. AG Bell did not have to write an article that oppressively said that myths needed to be dispelled, when our community is not the one spreading myths. If you look at the research, you can see for yourself that ASL benefits deaf children in language acquisition, including acquisition of English.

      I believe my article shows respect to them, even though I say they have it wrong. They are not evil. They are not bad people. I just believe they are wrong, and the evidence supports that.

      • Storme

        Absolutely, it doesn’t have to be us versus them, but the research and lives of Deaf people must be respected; more important is a focus on the successful individuals. Many times a deaf person is successful ‘in spite of their upbringing’ , other times it’s ‘due to’.
        Key is always giving children full exposure to language, visual language being the only way to ensure a deaf child is included, always.
        Batteries fail, technology fails, play grounds, pools and bath tubs shouldn’t discourage full access to communication.
        Give a child access, then expect them to live up to whatever potential they seek – English, Spanish, French, speech, speech reading…
        Bilingual children have a better chance in this world, research shows executive function benefits with two, or more, languages (multiple sources).
        Respect also means looking at the trajectory of deaf children raised with a communication system and not a language. I cannot cite research, there is very little, as a deaf person i see so many people learning ASL late in life ;the stories vary only slightly. There is an abundance of regret, the language deprivation they are raised with hits. There is anger, thirst, sadness and need.
        A deaf person raised without visual language blossoms when finally introduced to the rest of us. The story almost always goes, “i finally found out i wasn’t alone, i learned to sign, i discovered my identity/community!”

  • Twyla Lightowler

    Your response is so accurate, heartfelt and articulate! The strategies you suggest are spot on. I want to be part of the movement that you propose. As an ally of the Deaf community for 40+ years, I have interacted with a variety of people – infants to elderly, signing and oral, multilingual to monolingual to those with no language. The divisiveness is hurting all. We need to respectfully come together.

  • Anna

    Thanks for sharing your ideas in such an encouraging way. I am one of those ASL students you mentioned above – but I DID have Deaf people willing to connect with me, to communicate with me, to trust me. Though they planted the seeds, I get to reap the benefit that has grown.
    When I read the recent AGB article, I felt sad, scared, and very angry. Then, I began to see the Deaf Community’s response. That response, especially your article, has replaced my feelings above with peace and confidence in the resilience in the community that has given me so much

    • J. Parrish Lewis

      I am grateful for every ally like you. I’m glad someone took the time to connect with you and keep you invested in our community! 🙂 Yes, it’s been heartening to see the community response. We aren’t just sitting back and letting it happen. I think social media has become more powerful a tool than ever.

  • Hex

    Great, thoughtful discussion. I was very concerned at first but like Hauser’s short post about backing information with facts and sources… the information is actually in favor of ASL just like many of us knew already. Good to know! Also, we educate our community by example, so everything you said is right on! We all will make a difference, the question is what kind of difference we’ll make (not my quote). Nyle is making a positive, inspirational difference and we can strive to continue that type of exposure. Thank you for your cool, calm, collected and thoughtful post!

  • art lewis

    I am a hearing ally of the Deaf Community. I worked at a school for the deaf and the children taught me enough sign to get along fairly well during my 7 years there. I agree with your article that making new friends and allies each day is the most effective method. I willingly take diplomacy over war any day. Keep up the great writing.

  • Henry Kisor

    Beautiful piece. I’m wholly oral, but I support everyone’s right to use whatever means of communication is handiest (no pun intended). You are a superb writer.

  • noruegaenargentina

    Wonderful post as always! The AG Bell letter made me so angry! Here in Argentina the oralist movement is still very strong, the public schools have become mainly bilingual over the last 15 years but there are lots of private oral schools that are extremely old school. Some have no SL whatsover, some have SL only for students with “additional disabilities”… And as many others have described, these schools see SL as a last resort, not a natural language for all deaf people. Makes me so angry!

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