New England Deaf Studies Conference
It has been . . . six or seven years? . . . since I’ve relied so much on my eyes in the special visual environment inspired by Deaf people and ASL. Last fall’s sign language interpreter conference was close, but there is something different about an event that is planned and run by Deaf people for Deaf people. I was excited and happy to be invited!
The program of the New England Deaf Studies Conference was slick: all four keynotes and the film complemented each other very well. Conference co-chair John Smith (my friend who likes to put me in risky situations!), had me present first on the topic of identity development and empowerment. I shared some theoretical models on identity development, and used a history of the profession of sign language interpreting as I have witnessed it over the past two decades as an example of community-level empowerment. As an outsider (not Deaf) and an academic, I hope to show that the success of the Deaf Community is a powerful example for users of other languages – yes, even spoken languages!
By asserting their right to have a major, influential voice in the workings of the professional sign language interpreting organization, the American Deaf community scores a victory for minority language users everywhere. This is a story that needs to be told!
Ken Relihan presented next about the quest in New Hampshire to get fluent, Deaf users of American Sign Language credentialed in order to teach ASL as a Modern World Language. The politics of language recognition are intense: these are hard fights in every country, with every minority language group. ASL is treated in much of the U.S. as a modern language – not a foreign language, because Deaf Americans are not foreigners! I like the way Ryan Commerson describes sign languages in his excellent film, Redefining Deaf.
“ASL is a human language.”
Self-Advocacy and Institutional Structure
Ken described with great detail the tricky path of trying to make law and policy conform to what most of us recognize is just good common sense. Languages should be taught to students by teachers who are fluent in that language! But there are barriers to entry for teaching at the college level that make it extremely difficult for fluent, native signers – and also immigrants speaking foreign languages – to get hired.
The pre-established system will not change just because we want it too! Ken repeated this point several times: if you want change you have to talk to the right people, at the right times, about the right things.
- Who are the right people? It depends on the issue. In the case of creating an alternative credentialing system for qualified teachers who haven’t happened to go to college, the right people to talk to belong to groups in the pre-established system. (And all of them went to college! Which means, for instance, imagining compelling arguments to convince them that it is okay that other people did not have to work as hard as they did to get to where they are.) For instance, if I am upset about the trash pick-up at my apartment, I don’t go to the librarian to fix it! (Unless I need his help researching trash services in order to prove there are better ways.)
- When is the right time? When the meetings are scheduled! Especially when there are chances for open/public comment, but also in private, behind the scenes with those key people. Over and over again. Not once! Every year! Maybe every month! How much do you really want the change?! Two “rights” – picking the right group (for the issue) and the right time (to talk with the people in that group) – do not, however, add up automatically to the third “right.”
- The other thing you’ve got to get “right” is the content of what you say to those right people at the right times. Saying the right things is the hardest part of advocacy. This is where things got a little bit tricky in the Question and Answer period, because Ken knows about credentialing teachers, but some folk in the audience wanted to talk about getting more interpreters. It just does no good to complain about the shortage of interpreters to someone who has no authority (no role or status in the power structure) to influence rules, policies, or laws about interpreting.
I thought Ken’s talk was exciting because he is sharply focused on the challenge and he is crystal-clear about the barriers. Learning the right things to say means learning what arguments will convince people; sometimes this means not saying the things that feel the most important or are of primary urgency at that moment. I might, for instance, want to complain vigorously to a school administrator about how frustrating it is that my ASL teacher is not a fluent sign user because I need to learn fast and well in order to communicate with my deaf child. My emotion, however, is not going to convince the administrator to change policy. They might feel sorry for me; they might argue back that I should agree to cochlear implant surgery; they might think about something else while they nod along because they are pretty sure they have heard this before. Instead, I need to have arguments and evidence and possible solutions that appeal to common sense: information that is based on more than my opinions. I do not know the details of the ASL Committee’s work in NH (who might already have all of the following), but they could use (for instance):
- comparisons of development between language students who have fluent teachers and students who do not,
- reasonable alternatives to a traditional college education for demonstrating competence
- examples of successful models in other countries
- creative thinking about how to get teachers teaching while they also pursue formal credentialing
Speaking of Formality!
Janis Cole’s presentation followed after Ken’s beautifully. She illustrated for us the difference between the casual register of ASL that most people use in regular conversation with each other, and the formal register necessary for exactly the kind of public, official advocacy that advocacy groups for Deaf issues need to use. I have a strong sense that if more Deaf people had been able to teach ASL for the last several decades, then we would already be aware of the visual differences, particularly in uses of space and choice of diction, that Janis showed us.
In addition to providing a kind of proof of the teacher credentialing problem, Janis’s presentation also complemented mine in many ways, especially in the desire to be part of a re-constitution of meanings associated with the concepts of “deaf” and “ASL.” She gave a series of examples designed to raise awareness about how assumptions work to associate unrelated things to each other as if they are natural components of one whole. She got us to experience, viscerally, the unsettled feeling when things don’t go together: my favorite was the flower decals on a sub-machine gun! The point is that we should start to notice the easy feeling when things do “go together” – because there might be a problem there! For me, by the way, there was a problem when Jane Fluman busted me for stealing (two of) her (five) napkins!
History all the way through
Pax McCarthy led the assembled participants in an activity to remember Deaf history in each New England State. The brainstorm will be collected and compiled into a comprehensive regional history. I am curious about this process, because all of the stories, experiences, and big events are related. It is not a surprise that a movement in support of bilingual and bicultural education in residential schools for the Deaf (historically the heart and soul of Deaf culture) coincided with the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet and the upsurge of Deaf activism to retake RID (the interpreter’s organization).
Deaf people from all across the country were involved in those efforts, but it does seem like something special was happening in the New England states, something that fostered all three movements. Maybe, once these stories are fully told, we will be able to learn the secret ingredient? I hope so!
Never an End
Most participants did not stay for the evening film, as they had long drives back home, however those of us who did saw an intriguing short film. Voices from El Sayed is a layered documentary about a Bedouin village in Israel much like the historical Martha’s Vineyard when everyone on the island knew sign language.
In El Sayed, like nearly everywhere else, there are two main storylines, one that follows Deaf pride in a cultural and linguistic identity that recognizes being Deaf as a good, natural, moral way of being. The opposing story, the medical line, sets up the perpetual battle between sameness and difference. Love and acceptance, we are made to believe, go together with being ‘of the same type’ as each other. It is as if people have “to be” the same way in order to be accepted! In this case, the message is that love means communicating in the same way. Janis, when you come up with the way to unveil the ideological assumption in this, I want to know about it!
I was intrigued, myself, in the brain’s process of growth and change. We watch the young boy not notice sound for a long time after the surgery which inserted the cochlear implant. He has to be trained to recognize the stimulus of sound. Eventually, he does begin to distinguish sounds and learns to say some words. The biological achievement is profound.
Neuroscience today has proven that you can change your brain. This change is at a deeper level than changing your thinking or your opinion about something. The young boy’s brain had no wiring for sound because, without the implant, there was nothing for his brain to hear. Once sound was present to his brain, the brain itself changed. I am not advocating cochlear implants – I think the premise of sameness is bankrupt. However, the plasticity of the brain is amazing. What I find truly exciting is that one does not have to undergo a life-changing surgery to discover the amazing flexibility of your own brain. What is most thrilling is that you can change your ways of thinking so much that your very own thought processes change your brain. Literally, your mind can change your brain.
Now that, my friends, is constitution!