I don’t normally like audiologists and speech therapists. But my perspective on talking and speaking was forever changed by an audiologist, and I will always be grateful to her for that. Her name was Venita Gragg, and I was a 4th grade student at Maryland School for the Deaf, Columbia Campus when I met her. I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen and I was impressed by how she could put on her earrings without looking at a mirror (silly, I know…but at that time I couldn’t put on my earrings without looking at the mirror to find my earring holes). One day I made a comment to her, which I don’t remember now. I also don’t remember her response. I do remember saying shortly after that: “I don’t speak.” Ms. Gragg said clearly and confidently, “Yes, you do speak. You are talking right now. What are you doing with your hands right now?”
That stopped me in my tracks. She wasn’t talking about my voice, because my non-mastery of it was already an established fact by that point. Rather, she was talking about the fact that when I was signing, I was also talking, even though I wasn’t using my voice. That blew my mind. She and I were both signing, and she was telling me that we both were talking and speaking! Since that day, over the years, I have come to realize that she was right. When Deaf people are signing, they are also speaking and talking, even if voice isn’t used. Communication is taking place on the hands, and concepts are being expressed.
Yet hearing society insists that when Deaf people don’t use their voices, they are not talking or speaking. Deaf people are “silent” or “mute.” When hearing people in general write about Deaf people communicating in sign language, their sentences rarely contain the words “talk” or “speak.” It is always “He signed beautifully” or “She signed quickly, in agreement,” or something to that effect. A clear line has been drawn: hearing people talk or speak, and Deaf people sign. Voice vs. sign. Voice is better than sign. Voice is worth being heard, while sign renders one silent or mute. Can’t really listen to someone who is silent or mute, right? They’ve got nothing to say, after all.
Ownership of “speak” and “talk” has been claimed by hearing society, and in doing so, a distinction is made: ASL isn’t a ‘real’ language because voice isn’t used.
We all know it’s not true that Deaf people are silent or mute. We know we have a legitimate language: American Sign Language. Plenty of research on ASL has been done since Stokoe declared it to be a real language, on equal terms with Spanish, French, Chinese, and thousands of other voice languages. Deaf people have earned the right to use terms such as “talk,” “speak,” “say,” and dozens of other similar words. But hearing society continues to deny us the ownership of these words. I say…screw ‘em. When I sign, I am talking. I am speaking. I have something to say that is worth listening to. I refuse to be a co-enabler and be told that my language and my way of communicating doesn’t count.
Otherwise…the alternative is for Deaf people to fight back and start saying things like “She voiced her objection” or “He voiced his thoughts on the project,” (or in other words, not allow hearing people their right to the word “said” when we refer to them in our literature).
Let’s not go there. We (Deaf people) should start claiming “talk” and “speak” for ourselves. Let’s be like this deaf writer who never once used “signed” in his article, even though he and his student spoke in ASL the whole time.
It’s a start.