It was reported, though unconfirmed, that a proposal was made for the development of a “Hearing Space” on Gallaudet’s campus. It is unknown at the moment who made the proposal or how seriously it is being considered, but the mere mention of the idea was enough to spark a conversation among several deaf writers. Among many people, the first reaction was, “Why should there be a hearing space at Gallaudet?” However, several people reported feeling tired of the seemingly endless “language rights” debates in and of themselves…
I think what tires me is that there doesn’t seem to be any forward movement in these arguments; they seem to follow a pattern of:
- point out Gallaudet is oppressing deaf students (Sorenson Language and Communication Center, for example, or rail against the audiology department)
- insert anecdote of seeing hearing people talk on campus or on cell phone without signing,
- insert personal anecdote of being subject to discrimination or having someone say something stupidly audist to you and then
- make the leap towards banning all communication other than signing on campus.
I am much more interested in actual discussion — let’s unpack this idea of signing only on campus — what does it look like? What are the benefits? What does this mean to the deaf community, and what would such an experiment communicate? What about people who cue? Or sign in another country’s sign language? They’re communicating visually, after all — just not in ASL. What are the implications of telling visitors they should speak ASL once on campus? Let’s go even deeper — what about people who sign different ways — we get new signers, deaf of deaf who nonetheless were raised oral and never exactly become fluent in ASL, people who just can’t manage to eradicate their SEE (or PSE like me) tendencies from their signing, and so forth. Just like we have a diversity of signers on campus, we have a diversity of thought… let’s share.
The idea of “Hearing space,” whatever it may be, should be subject to just as rigorous a discussion, I would think, regardless of how incredulous your or my knee-jerk reaction might be.
JOHN LEE CLARK
I actually think that having a hearing space, or designated lounge rooms and the like, where people can speak without signing is a GOOD idea. Why? Because it would help them get speaking out of their system more regularly, and make them that much more amenable to signing the REST of the time everywhere else.
What I AM against is hearing people speaking to each other in front of deaf people or very much in their space or sight. For example, around a table, it’d be a grievous offense if a hearing person spoke across the table to another hearing person without signing. That’s rude. So rude that it warrants a bar brawl.
Having them to have to go off campus is not practical. Sorry. It just isn’t.
I wonder whether our energy would be better spent advocating for better ASL education… Meaning we get more support for ASL teachers and curricula across the board, from early childhood through high school and afterwards. Gallaudet is taking steps towards that — teachers are now including ASL criteria in rubrics, and so forth. But I want to sit with someone with some coffee or wine and and discuss Michael Chorost’s proposal that ASL stop being the language of the deaf and become a language for a larger community; the implications excite me. I love the idea of my daughter having to study and take tests and submit homework in both ASL class and English class as she progresses through her college-preparatory education.
[Regarding an earlier comment on communication modalities other than ASL...] So you’ve found another tendency — bringing other modalities into discussions about ASL. I smiled when I read that. But I did have a reason for mentioning it, that Gallaudet’s admission objectives have to keep an eye on that inclusion you mention, so it’s a reality we need to deal with. Not a bad reality, per se: I once had a good friend come to Gallaudet for his first day as an undergraduate. A native cuer, he was the most nervous I’d ever seen him and he pulled me aside and whispered, “Will they hate me because I cue?” I laughed him off, and for good reason — he picked up signing like a fish in water and was voted Homecoming King later.
This issue is pregnant with all the issues that have plagued deaf people since birth — fear, oppression, helplessness. When I talked with John about his ‘speaking zone’ idea I basically told him, “If you give hearing people an inch they’ll take the whole campus.” Which I think may be the core issue here.
Deaf students seeing hearing people speak without signing are instantly reminded of the world beyond the Gallaudet gates – a world they’d hoped to take a break from while attending Gallaudet. They push back, and yes, they do overcompensate for it. John did point out that it’s a good thing that hearing people feel threatened at all, because it means signing is strong on campus. They wouldn’t feel threatened if there was no social pressure.
There may be a natural balance going on, and it could be that the administrators prefer to stay out of it until it interferes with the day-to-day running of the school. I would rather they took a proactive stance.
Then again – the Gallaudet situation mirrors the situation taking place at many deaf-related workplaces across the country. Deaf schools have staff who commit similar infractions, and deaf-services clients are infuriated at lack of respect from the people who are supposed to help them. You are right to examine the source of the problem.
I think this policy proposal comes from a desire to have Gallaudet as a haven. For many students coming in to Gallaudet, enjoying full ASL access is a joy, and seeing hearing people jaw about in their “safe place” may feel like a slap across the face. It’s unrealistic to expect Gallaudet to be perfect but when have our emotions been realistic?
On the other side, hearing people are not used to the social pressure and discrimination that deaf people experience every day. So they spout out what they hear from deaf people defending ASL, rationalizing that their own language deserves the same right.
John has a good point about enforcement creating opposite results. So, how can we create an environment of mutual respect? Are there real-world examples of a language policy working?
I’ve read all of posts on this thread thus far, and Ray & I were at Gallaudet at a time when there were no hearing undergraduate students. The idea was proposed during our last year at Gallaudet, and it was put in effect after we left.
At that time when the idea was raised, naturally there were serious concerns about hearing people being given an inch and taking a mile, etc etc etc.
There were policies put in place which were designed to make sure that the hearing undergraduate students didn’t take their mile, and that they would be taking Deaf-related majors as a justification for taking them in.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that these policies have either been deleted or gradually been weakened to the point where hearing undergraduates now feel that they can elect not to sign, or to do things that don’t mesh with the culture at Gallaudet.
As I read all the threads (and I loved Elena Ruiz’s article, by the way), I was struck by this thought: suppose I had decided to attend a university in Italy where I’d have to speak Italian all the time and immerse myself in Italian culture, etc. How would the Italians react if I and other non-native Italian speakers demanded our own “space” to not speak Italian?
I would imagine that they would be greatly offended and would wonder about my motivation and commitment to the Italian language and Italian culture. And they would be totally justified in feeling that way.
As a culturally Deaf person, I’m offended by and suspicious of the apparent limited level of commitment of these hearing students. If they want their own space…hey, they can go to their dorm room or their apartment and…BE THEMSELVES all they want, for the night or however how many hours they have free between classes.
And in the long term, I’m scared to think about what kind of professionals these hearing students would turn out to be when they graduate and enter Deaf-related professions.
To sum up, their demand of their own space is a clear indication that they DO NOT GET IT when it comes to ASL and Deaf culture.
JOHN LEE CLARK
Good points. But I must wonder, however–and I’m gonna use your Italy example–what would have led you and others to feel the need to ask for an English space at their university in the first place? If they frowned on your speaking English even when you were just talking on the cell phone with your mother back home in America who doesn’t speak Italian, then, yes, you would feel the need to say, Hey! I have a right to speak English! Give me an English space!
But as it is, I am sure nobody in Italy feels the need in the first place. The Italians are naturally in total power. They are fine with it if you speak in English. “Suit yourself,” they’d yawn.
What this situation at Gallaudet indicates to me is not that the hearing students are trying to take a mile. Instead, it indicates that ASL is not yet securely in power. BUT it might be getting there, because the hearing students DID feel the need to ask for a hearing space. This means their speech use has been frowned on, harassed, etc. to such a degree that they actually want a space on campus where they can safely speak.
So, yes, I am betting that ASL is on the rise but not there yet. If and when ASL is in total power, they’d be confident enough to yawn and tell the hearing students, “Suit yourself.” This confidence would come with the knowledge that all of the classes are taught in ASL, that if you want to have any sort of life, any kind of good time on campus, you WILL have to sign. So, no problems there at all. *burp* No problems at all.
I agree that it’s very clear that ASL “isn’t there” yet when it comes to being in power, feeling secure, etc. No shit. Even at the very few bi-bi schools that we DO have in this country, it only takes loss of money or total withdrawal of support for ASL to yank the “power rug” from under them.
Again, it’s obvious that the power/security are the issues here. Problem is, hearing society has long had a history of oppressing ASL, while that hasn’t been the case with other languages, so it’s not quite the same for speakers of other languages. They don’t live with this daily threat like we Deaf people do. They never have to defend their language like we have to do on a daily basis. They never have to watch other people mangle their language by inventing SEE, LOVE, PSE, etc etc to “fix” whatever’s wrong with the original language.
I mean, nobody’s trying to “fix” French, Spanish, Chinese, etc. Nobody’s saying that these languages are “bad English.” Nobody’s claiming that learning French or Spanish or Chinese is going to retard the child’s ability to learn English.
JOHN LEE CLARK
You’re right about the bi-bi schools. When I read about the job position of “ASL Specialist,” I roll my blind eyes. They have English teachers, but when it’s ASL, they have “specialists.” Please.
While it is true that bilingualism does help deaf kids gain English literacy, I hate it when schools point to this fact over and over again, as if gaining English literacy is the whole point. Why not point to ASL literacy? Why not support bilingualism regardless of how it helps or doesn’t help with English literacy?
The position of “ASL specialist” does underscore the very fact that ASL itself is NOT secure, and that ASL is not holistically included in the entire school curriculum.
I also agree with you about the heavy emphasis on English portion when one looks at bilingualism. Obviously this is a cover for MONOLINGUALISM…I thank Shelley Potma for raising my consciousness about the so-called nature and goals of ‘bilingualism’. English itself is the *real* goal, not ASL or any other language. And this is a very much American thing…Americans apparently don’t tolerate other languages all that well to begin with. Then add audism to the mix. Ugh.
CHRISTOPHER JON HEUER
One thing to keep in mind… already we have people saying that ASL teachers in community colleges and universities should be highly skilled… none of this “watered down” stuff, right? Yet at the same time if people start making the argument: “Non-signing students should not be admitted to Gallaudet, they should at the very least go to community colleges and learn ASL first,” then really, what are we saying here?
Because if we bring in non-signers and let them learn, they’re learning from some of the most fluent signers on the planet at Gallaudet. And then when they go out into the world to do whatever it is they want to do in life, they have those skills. We’re doing a lot more to create better teachers (not just actual teachers but also teachers by example) by bringing them here rather than by demanding they get lost. I understand the frustrations a lot of people–not just in this forum but elsewhere–are feeling, but let’s solve the problems, shall we? If we want more language access outside the gates of Gallaudet, let’s create more language access INSIDE.
Pure and simple, I think this is all about institutional culture. When I worked at Gallaudet, there was absolutely no serious cultural pressure from the administration, from supervisors, to treat sign language and ASL as a first class citizen. I routinely saw hearing members of the administration and staff speaking to each other in front of everyone. To be sure, though, there were a lot of fear-based reactions (don’t forget to sign at this and this event, or knee-jerk responses to specific incidents). This sets an example for the rank and file.
Coming from the other end of the spectrum, the students (and to a limited extent) the faculty were coming from a very ASL-centric place. If you study Gallaudet as an institution, it’s still pretty hearing-centric. For example, telephones are given to every employee, while VPs are still largely given only to deaf people, or they’re relegated to the Sorenson VP booth ghetto in SAC. There are other examples like this. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just normal… in the world around Gallaudet.
To my knowledge, the administration and staff world has not once ever really sat down and thought about what processes, technology, and practices fit a visual and signing university and align money and staff effort towards that.
If I were the administration and staff world, or even to personalize it a little, if I were Dr. Hurwitz, I’d implement some kind of ‘vision of a signing university’ task force or plan that meets and captures the very grassroots and student-centric sentiment and channels it into concrete, real, and visible changes on campus. The solution is definitely not being draconian about ASL, it’s about aligning the entire University towards being a visual and signing place.
How will we know that we have succeeded in creating a visual/signing-centric University? A friend told me once about working at an nonprofit organization. They were providing an all-day training class for a mostly hearing audience (various nonprofit staffers). The training was provided in ASL though. My friend was the only deaf person. She had to leave the room for a long while, and when she came back she was stunned to witness something — Everyone was still signing. Even though each and every one of them was hearing. And there was no deaf person present. THAT. That, I intuit, is what every deaf person wants to see and feel at Gallaudet.
Thanks to John, Alison, Michele, Chris, Adrean and Bobby for sharing with us their thoughts.