From time to time, I would be startled when one of my friends or acquaintances decides to “leave” our community. They are always non-natives, often people who found their way into our world as adults after excruciating childhoods as the only deaf one in their families and schools. One woman who recently did this said that “the Deaf community is a snake pit of backstabbers!” Another friend who walked out on my local deaf-blind community wrote a blanket email accusing everyone of rejecting him.
The reason why their departures seem so sudden to me is that, as far as I could tell, the Deaf community isn’t a snake pit of backstabbers, and the deaf-blind community did accept that man. These incidents remind me once again how differently people can experience the same thing, in our community. So differently, in fact, that you would think they were talking about different planets.
Some who performed the Exit Stage Left act have suggested that they were mistreated and disrespected because they’ve been mainstreamed or because they don’t sign ASL fluently. They charge me and other natives of being “insensitive.” They say we are “lucky” and that the reason nobody stabs our backs or rejects us is because we went to Deaf schools and because we sign like water. (Never mind that we are subjects of gossip as much as anyone else.) Based on this argument, the community is at fault, and they’ve been unjustly forced to “quit” our community. (Never mind that no one asked them to leave.)
Now, I’m not saying that people aren’t sometimes mistreated in our community. As a deaf-blind member of our predominantly sighted signing community, I am no stranger to being discriminated against or being avoided like the plague. Sexism and racism exist in our community just as they do in society at large. This problem of certain members abandoning our community happens even when these types of bigotry don’t apply. There have been black Deaf members leaving black Deaf folk, deaf-blind leaving deaf-blind, feminists leaving feminist friends. How could there be such discrepancies in how people feel about our community?
If there’s one thing that can make people interpret the same thing in opposite ways, it’s expectations. For example, I visited a sculpture garden with a friend. This place had a famous piece which we would encounter for the first time. We found that it was seventeen feet tall. I was impressed, but my friend was disappointed. Why? Because I thought it would be only five, maybe eight feet tall, while my friend expected it to be thirty, even forty feet tall. Such is the distorting power of expectations. Could it be that some members, especially those who come in later in life, carry great expectations for what our community should be?
One sure way to find “evidence” that says there’s something inherently wrong with our community is to have certain expectations for what would be “right” that our community should fulfill. Our community should be nice to everyone and accept everyone. Our community should not allow gossip. Our community should be patient. Our community should never condone labels. Our community should understand, should know better, should behave, should act more mature, should be more professional, should be more welcoming. Should, should, should. And since all of those shoulds refer to good ideals, we who love our community are at a loss how to respond. It’s not like we can say, “It’s fine that we are immature, and backstabbing is great!” So we have no answer to the bitterness, hurt, and rage bubbling up in those members until they leave weeping.
A quick consideration of their typical background–mainstreaming, lonely childhoods, communication deprivation–makes me realize that this background is ripe breeding grounds for great expectations. Human beings are social animals. When some are unfortunately isolated, it is natural that they should long to have contact with others. They talk to themselves, they create imaginary friends, they retreat into fantasy worlds. Games, movies, and books are easier to understand than real life. Doing homework on time and getting straight As are safer than venturing out into the hallways and back lots and risking awkward situations or ambushes.
And then they meet other Deaf people. It’s a new world. There exists a community! A culture! Could this–? Could they–? Yes, it’s a family, and yes, they can become part of it and at long last belong. And this is great. It really is.
But ours is also an ordinary community. The social climate is, well, normal. There is normal competition. There are natural bondings and divisions. Love, hatred, compassion, jealousy, admiration, intolerance–they’re all part of life in our community, as they are in any other.
Through my conversations with non-natives, I have learned that many of them grew up in a social vacuum where they did not have access to all the finer points of human interactions. This seems to have the result that some grow up with a thin social skin. When they enter the signing world, the first community they have full access to, they enter unarmed and vulnerable. So things like rumors can be confusing and hurtful. They can become paranoid, worrying about what others think of them. They are afraid that everyone will believe everything that’s said about them, and that they will be rejected, left out and left behind again. The ground beneath their feet can seem so unsteady.
When I encounter this mixture of longing and fear, I want very much to assure them that it’s all right, that they do belong, that they are accepted, and to please not worry. But I have learned that this assurance cannot be magically given or surgically implanted in them. Our warmth, hugs, and encouragement can help, but this assurance, this security, this identity must be born in their very beings. Ultimately, it is their responsibility.
Sometimes they want our community to be different, to fit their idea of the dream community. It is true that our community needs to change, and always keep on changing, with the flow of our human needs. But our community does have certain social structures and rules, and it sometimes cannot accommodate certain attitudes and behaviors. While notions of universal peace and acceptance are beautiful, the reality is that our community’s success depends as much on our flaws and limitations as on our virtues. In the struggle between the base and the ideal is life. It is up to them to reconcile themselves with the foundations of our community or not.
I think that an awareness of expectations is important for our making peace with this phenomenon. We who love our community should not feel bad for failing to meet those great expectations. No community on Earth can meet them. When members leave us, they will encounter the same humanity everywhere else. We hope that their life journeys will lead them to us again, this time with a richer understanding of who we all are.