During this summer of the Olympics, my Facebook friends have “shared” a particular picture of Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee Olympic runner. I’m sure you’ve seen this picture – it is a really sweet photo. In it, you see Pistorius, crouched in a running stance, looking down with a broad, white-toothed grin at an angelic-looking little girl toddling along on “blades” just like those Pistorius has. The picture simultaneously evokes a twinge of sympathy for this little girl as well as a frisson of happiness at seeing Pistorius being there to show this girl she can do anything she aspires to.
Being Deaf, I’m compelled to look at Pistorius’ eyes, and in them, I see yet another story. Pistorius, in looking at the girl, is also seeing himself in her – he knows the struggles, frustrations, and joys this girl will experience as she grows up, since they will be similar to the same struggles, frustrations and joys that he himself had experienced. He is smiling that broad smile not only in encouragement, but at his younger self, represented through this girl, as if saying “you too, can be like me – don’t let anyone tell you you can’t, because you can be all that you can and want to be”.
Looking further at the picture, I see more to this story. I envision Pistorius maintaining contact with this girl throughout the rest of their lives, acting as a mentor, and even as something of an unofficial “uncle” to this girl. He will do this because he knows what she is and will experience, and wants to share with her the ideas, tips and strategies that he has developed from his own lifetime of experience. He wants to help minimize the frustration and any negative feelings she might develop about herself as a result of not “being like everybody else”.
How is it I’m able to see all this in that one picture? It’s because it’s the same impulse that I, and just about every Deaf person I know has upon seeing a Deaf child, especially one with Hearing parents who does not have contact with other Deaf people (adult or children), regardless of whether the child has a cochlear implant, hearing aid, is oral or uses cued speech or signed English. In these children, we see ourselves, and just like Pistorius, we know what these children are experiencing and will experience as they grow and mature. We too, want to help these children develop a sense of confidence and happiness about themselves as Deaf people, and to see them grow up into fully functional members of society.
Why did I use the word “impulse”? It’s because I, like many other Deaf adults, pretty much expect and fear a hostile reaction from their parents. We are almost certain of the parents shoving their child behind them while waving a crucifix and angrily hissing at us to back off because this child is not ours, that it is the parents’ prerogative to decide how the child will be raised, and most of all, that we are all but attempting to “steal” the child into the “shadowy, secretive world of Deaf culture”.
Returning to Pistorius’ picture, the girl is obviously too young to have asked Pistorius for his advice. Pistorius was put in contact with the girl through some party, and most certainly with her parents’ wholehearted approval. Although not shown, I see the girl’s mother somewhere out of the frame of the picture, smiling as she watches Pistorius engage with this child and share of himself and his spirit with her. In one Facebook thread discussing this picture, a commenter suggested that it should be shared with Hearing parents of Deaf children, so that they might “get it” regarding why Deaf people feel it is so important for Deaf children, and especially those with Hearing families, to have positive contacts and interactions with Deaf adults like ourselves. And you would think that this person is right – if it’s almost immediately evident even to uninitiated outsiders that the child can benefit from her interaction(s) with Pistorius, then they should see that the same should also be true of Deaf children with Deaf adults.
However, there is a major difference between Pistorius and culturally Deaf people. Pistorius speaks the same language as the society around him, and lives among people who have feet. He is not speaking to the child in a language different from that of the parents’, nor is he conveying different cultural values. He is simply attempting to help teach the child how to “cope”, to live as a person who walks with “blades” rather than feet; to live as he does.
Yet, this is exactly what we Deaf people want to do with these young Deaf children that we encounter as well: we want to help teach them how to “cope”, to live as a person who uses their eyes for interactions with the world rather than their ears; to live as we do. For culturally Deaf people, Deaf culture was developed as a coping mechanism (as all cultures ultimately are), providing strategies for manipulating and navigating the visually-oriented world we live in as Deaf people, as well as other strategies for navigating the auditory-oriented world of the Hearing. Our language, our cultural norms, our values are all ways of life for us, and they are, in their own way, just as useful tools for managing life among those who rely on auditorily-obtained information. But for many Hearing parents of Deaf children, to teach and expose their children to Deaf culture and the Deaf way of living appears to them to be the antithesis of what Pistorius is doing. In their eyes, Pistorius is helping the child to integrate with them (and society as a whole) and to live a life similar to that of her parents. In the case of Deaf people, the use of sign language and creating a social environment among Deaf people is seen as taking their child away from them and their lives.
But is this true? There are countless stories within the Deaf community (including my own) about how the paucity (if not complete lack) of communicative access to family interactions through sign language has created the opposite of the intended effect: rather than integrating the Deaf child into the family’s life (as well as society), it has created an emotional and social chasm between the child and their families, and Deaf people often feel even more marginalized from wider society. In direct contravention to the anti-sign language propaganda promulgated by the Alexander Graham Bell Association and its proxies, those Deaf people whose parents learned and used sign language with their children appear to have (in my observation) much healthier and closer relationships with their parents than those whose parents chose not to use sign language or involve the Deaf community with their children. And these people also generally appear to be much more functional and healthy as adults than many of those who were not fortunate enough to have open, unfettered communicative access to family interactions through sign language.
So, it stands to reason that if exposure to a healthy, functional adult without feet is a good thing for this child, then exposure to a healthy, functional Deaf adult should be a good thing for a Deaf child, right? One would think so, but then again, where Deaf people are concerned, logic often seems to run away faster than Pistorius’ Olympic rivals.