Ninety-five percent of deaf children have hearing parents. What does that mean? It means that many of us are used to being the only deaf person in the family, in the community, or in school unless we are at a deaf school.
It means that our family is our first introduction to the ways that hearing people view deafness and deaf children, and the ways that they pass along society’s limited views of deafness.
I became deaf at age three after an illness. Family legend is that I went from being an extroverted child who spoke in sentences as a toddler to an introverted child who was prone to temper tantrums and bed-wetting. A preschool teacher’s assistant declared to my mother that I was speaking in “gobbly-gook” (her word for “nonsense”). She explained that what I was saying meant nothing, and wasn’t meant to mean something. Imagine that!
Translation: At three years old, I felt alone. I was seeking out the words for how alone I felt. I did not know if there were children like me. I sat in speech therapy and did not know why I was there.
I studied faces… not for just words (as was thought by the adults) but also for the meaning behind them and the intentions of the adults speaking. Why was an adult content and smiling at me and then suddenly angry with me? Why did my mother suddenly get up and rush out of the room and where did she go? I thought I had better follow her so I would not lose her! I chose “gobbly-gook” as a protest of my new life. It was missing something that could alleviate my freshly created loneliness: sign language!
I watched Linda on Sesame Street. An adult interrupted the show to smile at me and say, “She is deaf like you!” She pointed to her ear and then to me. “She is special just like you!” (I instinctively recoiled at the phrase “special like you” because I knew then that the word “special” was being used to patronize me in the same way it was when bullying was explained to me as “they treated you that way because you’re special.”)
However, this was the first time I saw “deaf” being used in a positive context! Linda is deaf! Like me!
Her language was beautiful, clear, and meaningful. Her language did not confuse me, nor was it unpredictable like the spoken language of the people who were not like me, whose faces masked their intentions and whose actions confused their words.
Linda’s facial expressions matched what she was saying and how she felt about what she said. She had friends on Sesame Street…but, Linda was alone on Sesame Street.
Gordon and Susan and Miles were a family. They loved each other and talked to each other in their home. Sometimes I saw Gordon’s sister, even.
Maria and Luis were a family too, and spoke to each other in English and in Spanish.
The questions were swimming in my thoughts.
Does Linda have a family, other than her dog, Barkley? Where is her family? Does she have deaf friends? Was anyone in her family deaf?
Does Linda have a Mommy and Daddy? Are they deaf? Does her family communicate with each other in sign so that she is not alone at home?
I sat on the floor and glanced at the front of my shiny new book, “Sign Language Fun” by Linda Bove. B-o-v-e is like dove, and doves are pretty, and Linda is pretty, I thought.
I read the words “Sign Language Fun” over and over then turned each page, quietly practicing signing each word. An adult saw me and smiled as if she thought that was cute, yet I was very serious about learning each word.
I wanted to learn sign language so I could have fun with someone like me. Someone like Linda, but a child like me.
Linda Bove was the first time I associated “deaf” with “sign language” and “fun.”
I was drawn to Linda Bove’s smiling open face and hands. Before her, “deaf” was used in response to a child asking me or asking my parents why I talked funny or what was wrong with me.
Before Linda Bove, “deaf” was bad, sad, and what was wrong with me.
After Linda Bove, “deaf” meant that I had to find children like me, children who studied people’s faces and body language, children who followed their parents everywhere, deaf children who loved Linda Bove…children who realized that there is nothing wrong with Linda; to be deaf is not wrong. I had to find children who wanted a deaf friend, children who were trying to find me.
If they found me, maybe we could then share deaf stories, play and laugh. And when the adults got to their boring talking and talking, we could then sneak upstairs together and go in their closet and touch and dress up in their clothes and shoes before we got caught. Maybe we would sit in the light in our clothes and shoes, and talk in sign language about who in each other’s family was deaf and who was the only one deaf. And maybe we’d together solve the mystery of where there were more children like us and invite them to our house to play.