Incoherence? Not so much.


I’ve been able to be in more contact with the Deaf community in the past few weeks.  Sometimes I just happen to bump into folks who are at a coffee shop or I meet them other places by accident or design.  Because of my greater exposure I’m getting better at receptive sign, but my expressive sign still lags.  (sigh)

One thing I have noted that is developing is that I am internalizing the structure of ASL.  Last week I ran into a situation where an individual who has some environmental hearing left and who has phenomenal lip reading and voicing skills got very upset (understandably so) and began ranting (as any normal person would) about the very troubling situation.  A hearing person commented that the Deaf person was “babbling” and “incoherent.”  My response was, “No, it makes perfect sense – in ASL.”  You see, the Deaf person was orally expostulating using internal ASL word processing.  It is like when someone from Italy gets upset and pretty soon you’ve got arm waving, some Italian, some English and maybe a couple other European languages thrown in for good measure.  The person doing the expostulating would make perfect sense to someone from that same environment, but not to me.

ASL is not now, nor will it ever be English. There is no direct translation – either word for word (that’s Signed Exact English) nor an entirely consistent thought translation.  Consider how difficult it is to agree on a translation from Hebrew to Greek to English for a Bible and the plethora of different versions on the market. Why?  Because there is no precise translation.  It is what the interpreters think people from 2,ooo years ago in a culture we never experienced and only think we understand said and meant.  Now  we have a living breathing culture (Deaf Culture) and yet hearing culture still doesn’t get it that some terms of art, let alone some hearing culture concepts, simply are unable to be translated accurately from English to ASL and back.

My background in cultural anthropology (a college major of mine) in combination with linguistics taught me that language is the repository of culture.  When a language dies the culture goes with it because the ability to understand the culture is tied up in the expressions used.  Here we have a language that is a living, breathing, evolving one coupled with a vital culture.  I’ve come to recognize that some concepts do not translate well.  Some of the most difficult are legalistic ones.  I suspect it is hell to do translations regarding technical medical jargon because it would require a Rochester type method – fingerspelling.  And if the person does not understand the term being used then one is faced with either building understanding from the ground up – which might take some time – or doing a workaround.

In some cases I find it is easier for all involved to simply say, “No.”shaking head and going into full negative body mode, “Never do. Finished.”  This comes from long exposure to working with many cultures, socio-economic groups, and language groups from New England to Alaska. Unless understanding of the why is required (and there’s time to spend hours in education mode) then No can be the best short-term solution.  I remember a cultural group where the children all had burns on their backs from having a heated metal spoon pressed into the flesh.  Of course, the parents and grandparents all had them too.  It was done not to torture, but to draw out a cold from the lungs – to preserve the health of the person. While everyone is running around screaming child abuse, no one sat down and said to the loving parents, We don’t do that here.  Here we use (insert over the counter medication).  It was clear to me that we needed to stop the conduct first and the why of it all was saved for a later date.  In addition to wanting to be good parents, these folks wanted to be good Americans – so they stopped using heated spoons and started using things like cough medicine.  Sometimes we over-think things.

My views on the criminal justice system and its interactions with the Deaf are growing every day.  The hearing don’t get it that the Deaf don’t entirely understand hearing culture – and the hearing don’t get it that they have no clue about Deaf culture. I am very aware that I’m only on the very periphery and I need far more exposure.  My culture is hearing because I never had Deaf culture exposure, but it doesn’t make my culture right – merely dominant. Hearing individuals usually don’t get it that Deaf individuals don’t necessarily understand English. The information provided by legal interpreters can only go so far and then words fail us all.  All that being said, if you took the average hearing person off the street and plonked them down in a legal setting they have only bits and pieces of TV shows to go from as to what is going on.  I’ve seen people get so upset they go in the bathroom and vomit before going into court – and they can hear just fine.

I wonder how often a Deaf person has been adjudged incompetent when the incompetent person was the therapist or doctor who could not understand ASL.  Gives me chills sometimes.

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