Fierce or fierce advocacy?

An Internet friend commented to me that yesterday’s blog was “fierce” for addressing head on the problem of what amounts to English illiteracy among many, but certainly not all, the prelingually deaf – and also wondered if I’d had incoming fire from the Deaf Community over it.  Not yet.  But there is time – yesterday were the SCOTUS decisions on same-sex marriage and that filled the field.

ASL is not English.  It has it’s own syntax and grammar.  I love it for what it is.  I do not expect it to substitute for English.  Perhaps this is because I am hearing impaired rather than part of the Deaf Community or because I am what the Deaf community calls “oral deaf.”  I heard well enough early in life to sound like any other native English speaker from the Nebraska area (I have what is known as a Nebraska or Newscaster’s accent.) Perhaps it is because I had dyslexia and struggled madly to learn to read and write English, and once I had the “Aha!” moment I immersed myself in the English language. That being said,  I could not identify a gerund if my life depended on it, but I know how to USE the language that is dominant in my homeland.

I am not a native ASL speaker.  Therefore, my sentence construction and grammar leave something a lot  a great deal to be desired.  I figure I have the rest of my life to work that out because, insofar as I am aware, no one who is a native ASL speaker is going to refuse to hire me or give me a bad grade, or sanction me in some meaningful way because my sentence is backwards as regards ASL sentence construction. The same cannot be said in reverse.

Now, granted, I won’t be an Interpreter for the Deaf any time soon because (a) I’m not able to hear well enough to be a “terp” and (b) I’m not Deaf enough to be considered for a position as a Deaf Interpreter. Nor am I facile enough (yet) to be hired by facilities who recruit ASL speakers for all positions from nurse to receptionist.

However, there are two disabilities that substantially interfere with employment:  blindness and deafness.  Now the Deaf Community folks have explained to me that being deaf is not a disability. I’ve heard the exact same thing from the blind community.  However, no one can argue that when upwards of 80% of each community is unemployed, unless they go out and create jobs for themselves, that there isn’t a barrier to employment.

The Deaf believe they can pretty much do anything a hearing person can.  That may or may not be true, just as the blind believe they can basically do anything a sighted person can do with just a few restrictions.  What I will say is that one thing I have run into pretty consistently, from the very first time I interacted with a deaf person (my first boyfriend) is an inability to adequately communicate in writing.  Why?  Because ASL is not English.

Personally, I prefer ASL to SEE, but I believe that SEE is preferable for educational settings so that a deaf or hearing impaired child learns English in sign and English on the paper.  I do believe that all seriously hearing impaired or deaf children should be bilingual.  They need sign early and often and they need oral abilities.  There’s a reason why.  Education and employment, firstly, and God forbid they end up involved in the legal system because without understanding English it is a nightmare.

There are Deaf lawyers – I know quite a few – and so far I don’t know one who is not oral deaf.  Some sign, most don’t sign much, and they’re all pretty darn literate in English and legalese.  They have to be.  It is their trade.

The scary part for me is representing someone who has extremely poor language skills.  I have met people from Vietnam who needed interpreters and yet were more skilled at navigating the legal system than most of the deaf individuals I’ve worked for.  If an individual can’t tell the difference between the defense and the prosecution we’ve got a huge problem.  If the individual can’t read and understand even basic forms associated with the court system, we’ve got another enormous problem.

Since Deaf literacy is so low (estimated to be 3rd to 4th grade in most studies) there are a lack of words and concepts to convey necessary information.  If there is no understanding of a complex concept then I’m left spending hours trying to convey information that is absolutely critical and yet may never be understood by the person I’m trying to explain to.  Deaf Interpreters may not be able to explain it either.  Call me crazy, but I don’t believe most Deaf with minimal English skills spend a lot of time watching Law and Order with Closed Captioning. There’s a reason studies since the 1990’s have pointed out that fully 20% of the deaf in prison were not able to participate in their own defense and should never have been tried.

This is one of the reasons that when I tutor bar exam students I refuse to accept text message lingo from them in texts or emails.  Because I am a pain in the butt?  I’m sure there are a few who’d agree, but mostly it is because we humans default to our lowest level of functioning when we’re under stress – stress in court, stress in a job interview, stress while taking the bar exam, you name it. So the higher the functioning level the better the overall outcome regarding communications.

I do get push-back.  I get it from bar exam students who sometimes have to fail a couple of times in order to get it that they need to listen to what they’re being told.  I get it from the Deaf Community – largely because I’m told I’m not deaf enough to understand.  I get it from those I’m doing my best to help with their legal issues.  I don’t expect someone who cannot function at a certain level to miraculously learn to do it overnight.  That’s water over the dam. What we need to focus on is making sure that under-education for the deaf/Deaf stops – now.  Today.  And for those who attempt to write English as if it is ASL, realize that if you want something – a job, a good grade, whatever, you need to communicate adequately with the person you’re talking too.  Many years ago I learned that it is the person making the communication who is responsible for making sure it is understood (with a few exceptions). It’s probably why I beat a topic to death – I am trying my hardest to make sure the message is both received and understood.

My English is not perfect, yet it is good enough that I can get a job.  No one has to question if I can read instructions well enough to understand them.  It doesn’t take being a wordsmith to have an adequate command of the English language.  However, unless someone is at least a 5th grade level of reading and writing comprehension, we’ve got problems.  It doesn’t mean that person is stupid – because they can be a brilliant dyslexic, but they’re going to have problems in the world at large with education and employment.

So if I am “fierce” regarding the ability of the deaf and hard of hearing (or hearing impaired, take your choice) to be able to communicate, it is because I see that as the only  way we have of getting a decent education and adequate employment.  It can be labeled as “audist” by deaf activists or it can be understood as the reality of the world in which we live.  I can only assume we do all live in the same world, else this would be written in Martian, yes?


  1. I come at this from the opposite end. I’m a writer and a linguist, and I understand the differences in syntax, grammar, etc. It’s part of what makes learning Sign difficult. For example, a neophyte Signer may get hung up looking for the Sign for “is.” In English we learn to use tense, case, subjunctive etc. In many languages – such as German – gender is also thrown into the mix. One has to learn the difference between ein, and eine. Learning a language – any language – is extremely difficult. Native speakers may forget that it took them years to learn their own first languages. It is difficult, but not impossible – and it is infinitely rewarding. On the other hand, written English is different from spoken English, and far more so from ASL. I agree that young Deaf people should be well versed in both.

    1. Unless one is late deafened there is no excuse for the educational system not to provide sign and written English. The reason SEE I’d better in terms of editing action is that it replicates English. If provided during the 1st 4 years of life the brain is very plastic and easily learns both. This means I strongly advocate early intervention with deaf kids to enable them to maximize language capacity. We do it for blind kids and kids with learning delays.

      Deafness is a non-standard human condition and we need to give more options and help. All 3 of my grandkids got early intervention, each firs different reason. They all excel now. The youngest is hearing impaired

  2. We’re in total agreement on the text message lingo thing. When I was doing tech work, I had a phone conversation with a vendor that, other than hello and goodbye, was all in alphabet soup. “I need a VGA ISA with SMPTE I/O and SPDIF.” “You’re SOL. We don’t have anything FOB.” Etc., etc. By the end, both of us couldn’t help but laugh.

    Language is incredibly important to me. It is more than my tool, it is my birthright. Deeded me by God. As such, I’m quite defensive about it, and guard it jealously. 4 is a number. For is a word. Never the twain shall meet.

    Orwell warned us about the dangers of watering down our language. Language isn’t merely a tool for communication, it’s a tool for thought. Take away our language, and you take away our ability to think.

    1. Nods in agreement. Language is the repository of culture. It is why anthropological linguists attempt to preserve dying languages – recording the last speaker of a language.

      I’m not sure where our culture is headed with the linguistic changes we see today as a result of texting. At least so far I am not told “LOL” in ASL or oral English.

      By the way, I looked at SOL in your post and thought, “Statute of Limitations?” and then realized there is another to SOL. And thereby comes another problem of introducing inherent errors.

      I can do without “is” and realize that verbs can be demonstrated in ASL because it is a 3-D language. I’ll show you how to demonstrate where you’re driving too the next time we connect. 🙂

      Language is critically important to communication. And communication that is effective is critically important to how well we do in life.

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