The student news of St. Paul Academy and Summit School

The Rubicon

The student news of St. Paul Academy and Summit School

The Rubicon

The student news of St. Paul Academy and Summit School

The Rubicon

Deaf, not disabled: it matters

In response to recent articles and interest in ASL and the Deaf community at SPA, I offer a few points to help prepare our community for future discussions, interactions, and initiatives.

First, I would like to note that my experience through my parents’ work with South African Sign Language (SASL) has allowed me to meet many Deaf people and to learn about Deaf culture and sign language, giving me a perspective that is, unfortunately, rare among hearing people. These experiences have instilled in me a passion to continue learning sign language to communicate with Deaf people and appreciate their culture.

When discussing sign language and the Deaf community, using correct and respectful language is important. For example, it is not appropriate to describe sign language as a system of gestures. Gestures are often spontaneous and improvisational and are used by hearing people to accompany speech. In contrast, the signs that comprise sign language are composed of specific hand shapes and positions, palm orientation, motions, facial expressions, and body movements, which combine in specific ways to communicate in a particular sign language. We completely miss the descriptive mark when we reduce any sign language to gestures, and we do a disservice to the beauty of the language.

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ASL has an interesting and difficult history that is just as complex as any spoken language.

— Violet Pitcher

Furthermore, there are words that many people use to describe Deaf people, such as disabled, hearing impaired, or communicatively disordered, that describe them with respect to a hearing “norm.” It is important to note the difference in meaning between deaf and Deaf. “Deaf” (capital “D”) refers to people who are culturally Deaf and communicate primarily via sign language rather than lip reading, whereas “deaf” (lowercase “d”) is a medical term for hearing loss. Lowercase ‘d’ deafness is a spectrum describing how well one can hear; everything is from the hearing point of reference. As hearing people, it is disrespectful to use such language to encapsulate the Deaf experience.

ASL has an interesting and difficult history that is just as complex as any spoken language. It is a natural and evolving language with syntax and other similar functional features. These naturally occurring signed languages have been around as long as there have been Deaf people.

Deaf history also includes the dark age of oralism, where deaf students were forced to communicate via oral language by lip-reading and mimicking breathing patterns and mouth shapes to be “seen as fit for the world.” Deaf students around the world have been subject to other abuses, such as having their hands tied to keep them from using sign language.

However, in Deaf culture, people don’t see themselves as lacking just because they don’t experience the world exactly like hearing people do. After all, everyone has different human experiences that do not subtract but add to the quilt of culture and community. Deaf culture offers pride and a sense of belonging and identity. Though there are many deaf people who don’t have a loving support system, there are also many Deaf people who experience a supportive community where being Deaf is never seen as a disability or a hindrance to their human experience.

Standards at SPA should be inclusive, not exclusive, and are present to guide the best principles, qualities, and ways of being that we seek to develop in our community. Learning someone’s language and culture is one of the fundamental ways to get to know them. We want whatever ability, perspective, and identity you bring to the table to belong at school. Even though they should, it doesn’t always feel like they do, and this is why understanding, respecting, and encouraging vulnerability in safe spaces is so crucial.

The first steps on this journey include using resources to learn about ASL, its history, and the Deaf community while also seeking to spread awareness about the Deaf experience. To do this, we cannot assume things or seek to understand only the hearing perspective. We must take the time to listen to the experiences of Deaf people on their terms. Their perspectives can be difficult to access, but there are people on social media platforms who are Deaf and want to educate hearing people: Sign Duo (@SignDuoChannel), Elizabeth Harris (@L1zHarris), and Kylee & TJ (@letsgo-byeee), among many others.

As a member of the community, I believe that it is important to impart truth and educate with understanding rather than judgment because that is how we, as communities, grow and learn.

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