Last year around this time, I took my first American Sign Language (ASL) class. I figured I could use some learning to connect with others and the study of another culture to distract me from my constant, excruciating pain. It reminded me how much I love the traditional learning environment. Participating in the class made me feel alive when I hadn’t in quite some time. I was committed to taking the next class and the next; however, I was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks after my first class concluded.
So when I got an email about classes opening up in January at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind (CSDB), I jumped on it immediately. It’s been a year since I took the last class, so I am fairly rusty. Which is a very nice way to say that I have no idea what the hell is going on most of the time. This often leads to me embarrassing myself in front of the whole class. Impostor syndrome is creeping back up on me. When I look around at my classmates (is that still an appropriate word to use after elementary school?) I see them catching on very quickly and using signs that I haven’t seen before.
This class is set up in a more conversational fashion which is SO HARD yet so effective! On the first night my teacher asked me if I grew up here in Colorado but I could not understand what she was signing. I couldn’t remember the sign for “repeat again slowly” so I just sat there looking at her with wide, panicked eyes. I’m not exaggerating when I say she had to explain it to me eight different ways with other signs. All in front of the entire class. I was so embarrassed that I considered not going back. Now that I type that out, it seems silly to let that defeat me when I spent the last year dealing with cancer. Impostor syndrome, go fuck yourself.
The teacher is wonderful, witty and challenging. She is also native to ASL and to deaf culture which allows us to not only learn the language, but to see through the eyes of someone in the deaf community. Hearing is such a privilege that I know I certainly take for granted. It’s a privilege not to have to think about the struggles of living in a majority hearing world. Learning about the deaf community fills me with wonder. After class this week, I began to Google “can deaf people…” looking for results of if deaf people can hear themselves chew. But the results were surprising and completely out of touch with the deaf community. “Can deaf people drive?”; “Can deaf people live a normal life?”; “Can deaf people read?”; “Can deaf people think?”. The answer is yes to all of those, depending on the person.
I recently spoke with my cousin about deaf culture and she shared a story with me about a nurse with whom she works who was assigned a deaf patient. She told my cousin “He’s the highest functioning deaf person I’ve ever seen” and my cousin’s sharp retort, “Well, he’s not intellectually or developmentally disabled, he’s deaf.” And I’m here to tell you, friends, that deaf does not equal dumb or stupid. Deaf people get so overlooked because the general population knows nothing about their culture and their lives, including me all my life so we make assumptions. Let’s challenge ourselves to not assuming and just leaving it at that. Let’s dig a bit deeper and help the deaf community be seen and respected.
Images borrowed from Colorado Encyclopedia.