By Joanne Greenberg
A lifetime of working with the Deaf has given me a wealth of great memories and stories to share. Here are 2 quick ones that come to mind.
I was in the nursing home, watching deafened elders scratching spidery words on paper. Many of the words were unreadable. A group was sitting, silent and isolated, in chairs along the wall. Isolation in old-age is a terrible thing to bear, I thought. I got to a fragile old man, with whom I communicated, by howling into his ear.
“I have a gift for all of you!” I shouted. “I can come up here and teach you sign language. Even if you are slow, or have arthritic fingers, you will be able to communicate with one another.” He waved me away.
“We may be low,” he growled, “being here, but we’re not that low.”
“Does that mean you’d rather be mute and isolated than use a beautiful and fluent language, to speak to one another?”
“Our dignity is all we have here,” he said, with a look of great distaste. “We don’t flap our hands around, gesturing.”
Before that conversation, I never would have believed that there was such a stigma connected with using Sign language. I thought the urge to speak and be understood could overcome any negative feelings about a strange manner of communication.
As America’s population ages, with people living longer than ever before, hearing loss is becoming more and more prevelent – and more problematic. Evidence now exists tying age related hearing loss to dementia. This story takes place back in the mid-Seventies. I know that acceptance of ASL has increased dramatically, and that’s great. But the language is still somewhat stigmatized, in particular among the elderly who struggle to come to grips with all the losses – physical and mental – that aging brings.
A Deaf girl was driving me to a class. She had asked me to interpret it, and we were on time. Suddenly, she signalled left, and pulled over to the side of the street. We waited. In a moment, I could hear a siren, but barely and far in the distance. Soon, the sound became louder, then stopped suddenly. Just as I was about to ask her, why she had pulled over, a fire truck – lights only – sped past us.
“Why did you pull over? I could barely hear that siren. And it stopped, well before the fire engine came by.”
“I saw all the people on the sidewalk, a few blocks back, and they all turned to see something coming,” she said. “It would have been either the fire or the police department – so naturally, I pulled over.”
We waited for a few moments, and then were on our way.
There are many forms of deafness. Some Deaf hear better than we do, but in a different frequency range. I have often heard stories of Deaf people hearing a crying baby or a siren, when no one else could. This however, represents a different skill set. This young woman had trained herself to pay attention to stimulus that we might ignore, knowing that what her ears couldn’t tell her, her eyes could. What matters here is not what she could see, but rather what additional information she could glean from what she saw. A valuable skill indeed.
Joanne Greenberg was born in 1932, in Brooklyn, NY. She was educated at American University and received and honorary Doctorate from Gallaudet University – the world’s only college for the Deaf. She has written 2 books on the subject and has spent decades working with state mental hospitals for appropriate care for the mentally ill Deaf.
- Deafness and Hearing loss-Insights, Prevention, way forward (kobbyblay.wordpress.com)
- LipreadingMom’s Hearing loss bullying Campaign (deafinprison.wordpress.com)
- Your Money or Your Life (deafinprison.wordpress.com)
- ‘Switched at Birth’ goes silent to make a point (dailyherald.com)
- PROMISES: MADE & BROKEN to DEAF Prisoners (inprisonedwomen.wordpress.com)
- Ni Gallant: How deaf people can be let down when accessing medical treatment (limpingchicken.com)
- Older deaf people need deaf care homes (deafauntie.wordpress.com)
- Watch: Documentary set to shine light on India, where there are only 250 interpreters for 18 million Deaf people (limpingchicken.com)
- Introduction to Signs of Life – ASL (signsoflifeasl.wordpress.com)