By Jean F. Andrews
While some children learn to read effortlessly and on their own, I had to wait until the first grade. After my teacher taught me the 26 letters of the alphabet with the sounds they make, and taught me 20 to 30 sight words, she handed me a primer, my first book. Before my very eyes, the magic of story unfolded. I lurched forward through the talk to print connections, put it all together, until it made sense, I was on my way. Reading took me to worlds far and wide, real and imagined. And I have not put a book down since.
My ease in learning to read is not so with most deaf and hard of hearing children.
For them it is a lifelong struggle to access visual language–both signed and written. The struggle begins at home in a sound-base environment and continues to school, another sound-based setting and if they have scrapes with the law, it continues into still another sound- based setting, the prison.
My colleague, who organized a book club for hearing inmates in our town’s prison, says his book club is transforming minds. Inmates read books and get together with him to discuss ideas from the novels and share their own experiences about situations and characters they read about. Not a bad way to spend their time while they are doing time.
But if you are deaf, it’s a different story.
Most deaf inmates can’t read beyond the second grade level. It would be impossible for deaf inmates who are illiterate to get into the biography of Malcolm X or To Kill A Mockingbird or Macbeth or read Robert Frost’s poetry. My colleague’s prison book club has created a shared humanity, an oxymoron in such an incapacitating and punitive setting as the prison.
While deaf inmates reading levels are lower than the average reading level of most deaf high school leavers which is 3rd to 4th grade, still deaf non-offenders have information sources around them through the Internet, YouTube, VRS, their signing deaf and hearing friends, signing hearing friends, Deaf sports, and Deaf associations and ASL/English bilingual e-books.
Not so, for deaf inmates.
Deaf inmates live in cells without books or signing companions. Not only are they locked up physically; they are locked within the prison of illiteracy and within the prison without signers. It is prison times three.
What a terrible, excruciating lonely and cruel existence.
Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.
- Deaf – Blind Inmates: Are They Being Served Appropriately in Jail? (deafinprison.wordpress.com)
- Picture Glossaries in Jail: Do They Work? (deafinprison.wordpress.com)
- Deaf Prisoners in Florida Face Abuse and Solitary Confinement (solitarywatch.com)
- The Half Message (deafinprison.wordpress.com)
- Visit to the Deaf and Blind Unit (jelford.wordpress.com)