My first encounter with disability was in elementary school. My school was in the same building as the Metro School for the Deaf.
For the most part, the schools – as far as I knew – functioned independently. The “deaf kids,” as we called them, played mainly in the south end of the school yard, near the doors to their classes and we had the run of the rest of playground. From my juvenile perspective, they kept to themselves. In retrospective, we probably excluded them.
The deaf school taught sign language, but emphasized lip reading. There was no attempt to teach signing in the hearing school. In the upper grades, we had a couple of the kids who could lip read join our classes for some subjects. Under the watchful eyes of our teacher, we were well behaved and awkwardly respectful and polite. I don’t know what the goal was, but it seems to me it couldn’t have been too successful because I don’t think it lasted that long.
As I got older I would often see a group of deaf or hard of hearing students in the station at the main conjunction of the subway lines. They would be laughing and joking, like any group of teenagers, only in sign language.
Recently I came across a discussion of the appropriate use of sign language by a hearing person. British blogger Melissa Mostyn-Thomas (the Mostyn-Thomas Journal) was discussing a post to her facebook page from a person who was livid that someone in a mall had asked if he/she was deaf and then launched in to sign language. The individual said he/she didn’t sign (at least in public) and was deeply embarrassed that this other person was signing in the supermarket.
Mostyn-Thomas had an avalanche of responses including one from a blogger named John Walker (Deaf Capital) who talked about language as a sign of class – a more sensitive topic in Britain than Canada. Mostyn-Thomas went on to describe growing up in an upper middle class family going to parties with people speaking in the received pronunciation (or “posh”) accents and barely moving their lips, rendering lip reading almost impossible. Although born into that class, she was excluded by people uninterested in finding a way to communicate with her.
She then describes joining a deaf club, where most of the people were much more “working” class. The members spoke in sign language. She savoured being able to understand what everyone was saying.
She writes that English is her first language but BLS (British Sign Language) is her “saving grace.” She argues that a stranger signing to her is an acceptance of diversity – unlike her early years – and not something to be embarrassed by.
Obviously, some people cannot hide their disability. I cannot take my son to the supermarket without people noticing his wheelchair. Deane is part of our family and he goes where we go – to movies, theatres, restaurants and – much to his annoyance – the supermarket. We are not militant about it, but we expect people to accept the diversity within our family.
If someone asks me about the communication symbols on the tray of Deane’s wheelchair, I assume it is because they would like to communicate with him. If they repeat a question in an increasingly loud voice, hoping to get him to answer, I’ll save them their embarrassment by answering.
Communicating with someone is a form of acceptance. Isn’t acceptance what all disabled people strive for? Let’s get over our personal quibbles and embrace the effort.