ASL classes

A journalist contacted me recently, asking if he could get my perspective as a deaf journalist about the news media’s coverage of the deaf community.

“For the interview, we could video chat and use Google docs to do a written interview,” he wrote. “I’m also learning ASL but I don’t know enough to conduct an interview in sign just yet.”

How did he think the video chat would work?!

When I responded, I explained that the topic was complex because there are different deaf communities, of which many aren’t aware. I also told him I don’t know ASL, if that was any indication.

He said in his ASL class, a large aspect of the curriculum is learning about deaf culture and the deaf community, which he’s found fascinating. “Do you use a different signing language?” he asked. “I was not aware there were others used in the US.”

I don’t know how many classes he’s had so far, but there’s a disconnect because ASL stands for American Sign Language. As in, the only one used in the US. If you go to another country, you’re shit out of luck.

In my next email to him, I told him that ASL classes focus on Deaf Culture, are inherently biased, and often promulgate false information. The deaf community is actually comprised of two separate communities – the Deaf community and the deaf community, or as some refer to it, the speaking deaf community.

“That you automatically assumed that I sign, even if it’s not ASL, is a perfect example,” I wrote. “ASL is American Sign Language. There are deaf people who sign and many of us who don’t. People automatically assume I sign just because I’m deaf, but I was raised to speak and read lips. I have many friends who had auditory-verbal therapy, which means they can hear/understand without lipreading.”

To his credit, he said he hoped I didn’t find his assumptions offensive. “My teacher does exactly as you said many ASL teachers do, which is propagate the idea that all deaf people sign,” he added. “My professor actually tells us that deaf people prefer ASL to learning to speak and lipread, which is clearly not true. I apologize for automatically categorizing you as someone who uses visual language.” He said if he hadn’t offended me, he still wanted to send me some questions. I said ok.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with the ramifications of ASL classes. Sure, it’s in the teachers’ best interests to make it sound like more people use ASL. But all teachers have a responsibility to be accurate. Part of the problem lies within Deaf Culture, unfortunately; threatened by the advent of technology like cochlear implants, and the decreasing numbers of people who sign, they believe in the propaganda.

In this kind of situation, I always think about parents of a newly diagnosed deaf child. If they’ve taken an ASL class or know someone who has, they won’t realize all the options available to them. How can you truly make the best choice for your family in this case? Keep in mind, 90% of all children born deaf have hearing parents. If parents choose cochlear implants and oral education, then the child can be part of the family’s culture and community. When they’re raised with sign, they are effectively shut off from many members of their family. I’m part of a deaf community too, just not the capital-D Deaf community.

This is why, as a deaf journalist, I feel a responsibility to speak out when I see misconceptions and misinformation about deafness. They provoke in me such a visceral reaction, and I’m in a unique position to educate.

The journalist learning ASL sure got a lot more than he bargained for when he contacted me!

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