RECENTLY, while visiting a local attraction, a tropical pastiche typical of South Florida, I stood in a crowd of spectators watching a squad of flamingoes strut from one end of an embankment to another. The only sounds were the flapping of the birds' wings as they ran across the St. Augustine grass. There was something curious about the experience. Suddenly it became clear. Everyone around me, now signing to one another in animated confirmation of the spectacle, was deaf.
They are deaf invites the corollary, I am not deaf , and the remainder of the syllogism, I am not they. They becomes less a designating pronoun than a distancer, separating me from them.
Dancing Without Music , scrupulously researched by Beryl Lieff Benderly, attenuates the separation by offering to both lay readers and interested professionals in the health sciences a comprehensive layout, as rich as an illustrated story board, of the deaf experience.
Writing in that wonderful combination of spare direct precision and artful metaphor, Benderly defines hearing as that which "binds us into our human orbits as surely as gravity holds the planets in theirs," or describes the hearing process as "the wave [sound] sweeps through the cochlea and the tiny hir cells, jostling and bending as it passes, like bathers in the surf." She is equally at ease with both physiology and affect, cataloquing the kinds of hearing loss, from the congential to the adventitious, as well as examining what it's like to grow up deaf, cut off from one's genealogy. Since 90 percent of the deaf have two hearing parents, they must learn how to be culturally deaf from others, usually older deaf children, often without their parents' knowledge or approval, quite different from the hearing child who learns the values, customs and language of his culture at home.
"Would you rather be blind or deaf?" is a question sometimes heard from those smug with the comfort of all faculties in working order. Experts in the field of disabilities who must deal with more then the rhetorical, generally agree that the loss of hearing is more profound, since it is not only a sensorial handicap but a social one, isolating the deaf, even those skilled in speech reading and speech production, from the hearing majority. Benderly sums it up with the judgment of Helen Keller, who said that "blindness separates people from things, deafness separates them from people."
The central issue affecting 2 million deaf Americans, defines as those who cannot hear or understand speech with or without an aid, is whether they should strive to live among the hearing, or spend their social lives among those with whom they have a shared identity. The push-pull of which world will best meet their lifetime needs has divided educational philosophy of the deaf into two camps, oralism, dedicated to reading and producing speech, and total communication, a combination of voice, finger spelling, sign and hearing.
Parents, confronting their own feelings about a disabled child, must decide quickly. Confounding their decision is the fact that deafness is often not diagnosed soon enough nor precisely enough. There is no good way, Benderly tells us, of knowing what one can hear, ony what one can't. In addition, the selection of hearing aids is a haphazard process. What make the parents' choice urgent is the evidence that the children have a particular period in an unfolding timetable of discrete developmental stages in which it is easiest to learn a first language, the one in which one is most comfortable and most fluent. Which way they will educate their deaf child affects the parents as well. The child who learns only to sign becomes estranged from family members who cannot, and if the child is getting oral training, the mother must constantly impose her person, sometimes holding the child's face while she speaks, a strain upon the development of any youngster striving for autonomy.
The conflict between manualism and oralism broadens to subsume conflicts between assimilation and separation, isolation and belonging, and acceptance and denial.
While some deaf have made a successful entry into the professions and have "colonized the computer field," an overwhelming number find employment in manual trades such as printing, carpentry and shoe repair, earning much less than the hearing. It is a double-edged sword of which they can't get hold. The deaf have less education than the hearing and then get jobs that don't exploit the education they do have.
Benderly lays the blame for what she calls the "academic disaster of deaf education" on dogmatism in both camps. Oralists argue that English speech is the common mode of communication and that the child should be exposed to no gesture until his spoken language is secure. Benderly presents the case for modes that integrate both, such as: Neo-oralism, known in the United States as the Rochester method, which combines speech with simultaneous finger spelling; cued speech, developed at Gallaudet by Orin Cornett, which uses the hands in the services of oralism, and mainstreaming, educating the deaf in regular public schools. She writes of the speech reader as leading "the life of a riverboat gambler who relies upon the precision of his cues, dealt some hands that are easier than usual . . . but every conversation is still a game of bluff and figuring the odds."
The book is fine reading despite a moderate tendency toward restatement and a few instances of circular logic such as, "If sign language can't say some things easily, it is because deaf people do not generally discuss the, not because the language is inherently incapable of doing so."
Benderly writes, "For more than two hundred years, we have both attempted to suppress the deaf culture and permitted it to endure." She suggests that the answers to the problems faced by the deaf lie not only in their education buy in the majority culture of which linguist Uriel Weinreich has said, "expects to be addressed in its own language." Our ethnocentric society, which usually distrusts those who are different, seems to have loosened some of its rigid requirements for membership and has even shown interest in learning about its subgroups, most recently, the deaf. If this is so, the key to acceptance of the deaf by the hearing majority need no longer be speech.
With everyone out of the closet and visible, the hearing majority may lose some of its anxiety and fear toward the deaf, confron the reality of deafness, and recognize, as many have, the beauty of a digital ballet as well as marvel at human adaptation.