Sunday, January 17

Books I read in 2009 relating to deafness

There are so many books I read in 2009 but didn't blog about them either because I didn't have time or wasn't motivated. Here are two more I remembered:

In This Sign by Joanne Greenberg

I'd first read this book soon after it was published, way back in 1970. My English teacher saw it being offered in those Scholastic Books monthlies we used to receive. She told me about it and wondered if I'd ever read it or if I wanted to. She was one of the few people at my high school that knew my parents were deaf. I read the synopsis and had to have it. I loved it. I was about 16.

I loaned it to my mother and she read it and hated it. She said it made the deaf seem stupid. I hadn't thought so and I thought she was incredibly small minded. It figured though. She and my father always complained about hearing people thinking them stupid and taking advantage of them. I was irritated that she didn't like it and felt she'd totally blown off the point of view/feelings of the hearing daughter character, Margaret.

Now that I'm an adult, I'm thinking I probably was more irritated that she was always blowing off my feelings and that this just seemed to me more of the same.

Nearly 40 years later, I figured I'd read it again and see what I thought.

I have to say I do understand why my mother felt as she did but I want to add that the apparent "stupidity" of the deaf characters is to make more apparent how hearing people can take advantage of deaf.

Here's how:

Janet and Abel Ryder are very young in the beginning of the story. They're in court, ready to appear before a judge. They're terrified. It's around 1920. I was very surprised that an interpreter shows up to sign for them. Having interpreters for the deaf in court and in hospitals is required now but let me tell you, it wasn't even into the mid-1970s.

Anyway, the reason Janet and Abel are in court is because they were rooked into buying a car they couldn't really afford. They didn't understand the terms of the contract at all--they didn't even realize they were supposed to be making payments. Worse, they wrecked the car in an accident! As the interpreter signs and elicits the story from the frightened Abel, it becomes clear that Abel was clueless. The interpreter is furious and accuses Abel of making the deaf community look bad. He becomes abusive. The judge says that Abel has to pay for the car, giving some of his salary every week until the debt is paid off.

Why was the young couple so ignorant? They were educated in a school for the deaf. In those days, education was practically non-existent in schools that followed the oral method of teaching. That means the day was spent learning to lipread and to speak. Forget reading. Forget writing. Forget math. Focus on moving mouths for hours. Without language, the mouths of course make no sense. The oralists didn't think about that one.

The crushing debt changes Janet dramatically. She was a young girl that liked to laugh and have fun. Over the years, she becomes bitter, withdrawn, secretive and angry. She resists Abel's attempts to have them socialize with other deaf people. She focuses only on making and hoarding money.

Janet and Abel have two children. The older child is Margaret, and I identified with her right away. The focus of the story shifts a little to Margaret. Isolated from others, forced to become an adult while she was still a little child, Margaret totally reminded me of me. She interpreted for her parents, advising them how to navigate the hearing world. She put the needs of her parents ahead of her own always. She was in a no-win situation because as a hearing person, her parents were always suspicious that she was conniving against them. It's a hard place to be.

The story spans a good forty years, a strong coming of age story. I have to say, though, that it is very depressing in many places. The section about Margaret's little brother Bradley was especially hard to take but it sure does illustrate a couple of major points and one of them was the complete communication breakdown between hearing and deaf. If you read the book, you'll know exactly which scene I mean.

Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World
by Leah Cohen

Speaking of education for the deaf in the United States ;), an enlightening book to read is Train Go Sorry.

What means train go sorry?

It's a deaf idiom, the deaf version of "you missed the boat". It's what happened to the deaf students Cohen wrote about at the Lexington School for the Deaf.

Leah Hager Cohen's grandfather was deaf. Her father was the superintendent of the Lexington School for the Deaf in the late 1960s on. Guess what! My mother went to Lexington in the '30s and I'd already heard plenty of horror stories about the miseducation of kids using the oral method of teaching.

Although the book focuses mostly on two students, Irina and James, plenty of other stories and anecdotes are there. I remember this one especially: a class is talking about Halloween. There's no signing allowed, just lipreading.

One student signs a question about Halloween. Is it a religious holiday?

The teacher doesn't know or accept the sign. The student attempts to spell the word 'religious' but can't figure out the right letters. So the teacher just says sorry, can't understand you and the student has to give up.


Train go ... sorry.

There's a lot of really good information in the book about deaf culture, teaching in sign language, mainstreaming, cochlear implants and a backlash against hearing paternalism. I'm glad I read it.

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