I started blogging (almost) every week on 5tern.com last January, and it has been a fun journey. What has made it particularly rewarding is the conversations that I have had with those of you who have made time to read/subscribe/disagree/comment.
Maybe it is the Jew in me (my wife insists it’s the annoying professor in me) but for whatever reason, I think it is fundamental that we are constantly thinking and re-thinking about what we are up to, and how we could improve ourselves and the world. And to question ourselves at every opportunity.
To this end, you have forced me to clarify & expand my understandings, and provided new questions for me to ponder.
For that alone, THANK YOU.
I am taking the summer off from blogging to ruminate about what I want to pretend to be this Fall. And, well, to spend quality time with friends & family when I am not too busy logging onto Twitter 71 times a day to re-tweet too-good-to-be-true threads from Shane Morris and working on some writing & institutional projects that I look forward to sharing in due time.
I will post regularly again, starting on August 23rd. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any thoughts, suggestions, or feedback. Or, yes, if you just want to tell me that I’m a curmudgeon.
I had dinner with two childhood friends two weeks ago with whom I attended school for almost all of my life at California School for the Deaf in Fremont (CSD) and Gallaudet University. Per the custom for Americans, we talked about what keeps us busy from 8a-5p and awake in the middle of the night these days. Both of them are quite successful entrepreneurs and to that end, I am a proud Kickstarter backer of Lost River Vacations, fan of the ASL App, and wearer of a ILY Kissfist t-shirt in gray frost.
On the drive home, the dinner conversation got me thinking. Never once did I dream growing up Deaf at a deaf school that the start-up business of my K-12 classmate would be featured in The Washington Post. That my high school Academic Bowl teammate would be selected as an Obama Fellow because of her transformational work with visual media for language access. That another K-12 classmate would be studying for his PhD in Computing and Information Sciences, and another for hers in clinical psychology. That yet another classmate would have a law degree from UC-Hastings; another a faculty appointment at UCLA.
Nor would have I believed, enrolling at Gallaudet University as a 18-year-old majoring in Government, that a future alumnus would be the first and only person to win two reality TV shows and featured regularly in mainstream news. That a fellow major would end up serving as the Receptionist of the United States for President Barack Obama’s White House.
(Note that I am merely talking about selected members of two classes of a residential school for the deaf totaling about 80 students, and of a tiny liberal arts university for deaf students that is ranked as “less selective” by U.S. News and World Report. )
Nor would have I thought possible that taking ASL would be more popular among college students than Arabic, Russian, and Hebrew combined. That a leading presidential candidate would post a viral video of himself signing. That the most visible member of the House of Representatives would be quoting Deaf people on her social media feed. That cable television’s most popular show would feature a recurring Deaf character. That, in the instances of Pete Buttigeg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and AMC’s The Walking Dead, they would not be acts of charity but sound political moves, pun intended, capitalizing on the sacred status of ASL and Deaf culture specifically and disability generally.
Put differently, it is easier, in this day and age, to imagine a Democratic presidential candidate thanking a Deaf supporter in ASL than a French-American fan in French. To envision a Deaf-written, Deaf-produced, Deaf-acted TV show out-performing one that is, say, Mormon-written, Mormon-produced, Mormon-acted. Why? The answer to this question is that even though Francophones and Mormons have far more economic power and political representation, and are cultural minorities in the USA in their own right, Deaf people have more moral currency in our public culture today.
Looking back, the journey of the Deaf Community is replete with social, intellectual, and political breakthroughs. In the 1970s, William Stokoe declared that our beautiful signs were, indeed, a beautiful language with systemic rules. In 1987, a Deaf actress won the Oscar for Best Actress in a popular movie that shattered misconceptions about deaf people. In 1988, we gained our first-ever deaf university president and told the world that we could do anything but hear. In 1990, we gained lawful access and reasonable accommodations to public spaces in the United States. In the 2000s, the VideoPhone, Twitter, and Facebook democratized access to megaphones that were once exclusive to spoken English. In the 2010s, Nyle Thompson became Nyle DiMarco.
Yet, we rarely acknowledge & celebrate the progress that has been, and is still being, made in the Deaf Community. Instead, we are more likely to, quite literally, ROAR that we are endangered victims at the mercy of oppressive and paternalistic forces, that we stand at a crossroads today threatening the survival of ASL and Deaf culture, citing language deprivation, systemic audism, and the advent of cochlear implants and its exploding popularity, and to insist for everything we want, and everybody we work with, to be perfect right now.
OTHERWISE, IT MUST BE BURNT DOWN!
What could explain this juxtaposition between the historic success of the Deaf community and the tribal anxiety today? There are three possible explanations, among many others, for this sort of pessimism & absolutism: (1) the reality of positionality; (2) the contrast between individual and institutional success; and, (3) the allure of dogma.
As for the first explanation, I attended an illuminating workshop last Fall where the presenter said something about how people in the majority see minority issues through the prism of the progress that we have made over time. On the other hand, minority individuals measure progress by what could be, which made a lot of sense.
Still, why is it an either/or proposition? Why must aspiration stand in the way of recognition? Why must imperfection negate the possibility of good? After all, the question of ‘progress’ is, ultimately, not so much a matter of politics or positionality as it is of empirical reality. And, interestingly enough, the numbers tell us two stories, which leads to the second explanation.
While deaf individuals may be succeeding and even though Deaf culture and ASL are being celebrated in our public culture at unprecedented rates today, where are the institutions that have enabled this success? By almost any measure, enrollment at schools for the deaf and membership of deaf organizations are headed in the opposite direction, facing severe demographic, economic, political challenges that do not show any signs of subsiding in the future. This is precisely where the pessimists in the community get it right.
Current trends are extremely worrisome because we should ask: would the unprecedented level of achievements of deaf individuals and the moral capital that they are raising now about ASL and Deaf culture have been possible, if it were not for the critical mass of deaf kids, teachers, & leaders at those very institutions during their formative years, similar to the statistically improbable classes of which I was privileged to be a member at CSD-Fremont and Gallaudet?
What does this mean for deaf people today? Ought we celebrate the progress of fellow deaf Americans and continue to support productive-but-not-perfect breakthroughs, or is this akin to sitting back in our lounge chairs, celebrating the oh-so-important plastic straw ban and enjoying a perfectly temperate day, while ignoring climate scientists warning of immediate and lasting catastrophe?
I want to believe that the correct answer is centered around being conscientious and factual. Can we not see that we, as deaf individuals per se, have far more opportunities than when our country was supposedly great, while acknowledging that we still have plenty of work yet to be done? Advocate for useful laws with odd bedfellows, while recognizing that this sort of nausea-inducing experience is the nature of progress, and that nobody gets entirely what they want in a democracy?
That is, pursue a greener world by working with individuals and countries that we might not get al0ng with, as we enjoy the warmth of the sunlight even if it is getting hotter by the year?
So, it was Interpreter Appreciation Day two days ago, which is supposedly “extremely problematic.” There are some deaf people arguing that the day should not exist. According to varying accounts, it is because (1) interpreters do not actually make sacrifices; (2) interpreters are the ones who should thank deaf people for their existence, not the other way around; (3) there are some unprofessional, unqualified interpreters who are undeserving of appreciation; (4) interpreters represent oppressive, at worst, and paternalistic, at best, forces in our daily lives; and, finally, (5) the day, because of the aforementioned reasons, triggers some deaf people.
I admittedly would not have known any of this if I had not logged onto Twitter last night.
But. I. Could. Not. Help. It.
I think that the contention is fascinating and merits serious attention because it is symptomatic of a culture of resentment that is becoming more popular. Quite simply, I think we should be careful what we wish for. Here are FIVE reasons why the Interpreter Appreciation Day is something that we should continue to celebrate:
(1) Psychological benefits of appreciation. For the sake of self-interest, it is useful to be thankful because evidence shows that appreciation increases happiness. A study performed by Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, found that when participants went out of their way to thank somebody who had never been properly appreciated, their happiness score went up for an entire month.
(Now that I think about it, Muslims often respond to inquiries with “Alhamdulillah”, signifying gratitude for the simple things. Jews tend to go around the dinner table to tell each other for what, and for whom, we are thankful during Sabbath. Is this what elders mean by wisdom residing in tradition?)
In any case, if we want happy deaf people, we could do worse than to keep interpreter appreciation day.
(2) Interpersonal benefits of appreciation. Showing appreciation makes others like us better, develops camaraderie, and makes it more likely that our goals will be achieved. And, no, I don’t need a link for that because this is common sense. (I have $20 right now saying parents and coaches are nodding their heads in agreement.)
In other words, giving thanks improves team performance. Of course, deaf people can refrain from appreciating interpreters. Just as long as we do not complain when interpreters end up performing as if it were thankless, faceless, nameless labor because they are, you know, human beings, and we then end up not getting more of what we want during the appointment/event/situation because of a rapport that never was.
Quite simply, we show gratitude to foster healthy relationships, often regardless of power dynamics, because ‘control’ is sometimes a necessary evil. No matter whether we are the parent or the child; the president or the citizen; the professor or the student; or the coach or the player, it is smart to show appreciation for one another.
Similarly, while there are tiresome interpreters who are power-thirsty and have no business interpreting, it is quite a stretch to call interpreters as a whole ‘paternalistic’ or ‘oppressive.’ Do they not provide access to complete and accurate information to the best of their ability? Is the mere existence of a majority language that is not sign language, and the practical facilitation of communication between languages, in and of itself, evidence of paternalism and oppression? If so, what is the alternate here for deaf people, outside of teaching everybody in the United States ASL and prohibiting all other languages? For interpreters, other than refusing to do the jobs that we want, and need, them to perform?
In truth, interpreters do not ‘depend’ on our oppression. Rather, they are solutions to the discrimination that we often experience by giving us similar rights and opportunities as everyone else. To this end, it is head-scratching, let alone counter-productive, for us to bite the hands that provide us access in public life and accuse them of perpetuating that oppression, but yet, we persist. This is less a commentary on the logic of deaf people and the ethics of interpreters, however, and more an indictment of the sensational culture in which we live. It is a strange world where taking offense is a profitable enterprise, and where we, quite often, send women and men to the public gallows for performing the very duties and responsibilities that we ask them to.
At the end of the day, deaf people have the agency to skip bad interpreters during Interpreter Appreciation Day. Observing the event does not require that we recognize each and every interpreter, or that we pretend as if all interpreters are ‘good’. If anybody happens to be triggered because of a bad memory, that is definitely regrettable. But this is not reason enough to negate the event. Otherwise, we would be without Mother’s Day and Teacher Appreciation Day for similar reasons.
(4) Interpreters are under-appreciated. Contrary to public claims on social media, deaf people get far more “public attention” than interpreters. Even though there are specific instances during which (unprofessional) interpreters intentionally divert attention away from the deaf individual, fact of the matter is that this is the inevitable nature of interpreting.
Put differently, as a deaf person, when I use an ASL interpreter, I often feel more connected with the interpreter than the hearing individual, by virtue of sharing language and communication values and norms, and tend to evaluate my judgment of the hearing individual, rightly or not, based on the performance of the interpreter who is the conduit of information. Do we really want to hold interpreters responsible for being thrust in this unenviable position of control and power when it is the other way around?
Furthermore, we have Nyle DiMarco, Deaf Gain, Gallaudet University, Claudia Gordon, Lost River Vacations, The ASL App, NAD, Marlee Matlin, Deaf Awareness Month, Curtis Pride, Deaf Studies, Discovering Deaf Worlds, Savvy ASL, the Maryland Governor’s Office of the Deaf & Hard Hearing, etc.
And what about the interpreters? Uh. There’s the RID. Jack Jason. Uh. Lydia Callis. Interpreting Studies programs. That interpreter at the Mandela memorial service. Well, wait.
(5) Special interpreters are worthy. If we point out bad interpreters, we ought recognize the corollary, which is that good interpreters exist too. It is not as if interpreters are less charitable than secretaries/systems administrators/tourists/emperors and never sacrifice time, money, and energy. Interpreter Appreciation Day is a special opportunity to recognize interpreters who go beyond what is required of them.
Speaking for myself, if not for several interpreters who moved their personal schedules around to interpret for me at nights at the Catholic University of America after a dismal experience with my university-assigned interpreters, for instance, it is likely that I would not have my Ph.D. right now.
If not for some interpreters who, yes, sacrificed weekends off from work and a night’s worth of sleep (the ultimate sacrifice in my book) to interpret for the birth of our children, I would have had a limited understanding of the miracle of childbirth and the awe-inspiring strength of my wife.
If not for two interpreters who volunteered to take care of time-consuming arrangements at the Comedy Cellar and took their preparation seriously last February, my friends and I would have had no idea the extent to which Moshe Kasher is fucking hilarious and brilliant.
Each of you know who you are. I may be two days late, but thank you.
My little finger. My right pinkie. Are you frustrated, being the smallest finger of my hand? Upset that you do not have the honor of carrying my wedding ring? Miffed that when I get upset with bad drivers and Knicks who do not run back on defense, I choose to flip your neighbor two fingers away?
Well, nothing good ever comes from speculation. (Unless you were a gold digger in 1849.) In the meantime, I am committed to my training program to play for the Yankees by remaining on the injured list. 5tern will return next week on May 3rd, less fractured than ever.
You know the rules, right? Three lines. Five syllables, then seven, then five again. I decided to write five of ’em because they say we will never understand each other until we reduce the language to 17 syllables. And yes, because this is 5tern.com.
If you have not heard – or seen, in my case – the news, Starbucks has opened a “sign language” store near Gallaudet University, the only 4-year liberal arts university for deaf people in the world. Splashed on the entrance of the H Street NE storefront is S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S spelled out in the hand shapes of American Sign Language (ASL) where 24 employees have been hired to make coffee, take orders, and run the shop using ASL.
Corporate bigwigs at Starbucks may be patting themselves on the back for their hip, virtuous decision to open a signing store. And some Deaf people are celebrating the historical occasion for well-intentioned reasons.
But as some wise dude once said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
As a Deaf person, I see worrisome signs of fetishization and victimization that are not only problematic, if I may use this fashionable word, but also self-defeating if we consider the long-term interests of the Deaf community.
(To be clear, am I offended & outraged? No. Am I dazed & confused? Yes. Do I want boycotts & apologies? No. Do I want conversation & clarity? Yes.)
One bothersome concern is the appropriation of ASL and Deaf culture. Inside the Starbucks signing store is a loud sign boasting that the store is “dedicated to people united by sign language and Deaf culture.”
To put the fetishization in context, try to imagine white people opening an “African-American store” next to Howard University. Or English-speaking business owners writing on their store wall in Dearborn, Michigan that the store is dedicated to Arabic. Or evangelical Christians in Mississippi opening a Jewish coffee store several blocks from the only synagogue in the state.
What is rather easier to imagine, however, is a hearing family from Carson City visiting the Asian Elephants and Sumatran Tigers at the National Zoo, the paintings of the Obamas at the National Portrait Gallery – and then the signing baristas on H Street.
Look, Mommy! Here is how you fingerspell V-E-N-T-I!
How different is the signing store, I wonder, from the human zoos of the 19th and 20th centuries where the privileged few would hold public exhibitions of ‘exotic’ humans from a ‘different world’ under the guise of multicultural education? (Other than how the store on H Street pays a living wage and has loud signs on its walls saying the right kind of things.)
Now, if that hearing family wants to learn sign language after visiting the Sumatran Tigers, then cool pies. How about visiting Gallaudet University? Downloading the deaf-owned ASL App? Buying a pint at that deaf-run brewery, Streetcar 82, a stone’s throw away in Hyattsville?
But hey, at the end of the day, hearing people can hijack and gawk all they want, like it or not, because, yes, ASL is pretty cool. And it is still a free country.
What is quite confusing, however, is when Deaf people wipe away tears of joy while discussing the signing store. For ‘finally’ being able to order coffee in ASL. For ‘finally’ not being shut out of conversations and stuck in hearing spaces. That is, if we pay attention to fulsome compliments on social media and in the news media, the signing store is commended for removing barriers for Deaf people.
Yet, when we cannot order coffee at a signing store and portray it as a “barrier”, at the most basic level, we are exaggerating the severity of the offense. How time-consuming or upsetting is it, really, to write out “Grande Vanilla Latte with soy milk” on pen and paper, point it out on the menu, or type it out on our iPhone while waiting in line? Are we not diminishing the rhetorical power of “victim” for those far more deserving?
More fundamentally, this narrative of victimization is unproductive at best and detrimental at worst if we consider the crossroads at which the Deaf community is currently, and the ongoing debate between Deaf activists and proponents of hearing and spoken language (HSL).
According to reports, the American Deaf Community stands at a critical juncture today. The advent of cochlear implants and its exploding popularity, the improvements in medical care and early hearing loss detection, and the rise of mainstreaming deaf students and the decrease in enrollment at schools for the deaf suggest that the survival of ASL & Deaf culture is at stake.
If there is to be enough Deaf Americans in the year of 2050 to sustain the vibrancy of American Sign Language, and to be able to justify, say, Gallaudet University and schools, programs, and services for the deaf, then our unique task is that of persuasion because a community sparsely populated cannot, and will not, stand.
More specifically, we have to persuade strangers that Deaf people are not victims, in order to get more of what we claim we want. This is because “the Deaf experience” in the United States in this day and age is no longer a medical condition. Nor is it a sovereign decision made of, by, and for Deaf people. Rather, because of technological and legal advances such as the cochlear implant and the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is now a personal choice made by, for all intents and purposes, ‘others’ if we consider that more than 90% of deaf children are from hearing parents.
As a low-incidence, low-power group whose future is supposedly in jeopardy, we ought to, quite carefully, consider the trade-0ffs of the tactics of victimhood that are shaping our public culture today. To this end, we sometimes celebrate awareness at the expense of persuasion. Project D.A.R.E. was not effective, for instance, in preventing drug use in youth, despite being successful in spreading awareness about its dangers.
Similarly, what exactly is the message we are sending with our praise of the signing Starbucks store? If you ask me, we are nudging parents of deaf children toward the very preferences, perceptions, and practices that are supposedly threatening the future of the Deaf community, and those which many of us are actively trying to discourage.
By spreading the impression that ordering caffeinated drinks via, say, pen and paper is a tiresome, lonely experience for Deaf people, it becomes rather difficult to rebut Helen Keller’s famous observation that deafness is a much worse fortune than blindness because it prevents us from participating in the world out there.
It, too, becomes harder to counter the contentious position of the Alexander Graham Bell Organization that listening and speaking is the solution for deaf children. Quite ironically, we tend to consider AG Bell Enemy #1 because of their support of cochlear implants and “oral education.” We often accuse the organization of xenophobia, phonocentrism, and audism, and denounce their long-standing practice of “eugenics.” Quite rightfully, we contend that deafness is not necessarily an affliction; that sign language is beneficial; and that parents ought not despair if their deaf children do not listen and speak.
Yet, in the next breath, we then act afflicted, despairing about commonplace experiences for people who do not listen and speak in public spaces out there.
This particular tactic is worrisome because the hearing parent with a deaf baby reading about the signing store might reasonably wonder: if an everyday task as mundane as ordering coffee is this traumatizing for Deaf people, then what must it be like for us everyday outside the “DEAF WORLD“, and without signing employees and signs advertising fealty to Deaf culture?
The irony is not only that most Deaf people I know are perfectly OK with ordering coffee, which is a straightforward process pretty much anywhere in the country, but also that it has never been a better time to be a Deaf American.
More big-screen movies are captioned than ever. ASL interpreters in most public spaces are not unusual luxuries but lawful mandates. Deaf people are opening businesses at an unprecedented rate. Nyle DiMarco is winning the hearts and minds of tweeters, tweeners, and influential people. In the past several years alone, Broadway has reimagined a play by putting deaf actors and hearing actors on the same stage and revived another that challenges common misconceptions about deaf people. The VL2 lab is discovering cognitive benefits of ASL. And so it goes.
Yet, people looking in would have not guessed if they had merely read the quotes, tweets, and posts about the signing store.
At a minimum, the time is right for activists and leaders to re-think, re-discuss, and re-frame how we talk about ‘the Deaf experience’ & what we typically celebrate as ‘progress’ in the Deaf community. To this end, we should consider some questions about the Starbucks signing store, no matter its good intentions, including but not limited to:
To what extent, if at all, is the store giving the misguided impression that ASL and Deaf culture are mere commodities that can be exported and exploited by others? That Deaf people are doomed to uncomfortable existences in the wilderness out there unless a signing Chipotle, a signing Sweet Green, a signing ride-sharing service, etc. are, too, adopted?
For the sake of persuading strangers, if nothing else, I submit that Deaf people ought to celebrate less often places like the signing Starbucks store, and advocate for more deaf baristas and managers at our local Starbucks.
That we should advocate less often for Deaf-centric places, and more often for accessible public spaces.
That we should resist the trendy impulse to play the victim by sensationalizing less about barriers that are not quite, and by seeking honesty, self-reliance, and dignity instead.
Until then, if you want Starbucks coffee and are passing by on H Street, so be it. By all means, stop by and order a venti iced skinny hazelnut macchiato in sign language or on their two-way keyboards.
At the end of the day, however, I appreciate good coffee around the corner, which is why I’ll order my espresso from Peregrine Espresso across the street from Gallaudet and their award-winning baristas.
Even if I have to take 5 seconds to write down “a quadruple shot of espresso, please.”
Thirty-one years ago this week, deaf students protested and shut down Gallaudet University, asserted the right of deaf people to self-determination, captured international attention, inspired broad public support, and made successful demands that resulted in the first-ever deaf university president.
One of my earliest memories as a deaf child was attending a Deaf President Now (DPN) rally 3,000 miles from Washington, D.C. and experiencing the sweet anticipation when I. King Jordan was selected. When he declared to the world that “deaf people can do anything except hear”, it felt like the sun was about to rise after a cold winter night.
The widespread hope was not misplaced. Would the current achievements of deaf people have been possible if not for the metaphorical doors that the protest events opened in American public life? Nobody can ever know for sure.
What I do know, however, is that both of my deaf grandmothers worked in the back offices of a bank because it was one of the few available jobs to deaf women. And that my deaf father had to ask his neighbors what the TV was saying about President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
Because of the protest events of 1988, though, we have an unprecedented amount of accommodations in public life to access critical information and pursue employment centered around our passions, interests, and talents today. This is not an exaggeration. Two U.S. representatives who sponsored the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 – Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman Stony Heyer – said the ADA would not have happened if not for the DPN protest.
Yet, while the university, community, and country have made social progress since that fateful week, it is hardly enough. There is still plenty of work yet to be done. That some people have moved forward should not obscure the fact that some others are still left behind today. That some phrases may have worked yesterday should not stop us from questioning whether they might be stale today.
As for the latter, 31 years later, it is quite interesting that DPN has continued to be a predominant force in how we advocate for ourselves. When we achieve something today as deaf people, for instance, and are then asked by those looking in: But, how?! In response, our instinct is, as almost as certain as our knees snap when hit with that orange reflex hammer, to relive that fateful moment in 1988 by pointing out:
WE CAN DO ANYTHING EXCEPT HEAR!
But is this not a yawn-inducing 31-year-old statement? (Hippies have “Make love, not war.” Radicals have “Piss On Pity.” Is this really the best we can do?)
This is not merely a cosmetic observation. How we motivate each other and talk about our breakthroughs goes beyond mere expression if we take responsibility for how language might be interpreted by others.
What we do not discuss enough is the naivete, the dullness of the DPN motto that we persist on throwing around like a tattered baseball at a Rawlings conference picnic. In 2019, “Deaf people can do anything except hear” is not only boring and circular.
(Imagine blondes announcing that they can do anything except not have blonde hair!)
Thirty-one years later, if one thing has become clear, it is that ‘deaf people’ are complex individuals whose lived experiences intersect and collide. Put differently, what about Matt Maxey of Deafinitely Dope? Is he deaf? (Yes.) Can he hear? (Well, yes.) Can he wait at coffee shops for his friends without fearing arrest? (Probably not.)
Thirty-one years later, as we revisit historical monuments and social practices, it is somewhat of a mystery why this reflexive saying hasn’t been debated yet. It is 2019. We ought to be able to talk about, and improve on, outdated declarations that were once incisive wisdom, which is perhaps an inspiring sign of the social progress that we have made since 1988.
In any case, the DPN protest is a timely anecdote. 56 years ago, a charismatic minister said we have a dream. 31 years ago, four student leaders marched on the US Capitol and announced that we still have a dream. Today, many of us still share dreams.
But how do we make dreams real? We do not have to look at fairy tales for answers.
In the spring of 1988, students in Washington, D.C. were warned about rules and laws, given explanations, but, nevertheless, persisted.
At the end of that historic week, a deaf president was selected by a hearing-majority Board of Trustees. Two years later, the Americans with Disabilities Act passed with a Democratic controlled Congress and a Republican president.
Thirty-one years later, in this day and age of polarization, contempt, and tribalism, we ought note that the path for achieving progress remains similar.
The local genesis of the DPN movement in 1988 may have been that “Deaf people can do anything except hear” but its universal legacy rests in illuminating the truth that people cannot do much without listening to others.
That the soundness of progress is not centered around yelling and hearing, but on confronting our minds and moralities for shared understandings with those with whom we might not identify at first glance.
May we celebrate the 31st anniversary of the DPN protest by remembering that we have it in our power to re-imagine, re-describe, and re-create our worlds. The tricky part is that it takes moral courage and human cooperation.
The writer and baseball statistician, Bill James, once asked, “Do people really believe there’s something different about the eyes of murderers?” Being somebody who overthinks for a living, the question stuck in my mind for a while, inching over my thoughts like a measuring worm, but I didn’t have much to say on the subject until recently.
When I was assistant coach of men’s basketball at Gallaudet, we recruited a 18-year-old from southern Virginia. He was 6’5” and athletic with a memorable gait. He ran with feet turned in, like that ungainly bird, and sinewy arms pumping to the Heavens. When he was exhausted out of his mind and told to run sprints after practice for missing study table? He would put up a vigorous but futile self-defense, mutter “Damn, Coach!”, and then heave his arms harder and higher with his neck craning back to the skies, dripping sweat and snot.
He had wobbly eyeglasses that would fall off and break about every time he played. Each time, he would nonchalantly tape them back together and keep balling. When he dove for loose balls and hustled for steals in pick-up games, notwithstanding the condition of his eyeglasses, it was clear as day how he averaged 29 points, 18 rebounds, and 9 blocks his senior year of high school.
But this is not really why I remember him. He had a natural intellect and relentless curiosity that made him the first-ever (and only) student in Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind history to take AP Calculus. Graduating with a 3.9 cumulative GPA, he earned a academic scholarship to attend Gallaudet and major in Accounting. His interests went beyond mere numbers, though. He would read this Kurt Vonnegut quote on my office door before coming inside to discuss it with a curious look and a crooked smile:
“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”
He introduced himself to his teammates on the first day of school by dunking in his Timberlands, which garnered “you can play” hoots. But little did they realize it was because he couldn’t afford basketball shoes. As they say in the South, where he grew up, he was so poor, he could barely afford to pay attention.
Showing up to class? Listening to the professor? A dollar for a soda? $5 for a foot-long at Subway? $20 for a required NCAA physical check-up? A new pair of eyeglasses, let alone basketball goggles? He couldn’t afford any of these. Looking back, though, it is rather obvious these weren’t the only things for which he did not have the financial means.
He would stay in his dorm room for weeks with the lights turned off. When he wasn’t sleeping, he showed clear signs of difficulties concentrating and remembering details. Re-reading former conversations with him, he had complained of being “down and stressed.” We told him that he was depressed, that there were mental health services on campus that could help him, and that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
The coaching staff stopped by his dorm room several times to urge him to get counseling services, often to find his dorm room all dark and him sullen. He brushed us off each time, claiming that it would not help and that it would cost too much time and energy. In his farewell email before leaving school mid-semester — we never got the chance to say goodbye in person — he wrote that he wanted to be “as free from systems and policies as possible.”
After his departure from school, whenever I watched a bespectacled player dive for a loose ball, looked at that framed picture above my office computer of him smiling with his arms wrapped around his teammates, or read that Kurt Vonnegut poster on my door, I would think of him.
And I wasn’t the only one. Several times after leaving school, the coaching staff tried to contact him but never heard back with the exception of an assistant coach who received a terse response. Then, finally. But for all the wrong reasons.
In January, two years ago, the Roanoke Times reported that he was arrested for murdering his audiologist with a steak knife, that he was found near the scene with blood on his hands and in his car, and that he told the judge in his arraignment hearing that he is “tired of America” and wants to die as soon as possible, because he “never wants to see a human being again.”
After exchanging e-mail with him from prison, who has since been found guilty to first degree murder and sentenced to life, and finding out that he was off his medication that day, I still wonder. As Vonnegut would put it, “Why, why, why?”
What should we have done differently? Did we try hard enough to give him the support that he needed and surround him with role models with whom he could relate? What was he thinking when he left the university? That morning he drove to the audiologist’s office? Was he thinking at all? How do the systems and policies that he was so desperate to flee compare to those of prison?
And his eyes? His curious eyes may have been stuck behind eyeglasses stuck together by adhesive tape, but were they any different from ours? His crooked smile in that pre-game team circle? Was it a glimpse of the happiness that he woulda, coulda, shoulda had if he had received the support he needed and stayed in school?
Reading the newspaper articles and Facebook posts, and talking with those who knew him at college — all of us asking “Why, why, why?” — we have a grating tendency to throw around simple-sounding theories to explain what happened and how it could have been avoided.
But I wonder. Are our explanations more self-serving than not, simply so that we can claim that we understand, and then move on with our lives? Can the totality of his unimaginable experience — what he went through all his life — and the choices leading to that tragic day really be summed up with a neat explanation? Or does that distract us from the complexities of life and the hard work that must be undertaken if we want to make the world a better place?
We do not discuss the messiness, the inscrutableness of the strange world out there enough at colleges and universities where we have fancy looking student learning outcomes that address knowledge and inquiry, and in our popular culture where we valorize provocative questions, grand predictions, and sweeping explanations in 140 characters.
Yet, what about the timeless virtues of humility, compassion, and friendship? Do we absorb and practice these fundamental values enough? Seeking to understand and explain the world out there is imperative. But this is also a strange day and age where we are more connected than ever and yet feel more alone than ever, and where we virtue signal more often than we practice virtue. As much as we must prepare the minds of our future leaders, it is not the be all and end all.
Picturing that fateful morning the audiologist said goodbye to her family before heading to work, and that moment captured in time when he was smiling with his teammates in the pre-game dance circle, I wonder (there we go again) if we spend too much time with the lights turned off, wondering aloud about the world by that eerie blue glow, dividing life neatly between light or dark, and telling ourselves that we understand.
But do we spend enough time coming to terms with the uncomfortable truth that life is infinitely complex and often without rhyme or reason? That there is the capacity of good and evil in our eyes? That the best we can do is sometimes to stop trying to explain, label, understand, and solve everything, and instead, to seek out special moments of human connection, such as when a curious student with pigeon toes, a crooked smile, and eyeglasses taped together with scotch tape enters your office to ask why, why, why?
In this day and age of polarization, gridlock, and bigotry, we can, nonetheless, revitalize our democracy with the most basic choices.
Preserving our country from boorish and malevolent forces might feel like an Herculean task requiring enormous effort and massive cooperation. But, in truth, our small choices matter. Over the span of our lifetimes, they could make the difference between an authoritarian state and a robust democracy.
After all, we move mountains by starting with a pebble. Reformed alcoholics swear by the mantra of taking it a day at a time. Marathoners cross the finish line not by counting down 26.2 miles but by putting their left foot in front of their right.
Some of the great democratic changes in recent memory originated with simple choices. The sit-ins of the early 1960s that were a vital part of the civil rights movement, for instance, were initiated by four college freshmen at North Carolina A & T who connected with each other courtesy of conversation over smuggled beer in the dorm. The rest was history when one asked his fellow bootleggers deep into the night whether they were “chicken or not?”
That is, progress in the United States is not all that different from tapas in the world of gastronomy. It is a micro dish centered around personal connection and reciprocity.
If we think of our democracy as “of the people, by the people, for the people” then to neglect colleagues, neighbors, and strangers is to miss the forest for the trees.
As in marriage, the presence of mutual responsibility and trust is central to a healthy democracy. The absence renders it unlikely. People divorced from community and commitment are those most likely to commit violence and practice fanaticism.
It was a privilege to be interviewed by a brilliant young filmmaker, Dexter Mueller, for his short documentary for a C-SPAN competition. As you can see, he makes this fundamental point about the essence of civic duty — our responsibilities as a democratic citizen — and what it could involve today.
I hope you enjoy this documentary and think about changing the world by, perhaps, inviting a new classmate to a house party, joining an organization, or having coffee with somebody you don’t know quite well.
When I was in High School, I was cruising around town with a group of Deaf friends in my car, looking for a good time. And we ended up at a fast food drive-thru. Because it was the good ol’ days when we thought GMO stood for something like General Manager Operations. And because that was how we had fun at night in suburbia in the 1990s.
While waiting to order burgers and fries, we spotted a dude in his
mid-20s walking a dog outside. He had
greased up, slicked back hair and was wearing an off-white white shirt, tan
Dickies pants, and flip-flops.
(How I remember inane stuff like the hairdo and clothes of a random stranger but forget where I put the car keys five minutes ago is beyond my wife.)
“Oh, what a cute pit bull,” my friend in the front seat exclaimed in
delight. The rest of us in the car nodded in enthusiastic agreement, the
particular sort of groupthink at which high schoolers have a prodigious talent.
Before we knew it, though, that guy started punching and kicking that pit bull. And he wouldn’t stop.
“Should we do something?” that friend in the front seat, who interestingly enough became a veterinary technician later in life, cried out.
It was not a question. I was in complete assent that it was my sacred responsibility to put an immediate end to the mindless, heartless, and gutless cruelty. And I was playing high school football at the time and, you know, had imagined myself as brave, valiant, heroic, etc.
So, I honked thrice, wagged my finger a la Dikembe Mutombo, and told him to
Suffice it to say, the tough-looking dude was pissed off that a
pimple-faced 16-year-old was telling him what to do. He responded by acting,
well, even tougher. He sauntered his way over in his flip-flops with an angry
mouthful of swear words that looked something like “Fuck you, motherfucker” on
a continuous loop. (I was never a good lip-reader like Coach Bob Colbert.)
Before I knew it, he was standing right next to me by the driver’s
side window, asking me to roll it down, with his other hand fumbling behind his
back, acting as if he had something inside his tan Dickies to brandish.
It wasn’t cojones he was suggesting.
And I was scared. OK, I was terrified. I may have played a violent
sport in High School, but there’s a good reason why I particularly enjoyed
wearing that red jersey in practice.
My fingers immediately shot to my ears as I frantically moved my head
to the left, then right, then left, then right again, repeating for effect,
while mouthing, to the best of my limited ability, that “I’m deaf!”
He eventually understood, slowly realizing the futility of asking teenagers, even pimple-faced motherfuckers straying out of their lane, to fight in spoken English if they could not converse in spoken English. He shook his head in disappointment and walked off with that adorable but frightened pooch.
We then drove away with our burgers and fries several minutes later.
Still to this day, twenty years later, that veterinary technician friend brings up what happened at every opportunity.
Alfred Tennyson claims the New Year is a whisper that we will be happier. Others rhapsodize it is a 365-page book waiting to be written. For me, it is an ideal time to think about the best non-fiction I’ve read last year and then write down my personal thoughts and the lessons that I’ve learned from each with special focus on possible applications to deaf people. Because, you know, I am not an elephant. If I forget my son’s birthday and to take out the recycling bin on a regular basis, I ought take notes after reading relevant stuff scarier/funnier/more thought-provoking than fiction.
So, here is a totally non-scientific list of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in 2018. I have five, of course, because this is 5tern.com, because I have never heard of a “Best of” list with four or six, and because you don’t have time for ten. In no particular order, here goes:
BELICHICK. The biography of Bill Belichick, the current head coach of the New England Patriots, highlights the truism in the NFL that “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” An entertaining (yet unlikely) claim in the book is how Bob Colbert stole playcalls in the NFL as an advance scout with expertise in reading lips by virtue of having coached football at Gallaudet, the “university serving the deaf and hearing-impaired.”
Really? I’ve studied, played, coached, and taught at Gallaudet for about 18 years now, and the only stuff I can read is inane stuff like non-fiction books and the lips of people (without mustaches) enunciating “fuck you.” Note to biographers and/or fabulists: speechreading is a difficult skill requiring rigorous training. Spending time with deaf people and then squinting your eyes through binoculars is hardly enough.
But anyway, as a sports fan who has long wondered about the secret of sustained success of certain teams like the San Antonio Spurs, the book was illuminating. It nailed home that intelligence, curiosity, preparation, and toughness are as important as jumping high and running fast and yet, massively undervalued. Despite being a Giants fan, I will root for the Patriots in the Super Bowl next week out of (begrudging) admiration, thanks to Ian O’Connor’s brilliant insight into the greatest football coach who’s ever lived.
EDUCATED. Tara Westover’s lyrical memoir about growing up in the southeastern mountains of Idaho with paranoid, anti-science, survivalist parents and going on to graduate from Harvard and Cambridge is not only a remarkable story in and of itself. (Her father tried to discourage her brother from attending college by lecturing that “There’s two kinds of them college professors. Those who know they’re lying, and those who think they’re telling the truth.” After thinking about it for a good while, I have concluded that I am both kinds.) It is also powerful reading for many of those who leave home for an education and then view their family and community across a cultural valley.
THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND.Why is this generation the most depressed, anxious, self-righteous, and suicidal ever? According to Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, it is because we believe a “great untruth” that children are fragile. And then, with the best of intentions, we shield them from independent decision-making, scrapes, and potentially difficult situations more than ever. The book makes me think of how parents often host a “Trick or Trunk” event where trick or treating is done on Halloween night from parked car to parked car in the school parking lot. And the booming popularity of AAU basketball, which has rendered pick-up games, in which kids draft teams and call their own fouls, rare. In both instances, we’re denying kids the valuable opportunity to roam and explore and do wrong, and mediate conflicts, on their own.
“Resilience” is a hot/smart buzzword these days, but how do we develop it? According to Haidt and Lukianoff, it is by exposing our youth to “normal” stresses and tensions (as opposed to extreme) that will allow them to develop toughness. Think of the immune system, for instance, which requires exposure to certain germs and allergens at a young age to develop the necessary capacity to fight them later on. Contrary to the popular trend of eliminating peanuts at schools and in the diets of children, doctors now recommend that kids are exposed to food containing peanuts almost immediately after birth to harden the immune system and avoid life-threatening allergies later on. Psychological resilience is not all that different, in that it requires independent exposure to open-ended challenges “early and often.”
This makes me wonder about the Deaf community. Are our students at deaf schools exposed to sufficient normal stresses and tensions? Should we continue to prepare the road for our leaders of the future by seeking a comfortable environment whenever possible, or should we prepare our children for the road with a more holistic approach? I do not claim to know the answers, but the sociopsychological benefits and risks of prizing self-esteem and ease over experience and accommodation, ought be considered and debated at the very minimum. For that alone, the book is a must-read for parents, educators, and Deaf people alike.
FACTFULNESS. This uplifting yet grounded book pokes holes in the simplistic, pessimistic, hysterical thinking of this day and age with clear, unpretentious, fact-based advice. In one of my favorite chapters, Hans Rosling asks us to assume that our categories are misleading, and to challenge them by looking for differences within and similarities across groups, which is something we do not do quite enough with ‘Deaf people’ and the ‘Deaf community.’
In another, Rosling points out that sweeping explanations and vivid solutions are attractive because we have the human tendency to want to seem knowledgeable and useful. We often try to explain and solve particular trends and issues with general assertions, based on our personal background, at the expense of complexity and nuance.
Well-intentioned activists in the Deaf community will explain critical issues by pointing at language deprivation, for instance, and Hearing and Spoken Language advocates by bringing in majoritarian culture. This inclination is what Rosling terms “the single perspective instinct.” (Or what English philosopher Gilbert K. Chesterton called “the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.”) He advises that we resist the temptation to see every problem as a nail when we are handed a hammer. Instead, we ought to step back and use our toolbox, rather than a single tool. In all, I cannot recommend this book enough. (And hey, Bill Gates and Barack Obama agree with me.)
BORN A CRIME. Trevor Noah, writing about his childhood dealing with apartheid in South Africa, is a masterful storyteller. He challenges stereotypes and preconceptions with colorful anecdotes that entail heartbreak, laughter, and serious thought about growing up different in a strange world.
A major takeaway from the book is racism and colonialism are fraught legacies neither easily understood nor undone that must be dismantled with persistence and care.
Another thought-provoking point is, as he argues, fluency in certain languages are hierarchical forces equated with intelligence and competence which, above all else, wrongly or not, defines who we are to people.
I now watch The Daily Show at every opportunity for the incisive humor and profound wisdom that Noah imparts, and root for his continued success.
What about you? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think? Any recommendations for 2019? Hit me up and let me know.