Progress, Pessimism, and Passion in the Deaf Community

Are deaf people eternal, irrational pessimists?

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?

To this end, I will be proudly wearing my ILY Kissfist t-shirt in gray frost on my way to the tiny home in Lost River this Fall, reminding myself that it is the best and worst of times, defined by wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity, light and darkness, hope and despair.

Hopefully, I will also be re-reading “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats to remember that pragmatism is not anywhere as alluring as passion, not merely to the deaf eye but to the human mind:    

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

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