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 I think it is fundamental that we are constantly thinking and re-thinking about how we could improve ourselves and the world. And to question ourselves at every opportunity.
To that end, you have forced me to clarify & expand my understandings, and provided new questions for me to ponder.
For this 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 September 19th. 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 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 short, 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.
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.
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 to 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 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 more often 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.”