Monday, April 07, 2008

Sign, Part 1

The TV show “Cold Case” recently had an episode involving the death of a student at a high school for the deaf, and it immediately reminded me of my experiences (relatively peripheral though they were) with the deaf community in Los Angeles as a result of having made several deaf friends there. Oddly, it did not occur to me until just now how strong the similarities are between the deaf community and the gay community. Each is a distinct subculture which exists, largely unseen, within but totally apart from the mainstream. Each has its own specific if unwritten rules and rituals and its own cultural history, and provides vital support and comfort to its members who are too often ostracized, discriminated against, or ignored by the world at large.

With very few exceptions, neither the deaf nor gays can be picked out of a crowd just by looking at it. For gays, this can be an advantage, but not for the deaf who, not being able to respond to someone trying to get their attention (asking them to move, for example), can provoke anger and rudeness.

The deaf routinely deal with problems the hearing never even consider. They must be particularly vigilant while driving, since they cannot hear the sirens of emergency vehicles. The deaf are far more likely to die in building fires because they are unable to hear alarms or shouted warnings or poundings on the door. Many of the deaf have doorbells hooked up to light fixtures which alert them, by flashing, as to the arrival of a visitor. Simply walking into a store or restaurant or asking for directions present problems the hearing never have to address.

Before I moved to L.A., I had no contact with the deaf, other than to occasionally—rarely, at that—see people signing. I remember wondering why, when most animated, their faces would contort and they would make guttural sounds, while signing, and their gestures would become more exaggerated. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to make deaf friends that I realized that exaggerated gestures and facial expressions are the equivalent of volume, tone, and emphasis of oral speech.

I had two rather close deaf gay friends, who were themselves best friends. Rob was in his early 20s, puppy-dog cute and utterly charming, so naturally I had a tremendous crush on him. He had lost his hearing to illness when he was 19 and shortly thereafter suffered a stroke which rendered him mute as well. (Every deaf person I have met considers the phrase “deaf and dumb”—even when using “dumb” as a synonym for “mute”—a stinging insult.) I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for Rob, having lived in both the hearing and deaf worlds, but he was always cheerful and upbeat. Mark was only a little older, deaf since birth, and though a bit more serious than Rob, had a great sense of humor. They both loved to dance, as do many in the deaf community, easily picking up the vibrations from the pounding beat which reverberates through both the air and the floor.

I had, somewhere along the way, picked up a bit of ASL (American Sign Language), mostly limited to finger-spelling, at which I was painfully slow, but which helped establish my friendship with Mark and Rob. They gradually taught me more and the one thing that I still remember and deeply appreciate is how amazingly patient the deaf tend to be with those who are trying to learn sign.

I never did become truly proficient at it, and when I moved from L.A. I had no opportunity to practice it, and thus have forgotten most of what I’d learned.

Oh, dear. Out of space. More on Sign next time.

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