I recently had the opportunity to attend a “Silent Weekend” retreat sponsored by CSUN’s Deaf Studies Association. The total-immersion event brought together a mix of deaf and hearing students from CSUN and various universities throughout Southern California. No spoken communication was allowed for the duration of the weekend-long event (Friday – Sunday), and voice interpreters were not provided.
It’s safe to say I was the “newest” signer there. As a new signer, I struggled to understand most of what was communicated throughout the weekend – from scheduled lectures and workshops, to interacting with fellow attendees. Although this was extremely frustrating, it offered great insight in that, I think it possibly parallels the experience of many people who are deaf or hard of hearing in a hearing-dominated world. Much of the time, I had no idea what was being said around me. When people addressed me directly, I was frustrated by my need to continually ask them to re-sign information, often multiple times. More than once, after several unsuccessful attempts to understand what was being signed, I resorted to smiling, nodding and looking for the quickest possible exit from the encounter. I was also disappointed by my American Sign Language skills to-date, largely because I feel like I’ve been diligently working to learn the language, and regularly have successful conversations with my instructor and the few people with whom I practice on a regular basis.
In researching the Deaf Community, I have learned of similar frustrations. Many people who are deaf regularly miss information; lip reading is only roughly 30 percent effective. Further, many deaf adults recount stories of struggling to learn specific speech patterns, confident in their progress, only to feel as though they’d failed in the eyes of a speech pathologist who consistently pushed them to attain more “normal” (i.e., similar to a hearing person’s) speech patterns. (I thought I was progressing in my own signed language acquisition, yet throughout the weekend, I felt like I knew nothing!)
As I watched a weekend-full of conversation unfolding around me, about which I was consistently clueless, I couldn’t help but think of how easy it must be to unintentionally overlook the need to include deaf and hard-of-hearing children in casual conversation throughout the day. Certainly my fellow conference attendees didn’t mean to exclude me – they were simply caught up in the excitement of the event, and my signing happened to be at a skill level that complicated communication.
No matter the reason, the take-home message is the same: Having no idea what’s happening around you is frustrating and isolating – even under the best of circumstances, such as a fun weekend getaway, and even when you know it’s only temporary. I can’t imagine not understanding what was being communicated on a regular basis, or especially during an emergency situation.
It was definitely an eye-opening experience…