Hearing with Your Eyes
By Rich McManus
Some 75 NIH'ers recently learned that working together with deaf or hard of hearing colleagues, while often awkward at first, can be mutually enriching as well as productive. The pairing of hearing and nonhearing workers demands creative alternatives to speech that most workers appear to relish constructing; it's simply another occasion for human creativity to come into play.
A morning seminar -- "Working Together: Deaf and Hearing People" -- was conducted Sept. 14-16 and featured exercises that both acquainted hearing employees with the frustrations encountered by those who can't hear, and enlightened the hearing attendees to the richness of communication in deaf culture. Several deaf employees addressed the group, proving that sign language can be as robust, nuanced and rapid as any exchange between out-loud speakers.
Because signing is naturally theatrical, relying as it does on gestures, expressions and body movements, it is inherently fascinating to nondeaf people. Thus few in the audience drifted off -- there was no droning to lull them. The hearing folks saw dramatic evidence that communication among deaf people is active or "intentional" in nature, both for "speaker" and "listener." To be in a deaf conversation is to be a bit more rigorously engaged than for those capable of letting talk flow in one ear and out the other.
Which is not to glorify disability, however; there are undoubtedly instances of boring communication among deaf people. What is remarkable is the human capacity to adapt to hearing loss, and to adapt so convivially that deaf culture is preferred by those who embrace it; none of the deaf speakers had any interest in an implant that would fling them into the alien world of the hearing.
Take-home lessons were plenty, as delivered by brief video clips and exercises: deaf employees very much appreciate their colleagues' willingness to learn some sign language, it's essential to look at the deaf person to whom you are speaking, even in the presence of an interpreter. "Don't fear looking a little foolish in making the effort to communicate," advised Linda Iacelli of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, who led the seminar. "Don't be afraid to come out of yourselves a little bit."
She also advised against faking comprehension, on the part of both deaf and nondeaf workers -- it's counterproductive.
According to Carlton Coleman of the Office of Equal Opportunity, there are 69 NIH'ers who identify themselves as hard-of-hearing, and 35 who say they are deaf. "Many people don't want to admit to hearing problems, so this is probably a low estimate," he cautioned. "There are a whole lot of hard-of-hearing folks at NIH, but most haven't identified themselves as such."
There is also a stigma attached to hearing problems, noted participant Lester Gorelic. He surmised that there are quite a few NIH'ers with obvious hearing loss who don't want to admit it.
Biologist Sue Smith, who was born deaf, said that deaf people don't think of themselves as disabled. They simply acknowledge being a linguistic and cultural minority. Added another deaf NIH'er, Sally McDougall, deaf culture is extremely important to deaf people, but is by no means homogeneous; it is as diverse within its own ranks as any subset of the population. The two workers reminded the audience that there is a rich cultural heritage of poetry and art in American Sign Language, and a National Theater of the Deaf. Deaf people invented the huddle in football, and the baseball umpire's gesture for a strike. Deaf culture, in summary, is as natural and American as sports on Sunday afternoon, except you can't hear the National Anthem.
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