Sign language is gaining acceptance

I was born to hearing parents. I became deaf due to complications at birth. I do not remember how I communicated with my parents during the first years of my life. At that time, I was not yet aware of being different from other, hearing children. In my everyday life, I still face the stereotypes that uninformed hearing people have about deaf people.

When I was four, I started attending the School for the Hard of Hearing and Speech-impaired in Ljubljana, which later became the School for the Deaf. On my very first day, the teacher put a pair of headphones that were too big and too heavy on my head and gave me a vibrating ball to hold. I sensed some sort of sounds coming through my ears and felt the vibrations in my palms, but I did not understand them. Through this method I learned my first syllables and then simple words such as PA, TA, PUPA, PAPA, etc. Later I encountered letters. At first, they did not mean anything to me. I learned how to write my pet name – METKA – and nothing else. After a while, I was taught how to write other words like MAMA, ATA, AVTO (mum, dad, car) … and then short sentences: TO JE MAMA (This is mum), TO JE AVTO (This is a car) … without understanding what they meant. I just wrote simple sentences connected with the learning of speech. This was the start of my long and difficult path to learning speech via lip reading.

Lip reading is a way of understanding speech by visually interpreting the movement of the lips. Many hearing people think that deaf people can read lips very well and can get exact information this way, but this is not the case. When I learned how to read lips, I came to realise that it has many limitations: inaccuracy (frequent guessing of unknown words and phrases), similarity of lip movements for certain sounds (T-D-N, P-M-B, F-V, K-H-G, Č-Š-Ž and C-S-Ž, depending on the lip and face movements of the speaker), maximum concentration (the lip reader gets tired after a long period of lip reading), speed (many people speak very quickly), dialects, words from other languages, etc. Early on I realised that with the few words I learned in school I could not express my feelings, wishes or thoughts, nor could I receive exact information about what was happening around me by reading lips. Today, knowing how to speak is not very helpful to me, since I do not have the hearing control to guide the course of my speech. Only people used to communicating with the deaf and those who have had previous experiences with them can understand me. When I meet people who have never before interacted with a deaf person, we need quite some time to get used to each other. Often I have to write down my wishes or have an interpreter help me. I do not wear a hearing aid because it does not help me hear sounds like it used to.

There is still a prevalent – incorrect – belief is still that a hearing aid can replace lost hearing. Many believe that a deaf person with a hearing aid can hear well. But a hearing device does not return the lost hearing; it is merely used as an aid, in the same way that the visually impaired use glasses. While they learn to speak and read lips, the deaf also learn to listen with a hearing aid in order to create auditory impressions in the brain. Successful listening depends on the distance and the level of noise in the environment, since the hearing aid enhances all sounds equally. It allows the deaf person to sense the strongest warning sounds, distinguish a limited number of voices and recognise rhythm and length in speech. The conditions for using a hearing aid are: a quiet environment (as noiseless as possible), suitable distance (close enough to the speaker or the group of speakers), and a good command of the language (recognition of words and sentences as a whole).

These days, a cochlear implant is used more often than a hearing aid and deaf people start using it soon after birth or later in life. It offers a wide range of benefits, from understanding speech to perceiving sounds from the environment and listening to music. Usually it takes a while for the users, especially children, to start understanding these sounds. With an efficient rehabilitation and follow-up programme an understanding of sounds and speech is gradually built up. More about the pros and cons of the cochlear implant could be told by those who use one.

The third stereotype is the term DEAF-MUTE, which is often used by the media, public institutions and also by individuals who are not educated about deafness. This notion is long out-of-date, since in the process of rehabilitation deaf people learn to speak more or less successfully. For this reason, we consider ourselves DEAF and not DEAF-MUTE. A deaf-mute person does not speak at all and communicates only through sign language. In practice, such cases are very rare. When I was in school, the sign language doctrine in effect (adopted in 1880 at the international conference on education of the deaf) was that a deaf child using only sign language and not speaking is less capable of learning than a child who speaks.

Sign language is a way of visual communication for the deaf. It comprises three basic elements: hand gestures (natural and agreed upon), facial expressions and the use of other body parts (head, shoulders and arms). Teachers used to be convinced that sign language inhibits the speech learning of deaf people and hinders education, and that oral speech is the best and only way of communication in all situations between the deaf and the hearing. Despite this doctrine, I learned sign language from older children I met in school. I realised that sign language allows me to express my wishes, thoughts and feelings much easier than speech. Sign language communication with teachers was very rare, since not all of them could sign. Some used sign language as a teaching aid, but never as a language. There was much prejudice against using sign language. It was seen as waving hands around, making faces and moving certain body parts, and was considered unattractive. But these teachers never thought of the damage done to the deaf while they were growing up and at all levels of their education. Poor functional literacy, low education and poor command of language as a means of communication are consequences that are still visible today.

On the other hand, some deaf people, me included, are afraid of the widespread cochlear implant. We are afraid that sign language will die out, taking with it the culture and history of the deaf community. But hope still remains, since many users of the cochlear implant also learn sign language. We are very pleased about that. Sign language is gaining recognition. More and more of the hearing are starting to learn it and we can see it in the media, for example on special TV shows, TV news, online television, etc. The number of sign language interprets is also growing.

The deaf community is very proud of its language, culture and history. We are capable of performing tasks in various areas, but we need some technological adaptation of our work environment.


Author: Marjetka Kulovec, defectologist.


Translated by: Taja Gorjan.

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