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ASLSeeing Voices is a book about Deaf issues, mostly pertaining to language learning, written from a hearing perspective.   Deaf issues have changed a lot since the 1980’s when this book was written, but one can’t help but wonder if it’s the changes in time or the fact that Sacks has no personal knowledge of deafness that make his issues seem a little off.  In the opening of the book, Sacks admits that he doesn’t know any sign language nor has he ever participated in Deaf Culture.  He also states that he feels this makes him a more impartial observer than others who have come before him.  While this might be true, it also creates a situation where he speaks of Deaf people as though they are their condition and not as though they’re every day people like anyone else.  That being said, Sacks has written a really interesting book.  His discoveries about learning language, his stories of famous historical figures, and his first hand experiences at the Gallaudet University “Deaf President Now” rally are especially great.

Sacks has done a lot of research into other people’s studies on learning language.  From the conclusions of these studies and also his own experiences with Deaf people born that way and people deafened later in life, he holds to the Critical Age Theory.  This theory states that there is a critical age at which people must learn language of some sort (usually before puberty) or they will forever be unable to learn language.  They may be able to say words and things to indicate their basic needs, but they will never be able to use language to express thoughts and feelings.  Sacks shows that by keeping Sign Language away from Deaf children we are not helping them function better in a hearing world, we are only keeping them from being able to think and reason completely.  He tells us that the longer a person is without language, the less their brain will be able to function.  While I think his insistence that sign is fundamentally important for the well being of Deaf adults is compelling and well argued, his implications that Deaf people have somehow been made less smart than hearing people by their prohibition of signing is incorrect and misleading.  I haven’t circulated a lot in the Deaf Culture in my area, but I have met many Deaf people and have felt that, if anything, they are smarter, joyous and more self assured than many hearing people I have met. 

Laurent Clerc plays a large roll in the first part of the book, as do other historical figures such as the wild boy of Avignon, and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.  Many of the stories Sacks tells about these famous characters are stories I hadn’t heard before.  Laurent Clerc’s teacher Massoud, rarely mentioned in accounts I have read of Clerc’s life,  is featured in the book as well.  Stories of Massoud’s personality and touring of Europe, and Clerc’s writings and touring of America are extremely interesting.  It was nice to delve a little deeper into the lives of people I hear mentioned, but know very little about.

Sacks was on the campus of Gallaudet University in 1988 to personally witness the “Deaf President Now” rallys.  The picture he paints of the atmosphere on campus and the beautiful fervent signing of the student leaders makes you feel like you’re there.  This was another important moment in Deaf history that I hear a lot about but feel I don’t really know.  The Woodstock atmosphere and the relitively peaceful insistence of the students about their demands is the exact opposite of what I had imagined.  My picture was more of an angry, week-long riot.  I think it speaks volumes that the Deaf community didn’t try to storm the gates and overthrow anyone in violence.  They simply didn’t budge until they got their way.  The third section, where the Gallaudet rally is depicted, is the best of the sections.  Sacks writes about Deaf people as people in this section, instead of  medical conditions.   In this chapter he talks about how intranced he became about Deaf Culture and how he has started to learn Sign Language.

Sacks’ observations about language and language acquisition are profound and important.  The conclusions he reaches about the neccesity of language for humans greatly bolsters the argument for sign language being taught to the Deaf.  With the exception of the last chapter accounting Sacks’ experiences at Gallaudet, this book is more about language learning as it pertains to deafness, and not about Deaf people or Deaf Culture.   I would reccomend the book to people with an interest in language, but there are way better books out there on Deaf Culture, several of which are written by the difinitive experts on the subject, Deaf people themselves.


Gallaudet Statue

ASLAlice Cogswell was born in 1805.  Her father was Dr. Mason Cogswell, a famous physician who had performed the first surgery to remove cataracts from eyes.  At the age of two, Alice came down with “Spotted Fever”, now thought to be either Measles or Menengitis, and lost all of her hearing.  In that day, it was commonly thought that because deaf people couldn’t speak, they could neither think nor reason.  Some people even believed that deafness was a curse for bad behavior, or that the deaf person was possesed with evil spirits.  Dr. Cogswell was extremely fond of Alice, and was saddened that he could no longer communicate with his daughter.  She lived the early part of her life in silence, observing others from the outskirts.  Her brothers and sisters didn’t try to communicate with her, because they thought her no longer capable.

When Alice was nine, her new next door neighbor, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, noticed that she wasn’t playing with the other children, but sat by herself outside.  He went out to discover why, and the other children told him that Alice was deaf.  Gallaudet decided to spend some time with her to cheer her up anyway, and they spent a while drawing pictures in the dust.  Gallaudet was struck by how smart Alice was and he imediately began to teach Alice to read and write, completely knocking down many of the stereotypes about deaf people.  It was slow going, because Gallaudet didn’t know how to teach a deaf student.  He had to go by trial and error, and some of the methods he tried didn’t work at all.  After a few years, Alice’s father spoke with Gallaudet about founding a school for the deaf in America.  Dr. Cogswell and several other prominent men in town realized that there were over fourty children in their state that were deaf, and surmised that in other states there was also a large number of deaf children who would benefit from a deaf school.  They suggested that Gallaudet travel to Europe, where there were tons of schools focusing specifically on deaf education, and learn about teaching deaf students.  He could then come back and found a school for the deaf that would be highly successful. 

While Gallaudet was away in Europe, Alice had learned to read and write enough to attend a regular hearing school with her sister, although this situation wasn’t ideal.  When the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, later renamed the American School for the Deaf, was founded by Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, Alice was the first pupil to sign up.  It’s believed that she was the first person in America to ever be taught the manual finger spelled alphabet.  Alice loved attending the school.  She graduated in 1824, and then spent the next few years traveling extensively. 

Alice was a very lively girl.  She loved to read, sew, dance, and especially loved it when her parents threw parties.  Many people remember how she would frequently mimic others so perfectly that she would set everyone laughing for hours.  Alice was especially curious about music, and spent a long time trying to understand it as best she could.  The year she turned 25, Dr. Cogswell died.  Alice was incredibly upset.  She died 13 days later, many say of a broken heart.  Alice was greatly responsible for the birth of Deaf Culture in the United States.  She broke down a lot of stereotypes and allowed hearing people to realize just how smart deaf people are.  Several statues have been erected in her honor, one on the Gallaudet University campus, one on the American School campus, and one in Hartford Connecticut.


ASLMy grandmother has been especially supportive of my quest to learn ASL.  She wants to hear about every detail of where and what I’ve been doing, and she gets so excited when I tell her about a new opportunity that I’ve discovered.  I was curled up on her wood and beige sofa, a stylish throw pillow behind my back, telling her about on of the Deaf Nights I had attended when she mentioned how surprised she was that these events were so prolific.  “I never knew there were so many Deaf people around.”  she said to me.  “I mean, I knew they were out there and everything, but all of a sudden it seems like there are Deaf people everywhere.”

I thought about it for a while, and then I realized that before I started taking classes, I too had the completely mistaken impression that Deaf people were somehow scarce.  I never knew about all the fun get-togethers that exist, or the amazing performances that they put on.  I mean, there was the deaf man I bought my first bicycle from at the corner shop, and the deaf lady who helped me get the right size pants at work, it just never dawned on me that the hearing world would be insufficient for them.  Now that I know, it seems obvious that Deaf people would love to get together with people they can talk to without navigating a language barrier.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading articles about Deaf issues, it’s that a lot of hearing people suck.  They’re rude, impatient, and misinformed about almost everything.  I don’t want to be grouped with those people.  I’m so glad that I know Deaf Culture exist, it’s been an amazing discovery for me.  That still doesn’t change the fact that millions of hearing people the world over are living their lives without knowing about Deaf issues.   I’m so excited about what I’m learning, and I wish that everyone would participate.  If more hearing people were aware, maybe it would keep them from acting so badly. 

It’s really important to me that hearing people learn to be more patient.  Deaf people are willing to do so much to get their message across, and are so patient while trying.  If hearing people would meet them even half way, I’m sure it would make the process so much easier.  I think that’s part of the reason why I’m always so surprised when I go out into the community and people are nice to me.  If I was treated by hearing people the way a lot of Deaf are treated, I would hate my guts.  It’s nice that people are so welcoming in the Deaf community.  It’s also nice that I have ample opportunity to participate.  The Deaf really are everywhere, communicating fervently with each other and having a wonderful time.  I was completely ignorant about it before, but now I’m sharing everything I learn with my friends and family too.  That’s a whole gaggle of people who will be more understanding in the future.


ASLASL storytelling is an amazing art, and so much fun to watch.  One of the most popular kinds of stories is the ABC story.  This is where the signer tells a story about any subject at all, except they use words starting with specific hand shapes.  The first word has to use the “a” hand shape, and the second “b”, until all letters of the alphabet are used.  The letters have to be used in order, and no other hand shapes may be interspersed between them.  If it’s a really good ABC story, you shouldn’t realize that you’re watching an ABC story at all.  There are so many good examples on the web, it’s really fun to take an afternoon and peruse through the youtube videos. 

A lot of students are assigned to make an ABC story to share in class.  Most of them talk about how hard it is, and I can tell you that it’s so true.  When I saw a great example of an ABC story done by an ASL 2 student, I decided to try my hand at it.  After all, if she could do it so can I, right?  It turns out that it’s not that easy.  I keep getting stuck at “e”.  I don’t know if it’s my skimpy ASL 2 vocabulary that’s making it harder or what, but I’m going to have to work hard to complete it.  It’s been a day and a half, and I only have up to “F”.  “G” has been another really hard hand shape for me.  I’m going to stick to it, though, until I do something amazing.  Or kind of passable.  I just found my video camera, so I’ll post it here when I’m done along with the English transcript. 

Since I’ve been out of class, I’ve been reading a lot of books on Deaf Culture.  It’s been such a wonderful experience.  If I thought I was in love with Deaf Culture before, now I’m hooked in so much deeper.  The rich tradition of storytelling makes me want to open my arms to the world and express what’s inside me.  It seems so much easier to do in ASL than in English.  I can’t wait to pick up more language so I can participate more fully.  ABC stories are just where I’m starting.  It’s going to be fun.


ASLAs of tomorrow, I will no longer be an ASL 2 student.  It’s a little sad, really.  I’ll miss my teacher and the other students.  It was my teacher’s first year this year, and she’s already doing so great.  I’m glad to have been a part of that.  The thing I’m going to miss most though is being in an ASL class.  I’ve looked at the schools in my area, and they only offer ASL classes that I’ve already taken.  My summer is going to be spent working hard under the stars at my busy and frantic job, without an ASL speaker in sight.  I wonder if I’ll have withdrawals? 

No, probably I’ll just be more dilligent about getting to those events in my community.  It will be good for my ASL and help thwart my hermit tendencies to stay in bed and watch videos with my big bag of Smarties all the time.  Instead, I’ll be sitting outside Starbucks with my iced tea and chatting the night away.  Hopefully.

I would still rather be in an ASL class…


ASLI3rving King Jordan was born in 1943.  He grew up in Glen Riddle Pennsylvania, a rural townnear Philadelphia, with his 3 brothers and sisters.  They had an idyllic childhood playing in the beautiful outdoors, and even sang in the church choir at the local Episcopal church.  In High School, King described himself as a “very… average student.”  He refused to study and graduated in 5 years instead of the usual four.  After High School, King joined the Navy, working on the Aircraft Carrier Enterprise.  He was eventually promoted to Administrative Assistant to the ship’s Legal Officer when the hearing part of his life came to an end.

21 year old King was in a serious motorcycle accident that left him profoundly deaf.  When he woke up in the hospital, doctors originally told him that his hearing loss would be temporary.  He clung to this notion for several months before deciding to move on with his new life as a deaf person.

In the Navy, King had seen how important Education was in establishing a career.  Many people had been promoted almost instantly to officer positions with no other experience than a college degree.  King decided to go back to school, and entered Gallaudet University in 1966 knowing no Sign Language and nothing about Deaf Culture.  “I was a Hearing person who couldn’t hear”  King said of himself.  King graduated with a BA in Psychology from Gallaudet University in 1970.  He received his MA in Psychology in 1971 and his PhD in Psychology in 1973, both from the University of Tennessee.  King then returned to Gallaudet to teach, eventually becoming Dean of the Psychology Department.

When King learned that the current President of Gallaudet University had plans to retire, he sat down with his wife and two children and decided to actively seek the position.  He was one of 3 final candidates for the position, and one of 2 deaf candidates for the position.  In March of 1988, the Gallaudet Board of Directors fatefully announced that they had appointed the only hearing candidate as President.  The student’s at Gallaudet were outraged and demanded to know why the Board of Directors felt that none of the Deaf candidates were qualified to lead the University.  When the Board couldn’t give them an answer, the students shut down the Gallaudet campus for a week.  Busses were parked at the gates of Gallaudet, their tires flattened, so vehicles could neither get in nor out.  Thousands of groups, Deaf and Hearing alike, rallied to the cause.  They gathered in droves on the campus chanting “Deaf President Now.”  When the Board saw how many people were against them, they caved in to all the student demands.  On March 13, 1988 I. King Jordan was elected as the first deaf President of Gallaudet University.

At first, many people had doubts about how well King could do the job.  They thought that his need to use an interpreter would interfere with his ability to communicate, especially with the members of Congress who determine Gallaudet’s funding.  It quickly became apparent that this was not the case.  Under King’s leadership, Gallaudet saw a huge jump in funding.  He provided many services to the campus such as adding raised platforms to classrooms so students can see their professor lecture, and using technology to help students communicate better.  “Learning Calculus should be hard.”  King once told a reporter, “Understanding what your professor is saying shouldn’t be hard.”

King retired as President from Gallaudet in 2006.  Ironically, the Board of Director’s choice of his successor garnered controversy similar to that of 1988.  King gained much criticism from the Deaf Community when he put his full support behind the Board’s choice and arrested students protesting on campus.

Currently, King and his wife Linda live in West River Maryland, where King likes to go running every morning.  He celebrates the day of his motorcycle accident as his “Deaf Birthday”, and lectures all over the world about his experiences as Gallaudet’s first Deaf President.  His most famous quote is probably:  “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do, except hear.”


ASLWe play several games in ASL class, and Buzz 7 is the one we play the most often.  For the record, I hate this game a little bit because I’m terrible at math.  I’m inevitably the first person to go out in my group.  It’s a lot of fun to watch everyone else play though, and get all flustered and silly when they accidentally sign a 7.   I’m sure I could like it a lot more if I could get over being a poor sport.  🙂  Here are the rules:

Everyone stands in a circle and signs numbers in order.  The first person would sign 1, the second 2, the third 3 and so on.  The catch is that 7s are deadly poison and buzz you out of the circle.  So if the 7th person signed 7, they’d be out, as well as anyone signing 17, 27, 37, etc…  In fact, 7s are so poisonous that they also infect multiplesof 7 in addition to numbers with 7s in them, so anyone signing 14, 21, 28, 35 etc… would also be out.   if it’s your turn, and the number you would be signing is a poison number, you should just skip it and go onto the next one.  So the 6th person in the circle would sign 6 and the 7th person would sign 8.  The first person to accidentally sign a 7 or a multiple of 7 is out, and the game starts over with the remaining players until only one math whiz is left standing.   Anyone who hesitates on their turn is also out.   Be brutal, it’s more fun that way.

Not only is this game a good time for us, and a great break from intense class, it’s also a great way to learn our numbers better.  I know I’ve gotten a lot faster at signing them since I started playing Buzz 7.  Enjoy.


aslin Deaf Culture, it’s considered incredibly rude to only speak around deaf people if you know any Sign Language at all.  I completely understand this.  I get why people become upset.  It must be so frustrating to watch people completely leave you out when you know they can communicate with you.  It’s almost like they’re deliberately trying to exclude you.  I’m completely on board, and I always sign with people who know sign if there are deaf people around, whether the person I’m talking to is hearing or not. 

I’ve been to a few Deaf Events in my community and there is inevitably the new ASL 1 student who doesn’t know much sign, or the tag-along boyfriend who doesn’t know sign at all.  I don’t want to be rude and not acknowledge these people, and I know the really nice thing to do would be to talk with them for a little bit, but I’m not really sure what the protocol would be for this.  What is a hearing girl to do?

Usually I say a quick hi to the non-signing people, and then ignore them.  When I get into conversations with ASL 1 students who want to speak with me because they don’t understand that well, usually I sign as I speak.  I know this isn’t real grammatically correctASL, but at least I’m trying not to exclude people… right?  That’s what I try and tell myself.  And then I try to get out of the conversation as quickly as possible.  I know my ASL skills are far from perfect, and I don’t want to be a snob, but I know I’ve come a long way from ASL 1.  Yet my ASL skills aren’t advanced enough to help anyone along.  If the two of us are here to improve our ASL skills, I’m probably a bad person to be speaking to.  I can only begin to guess what kind of janky, bad-grammar ASL I’m speaking right now. 

When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do.  So here’s my question:  Is it OK if I’m in a conversation where I’m talking out loud to someone while attempting to sign if there are deaf people around?  If it isn’t, what should I be doing instead?  I think there are a lot of people out there who would benefit from an answer.

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