Point of View: Ignorance is not bliss: A Deaf perspective on the acceptance of ASL

By Joey Bartlett

Cultural identity is just one of many issues that have posed challenging for Deaf people in America. The issue does not present itself within the Deaf community; rather, it lies in the interface between the Deaf and Hearing cultures. The ignorance of the American society at large has rejected the idea that the Deaf people have their own culture because their language is simply a manual replication of the English language.

Because of this misconception, many believe that American Sign Language (ASL) is improvised and has no real structure. There have been studies and research done on the language of the Deaf, and results have shown that ASL is an independent language that consists of its own rules on syntax and spatial boundaries. While spoken English uses inflection of vocal tones to signify emotions such as anger and shock, ASL also incorporates the use of emotions in their language – not through voice, but through facial expressions and body movements. Without those characteristics, mutual understanding between ASL users is essentially lost. So the difference between how an English-speaking person and an ASL user expresses him/herself has been unmistakably identified and should not be discounted. ASL is a language of its own that is expressed in a way that is unique from that of the English language.

ASL is the cornerstone of Deaf culture in America. A culture consists of a group people who unite under a common purpose where the language used by its members is the same and they share the same beliefs and values. Because of the provincial characteristics in the number of Deaf people in America, they tend to develop a familial sense of community where they can meet primarily for fellowship or to discuss serious matters that require the attention of the local community. Deaf culture strongly values fellowship as the most important aspect in developing and maintaining a community in which encouragement and support are given to its members. So in a cultural sense, the Deaf community is considered to be a large family.

The language of the Deaf has been questioned and analyzed. The Deaf culture has been defined and revealed. What else is missing from the big picture? The acknowledgment of the Deaf community as a linguistic minority by the majority of the American population. The Deaf do not view themselves as incapacitated, but rather as unique in the idea that every person is unique in his or her own way. Calling the Deaf a disabled minority is an insult to the Deaf community, because it gives the implication that Deaf people cannot play the role of a fully functioning human being in today’s American society. From a cultural point of view, the Deaf feel it is their duty to educate people everywhere that the only difference between a deaf person and a hearing person is the ability to hear, and that deafness does not hinder the mental capability of the person, nor does it affect one’s physical appearance. In the world of medicine, the term “deaf” generally means the inability to hear on the same level as what most people would consider normal. To the Deaf, the label “normal” is a judgment that seems to place value on humans by their ability or inability to hear. As opposed to “hearing impaired,” the word “deaf” is the most politically correct term to describe a person who cannot hear. Hearing impaired fosters a picture of disability and of lesser worth, and that is not how the Deaf community feels about itself. It is not offensive in any way to call Deaf people Deaf, because they take pride in the cultural sense of the word and do not feel ashamed of it. In fact, they consider it an immense honor to be a part of the Deaf culture, which consists of about 2 million deaf people in America — less than 0.7% — of the American population. So culturally, they consider themselves to be Deaf with a capital “D,” and not a subculture in America, but a culture of its own.

The question is why Baylor University does not acknowledge ASL as a foreign language. According to the associate dean of humanities, Dr. Frieda Blackwell, ASL is not a foreign language simply because it was developed in America. Despite the language having its own characteristics that are distinct from English, it, in her view, is still considered to be a language native to this country. This is a misconception and a sign of how uninformed Dr. Blackwell is.

The history of ASL has been validated by research in countless books; this research shows that the idea of ASL first originated in France and is derived from LSF (French Sign Language). How ASL came to be used in America is all thanks to Thomas Gallaudet. How Gallaudet first became interested in the Deaf is through his neighbor, Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, who discovered that his daughter was deaf. Gallaudet viewed deafness as a hindrance in obtaining an education in a dominant hearing society. So through a grant from Cogswell, Gallaudet traveled to Paris where there he met Laurent Clerc, the world’s first Deaf teacher at the first public school for the Deaf. In 1816, Gallaudet brought Clerc back to America to set up the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. There, Clerc taught LSF to his Deaf students, and later it evolved into what we know as ASL today.

An example of what ASL would look like: “Boy1 little he toy want.” English translation: “The little boy wants a toy.”

The difference in the order of the nouns, articles, adjectives, and verbs between the two sentences is prominent. English grammar rules dictate that the subject is followed by a verb then an object, while ASL rules require the subject to be followed by an object then a verb. Adjectives also are placed differently, and the articles are implied. In the first sentence, an arching of the eyebrows points out the topic of the sentence. The word “boy” is the topic of the statement and eyebrows are raised to show this.

This characteristic is called a topic marker1. Most sign languages in other countries follow this construction. Because of this, ASL users can use the language they’ve learned here to their advantage in countless mission opportunities in other countries, where the Deaf are unreached. Their agility in using hand shapes and facial features works as a catalyst in developing a perfect communication between the ASL user and a Deaf person in another country.

This ability helps the ASL user to develop a connection with the Deaf community in a different country – a connection that reaches a higher level than could otherwise be obtained. Also, students who learn the language of ASL are not merely exposed to a new language; they are exposed to a new way of seeing – seeing the Deaf, regardless of their country or origin, as a linguistic minority. ASL will engender a sense of understanding to Baylor students who find themselves ministering to the Deaf in any country where they choose to serve. While I greatly appreciated Dr. Blackwell for expressing her opinion in a recent article in the Baylor Lariat about her concerns regarding Baylor’s mission statement, ASL students and the Deaf community of Waco agree that ASL can be used to minister to the Deaf in other countries, as well as the very country in which we are living. ASL has the capacity to influence people in a spiritual manner on an international scale. Dr. Blackwell’s attempt to be sensitive to the Deaf community in regard to labeling ASL as a foreign language, though admirable, is also misguided. The Deaf are not opposed to the idea. In fact, they will gladly support it.

Being a linguistic minority does pose a burden on the Deaf community and its members. They cannot go into a restaurant and expect the waiter to know ASL. They cannot count on their doctors or nurses to know ASL when they go in for routine check-ups or in case of emergency. And most importantly, they cannot go to a simple church service and understand the sermon without an ASL interpreter there, nor be a part of the discussion during Bible study when ASL is not involved.

Despite having hundreds of Deaf ministries all over the nation, there are still some places in the United States that consists of Deaf nonbelievers, simply because ASL is not present in their churches. So not only is ASL important for the cultural identity of the Deaf community in the world, it is also extremely vital for their spiritual well-being. Going to a restaurant or interacting with a nurse at a doctor’s office without the assistance of ASL may not implicate the spiritual well-being of a Deaf person. Attending church without ASL, even here in America, does. In their case, ignorance is not bliss.

Joey Bartlett is a junior from China Spring and a member of the deaf community. He contributed this piece to the Lariat.