Professor traces deaf legacy back to Nazi Germany

By Hannah Neumann
Staff Writer

Decades ago in Nazi Germany, a man had to make a life-altering choice — carry out his duties as a soldier and stay true to what he believed to be right for his country, or abandon his ideology in order to protect his family.

This man was the grandfather of Dr. Lewis Lummer, a lecturer in American Sign Language and deaf education at Baylor.

“My mother grew up in Nazi Germany and escaped because they were killing not only black people and Jews, they were also killing people that they perceived as having a handicap,” Lummer said through interpreters Shirley Gerhardt and Kris Pullin from Texas Language Connection.

Lummer’s grandfather was in the Third Reich, which aimed to eradicate those without hearing. One day, however, his life was thrust into a world of conflicting emotions when his wife gave birth to a deaf child.

“He felt it was his responsibility to report the things that were going on in the deaf population,” Lummer said. “But then there was this cognitive dissonance he experienced because while he was involved in the Nazi cleansing, he also had deaf family now.”

Lummer’s family relocated and his mother, Irma Tiedmann, started her American life in Chicago, where she met and married a deaf man, Richard Lummer, together conceiving four deaf children.

Lummer said due to the vast cultural variation in the area and the large deaf population at the time, most of the community in which they lived used sign language, and being deaf was just another cultural difference.

“I just went along and grew up, I think, as any young person might grow up,” Lummer said. “Of course, I did have struggles just as anyone would, but not necessarily because I was deaf. Everyone on campus knew American Sign Language and so we called each other ASL users regardless of whether we were deaf or hearing and so that was very nice in my social life and my academic life.”

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders website, Nine out of every 10 children born deaf are born to parents who can hear.

Dr. David Garrett, chair of the communication sciences and disorders department, said people like Lummer have a very powerful voice in the deaf community because while the deaf are often misunderstood, someone with generations of deafness really understands everything being deaf encompasses.

“The fact that he is deaf himself means he understands the culture from his own unique perspective, but he also grew up with both of his parents who were deaf,” Garrett said. “So in the deaf community, it is a bit like having a rock star because everyone knows that he really gets it. If anyone is going to understand the deaf culture, it’s going to be him.”

Breaking the chain, Lummer’s wife who is also deaf, gave birth to two hearing children, known as Children of Deaf Adults, or CODAs.

Lummer said while he expected to have deaf children, communication has never been a problem for them as a family. They used American Sign Language as soon as their children were born and let them adapt to their speaking and hearing abilities through school.

“There have been some challenges,” Lummer said. “At school is where they come across these challenges because people want to use them as interpreters.”

Lummer said often when he visits for lunch, classmates will ask his children to act as translators, and in these times he prefers to use written communication to interact, rather than have his children become a third-party in the conversation.

“I don’t want my children to be utilized as my interpreter because they aren’t that,” Lummer said. “They’re my children and I want them to have a normal childhood.”

According to the these children often tend to feel overburdened in trying to protect their parents. Signing with their parents in a public place can generate unpleasant comments from people who assume the children are deaf. Lummer said he and his wife have instilled deaf culture and appreciation in their children from birth, making the use of sign language paired with speaking and hearing skills.

“Their normalcy is that mom and dad are deaf,” Lummer said. “It’s normal for them and it’s OK. Both of their parents have Ph.D.s, so our normalcy is that there is no negativity associated with the deafness and that we can accomplish anything, as we have.”

Lummer said while being deaf is still considered a disability today, both legally and in the mindset of the hearing; members within the deaf community don’t relate to the label.

“I’m blessed as who I am and my life is good,” Lummer said. “Being born into my family they taught me to stand up for myself and to make my own way, and that deafness is not a disability.”

He said while children who are deaf could excel in America, they often lack the proper help they deserve in order to do so.

“We should be progressing in deaf education but we are not,” Lummer said. “Here in America, it’s because we’re trying to make them hearing and we’re treating people who are deaf like they are sub-human or second class, rather than valuing what they have and what they need.”

Schools play a critical role in the education and development of deaf children in America.

“If I were able to set up a deaf school that would be amazingly wonderful,” Lummer said. “My wife and I have talked about how nice it would be to set up a school for the deaf that is run by the deaf, and maybe in the future we can do that.”

Lummer said although there are some people who are overwhelmed with negativity due to their being deaf, he is happy with his situation and wouldn’t change it even if he could.

“My life is a gift and I’m going to contribute to my society with the gifts I have been given,” Lummer said.