I’ve been mesmerized by the interviews with Paddy Ladd on BSL Zone. Paddy Ladd is a deaf academic, who coined the word, “Deafhood” and is known for his advocacy for deaf education and deaf culture throughout the world. He wrote a 500 page book called, In Search of Deafhood, a weighty tome presenting research on deaf culture, sign language rights, academic frameworks, and advocacy. During the three part interviews with Tessa Padden, I found myself nodding vigorously as he went through his childhood, adolescence, his life as a “hippie”, and finding his home in the deaf community. In his signing (BSL), there is a quiet intense energy as he articulates so well what it means to be deaf and what it meant for him to work with the deaf community. Deafhood, he says, is that elusive “something” that each person with a hearing loss carries within, an innate recognition of how life without full access to sound shapes one’s emotions, social life and intellectual gifts and the human need to participate fully in our society. It is also about deaf gain, the gifts of the deaf to the hearing world. Deaf gain is a gift in the eye of the hearing beholder. More hearing people are deaf to these deaf gains than admitted.
Now, these gifts are likened by many hearing people as the unwanted gift a cat deposits on a door. The dead bird is a revolting gift indeed in the eyes of those who do not claim to be in relationship with animals. And this is the key to everything. Relationships between deaf and hearing people is like trying to reach across an abyss. Those who care, will build the bridges. Those who don’t, will insist that the deaf claw their way up to the other side to meet the needs of the hearing world.
Ladd also said a couple of things that resonated deeply with me. He admits that the Deaf community has lost the war on cochlear implants and that the oral deaf and hard of hearing children and youth are hidden in the various local schools throughout the province. Yet, he cannot give up this fight to introduce the deaf community and deaf culture to those who may need it. He says that the number of Deaf clubs in London alone has shrunken from 50 to very few because of the focus on inclusive education. Yet Paddy soldiers on in the face of the losing war.
But like Paddy, I know who are the losers in this war. I have, throughout my life, come across many oral deaf adults (with profound hearing losses and barely intelligible speech) sequestered in their parents’ basements or living a very lonely existence. They appear tired, shrunken, old even. Their dreams of living like everyone else shrinks with every year as more people find communication with them very arduous. They struggle to comprehend every spoken word even if these words are carefully articulated by their loved ones. In that struggle, they often collapse under the sheer weight of being responsible for every communication gaff and breakdown. And the strain of communicating with these oral deaf people is enormous. Even I find myself avoiding these people. I often swing between pity and avoidance, knowing what it would take to transform these creatures into people that are loud, soft, angry, compassionate, devious, problem solvers, passionate, adventurous and gregarious. Yet, these truncated human beings, struggling always, to navigate the hearing world, are reminders of what Paddy was, what I was, during our formative years.
Developing whatever hearing they have and what speech they can produce (in varying degrees of intelligibility) does not guarantee participation in life and community. It only guarantees the role of pet in the family. It is difficult to witness parents and professionals attesting to the ideology that this sort of existence is preferable to the knee slapping, vivacious storytelling, the community authored knowledges concerning insurance, food safety, workplace behaviours, home renovations, arts, ASL poetry, child rearing, and current events in the world. The deaf community meetings, workshops on deaf culture, and ASL are some of the hallmarks of the striving for a better world through the fight for higher standards in deaf education.
I am nearing the completion of my PhD. As I contemplate my next step, I recall how Paddy says he has 11,000 deaf children in Britain. While his work has not impacted those children in England because they are hidden away in their families, in their communities and will always require enormous support, he has become an icon for deaf empowerment throughout the world. When asked about his contributions to the deaf community, he replied in a most humble way, “I like to think of myself as a good soldier. It is up to others to decide the value of what I’ve done.” That sort of humility is needed for the long haul, for the years of advocacy for sign language rights which are long and often disheartening, especially in the face of government cutbacks and reduction of educational services.
I have deaf children too on the other side of the Atlantic. Many of them are hidden away from me and I will never meet them. But I can work with those who are placed before me, like our Deaf Crows, and help them to become fully alive, fully integrated within themselves, their families, the community comprised of deaf and hearing people, toward Deafhood.
Paddy and I are not going to blaze our way out of this bottomless pit of need created by those who want to remake deaf people in their own image, airlifting the deaf people out of their desperate solitary confinements. Instead, all I can aim for, is to be a good soldier and not give my joy away. Because the joy is in Paddy’s eyes, in his face, and in his hands. And that is a life well lived.