The Underworld Journey of the Deaf Community

Like a felled beast, the Deaf community has laid nearly dormant in Saskatchewan for nearly thirty years. A war was fought and lost.  The provincial school for the deaf in Saskatchewan was closed in order to cut costs for the entire province. Those opposed to American Sign Language and the Deaf community,  washed their hands of the whole affair. Satisfied, they went about the conversion of deaf children into hearing adults. To this day, cochlear implants and auditory habilitation dominate deaf education in this province.

For those of us left in a dying Deaf community,  the past thirty years has felt like a painful death.  We lost two generations of potential youth that could come and take our places on the executives of Deaf organizations.  We lost the joy of an intergenerational community where the older Deaf could mentor the younger Deaf. We were plunged into an underworld journey with little hope of living again on the surface.

In the underworld,  we face a death imposed by language deprivation. Dr. Kate Rowley, a Deaf academic and linguist, says:  “The dark side of being deaf is not being unable to hear. The dark side of being deaf is being deprived of language. The dark side of being deaf is being unable to develop cognitive and psychosocial skills because of language deprivation.”  This is a social death which relegates us to the margins, to places where no one looks for abandoned bodies.

And the state of deaf education remains polarized.  We are in either camp, one that fights to eliminate deafness, the Deaf community and sign language and other other camp which is committed to revitalization of Deaf communities and sign language.  Each camp is determined to pull ahead of the other. In the upperworld, the shadow side of our camps is submerged in anger, neglect of certain realities, a lumbering giant who isn’t too bright. We want to quickly eliminate what we see as oppressive.  Kill it, leave it, and bury it in those forgotten places. This is the work of large, lumbering institutions who follow the directives of others like themselves.

The underworld is the forgotten place,  the place of abandonment and as Dante says, “abandon hope, all you enter here”. Yet, here in this underworld, I have become convinced that one camp cannot exist without the other.  That both camps work actually together in the underworld to create a new deaf community capable of taking its place in the upperworld. This unholy alliance coughs up the strange bedfellow whom we find lying next to us in the morning.  

Here in Saskatchewan,  the strange bedfellow is the local, provincial and national arts community.  Because of our arts-based education initiatives at Winston Knoll Collegiate and the Deaf Crows Collective, we have been able to attract the interest of highly intelligent, compassionate, and dedicated artists.  In turning away from the education community who is often submerged in their committments to either camp, we have found supports in terms of the provision of ASL interpreting in theatres (Globe Theatre, Artesian Theatre), in musical performance (Cultural Exchange, the Regina Folk Festival and individual artists), and in higher education (University of Regina). We are receiving volunteers who are willing to learn sign language and to share their knowledge and expertise with us.  We receive inquiries from other large institutions including universities, libraries, and non-profit organizations (many of which are arts organizations) to a view to establishing partnerships. The Saskatchewan Arts Board has funded many of the Deaf Crows Collective projects. Moreover, on a national scale, Canada Council of the Arts is now supporting Deaf actors and artists and theatre festivals such as the SoundOff Festival. The Deaf Crows Collective is also grateful to Canada Council for their support.

You are probably wondering by now how do both opposing camps in the underworld engage in such a rhizomatic journey and yield such radiant and exciting movements above ground?  The Deaf culture is a convert culture (Bechter, 2008). This means that the Deaf community attracts many oral deaf and hard of hearing people who are looking for ways to augment their communication.  Many are finding the ease of communication in a Deaf peer group a compelling reason to stay and contribute to the Deaf communities of the future. For example, every Deaf academic I have met, uses their English skills (obtained through ASL, speech and hearing or both)  to advance the rights and needs of their deaf communities and address the horrific consequences of language deprivation in deaf children and youth. The power of the wounded healer is indeed greater than that of lumbering giants who do not see things very well or discriminate clearly.  Those giants struggle to engage in nuanced thinking, the thinking that only happens in the underworld, and in the underworld journey of the Deaf community.

I want to thank Chris Dodd for his excellent work in coordinating the SoundOff Festival in Edmonton, the cast and crew of every theatre performance at the festival,  the new generation of actors, directors, playwrights, and artists notably Landon Krentz, Elizabeth Morris, Adam Pottle, Linda Campbell, Jim McDermott, Thurga Kanagasekarampillai, Jack Volpe, Ali Saeedi,  Haley Hudson, Theresa Duffley-Upton, Ralitsa Rodriguez, Alexandra Hickox, Carolyn Carter, Alan Williams, Catherine Joell MacKinnon and Torrie Ironstar. These are only SOME of the deaf artists and actors I have had the good fortune to meet. There are a number of new deaf theatre companies bursting up from below including Deaf Spirit Theatre, 100 Decibels, Seeing Voices, Signs of the Maritimes, and Deaf Crows Collective.  All of the recent performances I have seen are following the lead of deaf academics in sharing deaf lives, deaf moments, deaf events, deaf rather than using theatre as a platform to fight a protracted war between the oralist and the signing deaf, an activity that is devoid of nuanced, rich and vibrant consideration. Our creativity shines in the darkness in this underworld journey.

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