These Young Deaf Artists Have a Message For the Hearing World

How Belgian and American students are sharing deaf culture through art

Participants of Connecting Capitals pose in front of the historic church building of Gallaudet University.

A group of nine young artists from Belgium and the United States is out to prove that Deafness isn’t a disability but rather a cultural heritage — one that crosses international borders and defies the boundaries of language.

This week, the nine members of Connecting Capitals will debut their artwork at the Next Generation, Please! festival in Brussels. The project, which is so named as it is a collaboration between a young people in the Belgian capital city and Washington, DC, uses multimedia and innovative performance art techniques to promote understanding of Deaf culture.

Connecting Capitals was one of 10 projects selected for the Next Generation, Please! festival. Hosted by BOZAR, a distinguished international cultural center, the festival explores the future of Europe through the eyes of its youth. Connecting Capitals will examine Deaf identity, seeking to build bridges not only between Deaf communities in Europe and the U.S., but between the Deaf world and the hearing world.

“I want hearing people to know that deaf people have a global Deaf community,” signs Bram Jonnaert, 23, one of the Belgian members of the group. He learned about the richness of that community himself in recent months through the international exchange program that sparked Connecting Capitals.

A cultural exchange begins

Connecting Capitals was formed earlier this year with a grant from World Learning’s Communities Connecting Heritage program, which matches up cultural institutions from around the world to collaborate on projects through virtual and in-person exchanges. BOZAR was paired with Gallaudet University, the world’s only Deaf university, located in Washington, DC.

Group shot of the Connecting Capitals and their partners.

“I could not be happier to be working with Gallaudet and BOZAR in this new way for a project that explores the intersections of Deaf history, culture, and civil rights,” says World Learning Program Manager Deanna Wertheimer. “World Learning is proud to be an ally in raising awareness and moving the positive narrative of Deaf culture forward through Communities Connecting Heritage.”

In January, BOZAR and Gallaudet gathered their young participants — many of them college students or recent graduates — at their respective headquarters in Brussels and DC for a weekly series of virtual icebreakers and workshops to begin planning their project. They finally met in person last month when the Belgian contingent traveled to DC for a week of project development.

Many international exchange programs are not accessible to the Deaf community, so this was a particularly unique opportunity. “I was so excited to meet deaf Americans,” signs Alice Leidensdorf, 26, a participant from Belgium.

The group quickly figured out how to bridge the seven languages among them — International Sign Language; American, Flemish, and French Belgian sign languages; and the three spoken languages — and even teach each other new signs. They also discovered they shared some of the same experiences; many had grown up struggling to communicate in a hearing family.

Joseph Antonio (far right) shares how Connecting Capitals is building bridges between the Deaf world and the hearing world.

“I believed that I was wrong, that I was just a broken hearing person who needed to get my basic needs met,” signs Joseph Antonio, 30, a communications studies major at Gallaudet. “I didn’t realize that I deserved anything more.”

Those experiences are at the heart of the project that Connecting Capitals will debut in Brussels this week. “I’d love to see that the artwork, the festival that we do at BOZAR, will be able to show that deaf people have common experiences, common fears, common feelings,” Jonnaert signs.

Sharing Deaf heritage through art

With the support of Gallaudet’s Motion Light Lab, Connecting Capitals has taken an innovative approach to communicating their experiences to an audience of both hearing and deaf people.

One element of that approach is a digital coffee table book. Intended as a guide to Deaf culture, the book features interviews and videos the participants have created about their own lives and how they have learned to express themselves. The app — which will be available on iTunes and accessible in several spoken languages — also includes interactive lessons in four different sign languages.

Connecting Capitals also explores the changes society can make to support Deaf culture. Together, the group composed a Letter to the Future inspired by the Deaf President Now protests of 1988, which took place when a hearing woman was appointed president of Gallaudet over more qualified deaf candidates. “Now that we’re in 2018, we are still working for that equality,” signs Melissa Malzkuhn, founder and creative director of the Motion Light Lab and one of the project leaders.

The Connecting Capitals wrote this Letter to the Future, inspired by the Deaf President Now protests of 1988.

In their letter, these young participants outlined not only the obstacles they face in their everyday lives, but also their vision for a more inclusive society, writing, “Being deaf in a world that has failed to understand our culture and our sign languages…is why we demand self-representation, equal access to sign language, and the eradication of systemic audism.”

To underscore the importance of this message, Connecting Capitals produced a film using a unique and theatrical art form known as visual vernacular, which they learned in a workshop with storyteller and Gallaudet professor Ben Bahan. This storytelling method incorporates sign languages, body movements, and advanced gestural techniques to convey ideas and emotions. Even a slightly different facial expression can change one’s meaning in visual vernacular.

“It’s poetry,” Antonio says. He adds that while hearing people might need to work to decipher meanings, “every deaf person understands visual vernacular.”

In the film, Connecting Capitals interprets their Letter to the Future through a story about the universal struggles that deaf people face. It begins depicting Leidensdorf, Jonnaert, and Antonio as caterpillars trying to make their way in a world that doesn’t understand them and denies them access even to their own culture. But, together, the caterpillars learn to climb a tree, spin cocoons, and transform into butterflies — insects which are, not coincidentally, deaf.

These young Belgians and Americans hope their work will not only show the hearing world that Deaf heritage exists — and is robust — but it will also prove to the next generation of deaf youth that they, too, can be artists. And while obstacles may continue to emerge, Jonnaert says he hopes the project will help the Deaf community break through barriers. “This is the start of a path; it’s not the end of it,” he says. “I already know that’s going to be our journey.”

— Amy McKeever

Amy McKeever is the writer/editor at World Learning.