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Deaf Community and Coronavirus

Black and white photo of two hands with palms facing up, doing the american sign for the number 8 on both hands.

Years ago my mother sent me an article about a deaf rapper who happens to have an Instagram account, Deafinitely Dope. Ever since I have been following him and slowly adding his followers, and others I have found to my instagram account. Over the last two weeks my intake of social media and news has increased tremendously. Thanks to my sign language classes, my sign has improved over this time period as well. Towards the beginning of shelter in place I saw an instagram post mentioning something about how stranded many deaf kids would be with their schools closed, having to stay at home with no one but their parents to communicate with. I was initially confused so I showed the post to my fiance and he told me there must be some mistake.

I put this story in the back of my head until my last american sign language (ASL) class on Thursday when I brought it up to my teacher at the end of the class. My teacher explained that the Instagram post was indeed correct. In fact, more than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. The vast majority, according to one source it’s 88%, of these hearing parents don’t learn to sign. There are a variety of reasons: it’s a big demand of parents time to learn a completely new language, take kids to a speech therapist, and all the doctors appointments; parents may not have anyone to sign with aside from their own children and may feel very uncomfortable signing; and many parents are extremely limited by their geographic location and what is available in their area. Children being sent home from boarding schools like the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, are therefore going home to families that they can communicate with much less well than their classmates that they typically live with.

This was mind boggling to me, how in the world could any parent have children they couldn’t communicate with? My ASL teacher told me to watch the documentary For a Deaf Son and I started to understand a little bit more how children like Thomas could grow up to be so old (in his case 6 or 7 years old) without being able to communicate. Unfortunately it seemed Thomas’ parents never decided to properly immerse him in sign language and without the ability to communicate much with the world, my ASL teacher explained, he committed suicide later in life.

Today I Zoom-ed (new verb thanks in large part to coronavirus) with two friends of my parents (and friends of mine). At one point in our conversation I mentioned that I was learning ASL and my friend was immediately excited. He explained to me that he had a friend, Ethan, who was desperate to learn sign language. I was a bit timid about teaching a language that I myself have only had 3 classes in so I started asking more questions.

Where did Ethan live? Bombay. I immediately explained that I wasn’t the best person to help. I’m learning American Sign Language, I know nothing about Indian sign language and learning ASL wouldn’t help the kid much where he lived. As with hearing languages, there are many different sign languages and they aren’t simply a direct translation of the hearing language that is spoken in that part of the world. When I lived in China, I went to the Dalian School of the Deaf and Blind to see if I could work there and unfortunately was rejected on two accounts: I didn’t speak Chinese sign language, and I was a foreigner.

How old was the friend? Turned out this individual was 11 years old, had a severe form of autism where he couldn’t verbally communicate with anyone. My spidey sense started going crazy. An 11 year old that had never been able to communicate with others? Sounded a lot like Thomas from For a Deaf Son, but worse. I could only imagine the temper tantrums I would pitch if I wasn’t able to communicate for the first 11 years of my life.

Cute little white and beige bunny looking at the camera with one ear standing up and the other laying down next to a red-ish piece of wood with a blurry bright green grass background.

Fortunately I had just finished reading How Can I talk if my Lips Don’t Move: Inside my Autistic Mind by Tito Mukhopadhyay so I knew a little about severe forms of autism that made it nearly impossible to talk, like this individual seemed to have. I immediately started some basic research for my friend and found out that there was both a Bombay Institution for the Deaf and Mute and a couple therapy schools and autism organizations such as SAI Connections in Bombay.

My new discoveries about the deaf community leave me fascinated and wondering how these individuals are coping with shelter in place during coronavirus. I have spent a lot of my days on Zoom, and after having my ASL class over Zoom, I imagine deaf people are doing a lot of the same. What would it be like to have a child you couldn’t communicate with? My teacher also explained to me that a lot of “pigeon ASL” developed from signs that weren’t technically part of ASL but that were easy for families who didn’t speak ASL to grasp. There’s so much more here for me to learn! I wish this community (and all communities) the best during these trying, social distancing times.

anthropologist with a PhD in architecture who also loves writing about user experience, child development, birth, and accessibility

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