Opinion: Why does ASL matter so much to the Deaf?

Well, I am not sure exactly but I can venture a guess.

First, you need to know that I am deaf, not Deaf. I can’t hear but I was raised as a “hearing” person because I WAS a hearing person until I was 37.  “Hearing” is always going to be my first communication culture. In other words, I am an outsider, and this is my opinion as an observer.

Also you should remember that Deaf is different than deaf. Deaf is a cultural identity and deaf is someone who can’t hear. 

The other day a hearing friend of mine was commenting about a cousin of hers who was “ruined” by attending a deaf school and learning ASL. According to her,  he came back from school angry and distant. I commented that perhaps he had a reason to be angry. At his school he learned what real language and communication was like.  He realized that he had been denied this level of interaction by his hearing family and perhaps he was a bit upset about it. From my limited experience with hearing loss I could appreciate some of those feelings.

Later I thought I could have explained this feeling to her better by sharing this example. We have a mutual friend who has a child with spina bifida. He can’t walk. He will likely never walk since we can’t fix that kind of damage to the spine. (Well not yet anyways) Now, if there was a place where he could learn to walk, would you take him there? Would his family? At this place he can walk and move just like you, but there is a catch…you can’t walk there with him unless you learn a new way to walk too. Then you can walk together as if his legs were unaffected. If you could do that for him, would you? Would you mind learning a new way to walk so you could enjoy walking together? Or would you say that is too much work for me so when we go for a walk together a wheelchair is fine for him.

Deaf people can’t hear. One of their greatest challenges is communication. Sure, there is lip-reading, interpreting, hearing aids, or other supports (i.e., CART, repeating yourself 10 times, etc) but it is a wheelchair. It is an accommodation, and there are still barriers. Don’t get me wrong… I appreciate when my communication is accommodated but in these situations it is clear that we are not on equal terms. Learning and teaching ASL to a deaf friend, family member or colleague is an giving someone who can’t hear an opportunity to “walk” together in communication where there are no barriers.

Perhaps this is what made my friend’s cousin so upset. He learned he could walk but when he came home,  he was disappointed that he was expected to get back in his wheelchair.

Yup, learning a new language is difficult but it’s actually really good exercise for your brain and you can start small. Perhaps learn one new sign a day? It may not seem like much but as they say every great journey is accomplished one step at a time. So what do you say — shall we go for a walk?

Want to learn some ASL? Free beginner lessons via Youtube can be found here: