The loss of our eyesight or our hearing is something most of us only give a cursory thought towards. How would I cope if I was deaf? What would it be like never being able to listen to music? Horrible, we think to ourselves and then we quickly move on, possibly hitting the shuffle function on our iPods with a slightly more piquant sense of gratitude.
Bizarre that the first thing we think about is the loss of music from our lives rather than the question of how the hell we would communicate with other people and the outside world. Maybe because we take our ability to talk so much for granted?
I’m almost ashamed to say that it has taken a writing project to make me bend my thoughts more seriously towards these issues. I’m 25,000 words into my second novel and one of the supporting characters is deaf. The main character has a disabling stutter and hence hates speaking. Through learning sign language though he is able to finally express himself and embark on a more fulfilling lifestyle. Yes, it is something of a rom/com for those of you that are interested but also, hopefully, a gritty piece of social commentary. Anyway, I’m not here to big up the novel. I’ll save that for when it’s finished.
The point is I quickly realized that to write effectively and realistically about Deaf Culture I needed to embark on some serious research. I bought books. I contacted someone at the Deaf Arts Network who very kindly spent weeks answering all of my (no doubt very crass) questions and supplying me with real life anecdotes – Lisa, if you are reading, a big thank you once again. Eventually I realized that to make the deaf character real and believable – not to mention her dialogues with the main character – I would need to learn sign language myself.
Because it is a complete language in itself with its own sense of dialogue and its own idiosyncratic mechanics. It can’t be replicated by guesswork; you have to know it.
Thankfully the local FE College here in Leamington offers the Level 1 course. Depressingly it is very expensive. £450. Level 2 is over £600 and then there is Level 3 and 4. But that’s jumping the gun. I nearly abandoned the idea there and then as there was no way I could afford the best part of £500 on an evening course. But help comes from surprising sources sometimes and my employer stepped up to the plate and is funding Level 1 for me; the idea being that it will be useful for the local authority here to have an employee who can communicate [albeit at a very basic level] with any deaf customers.
I started the course about 6 weeks ago. Without fail I am exhausted before I even get there – I’m not a night person – but every Tuesday I drag myself up to the college and try to make myself as receptive as my lazy brain will allow. And without fail I leave 2 hours later buoyant and buzzing and bouncing with the sheer exhilaration of it all.
It is a wonderful course and a beautiful language to learn. It is as fluid, rich, dynamic, intriguing, and expressive as any spoken voiced language. I’d even venture to say it is more expressive. It has its own set of pictorial semantics which are often as funny as they are clever. There is something organic and interconnected about the language too. The sign for ‘milk’ for example is redolent of milking a cow. Every sign is pregnant with meaning and has an ingenious grace to it that makes you want to master every word and phrase.
And it’s easy to learn. Amazingly easy. The entire class had mastered the finger-spelling alphabet within the first hour. There is something instinctive about it. And now armed with those few rude basics you can at last communicate and make your point known.
So it amazes me that the basics of sign language aren’t taught at all schools. Just the alphabet and a few signs would hardly over burden the current curriculum. The benefits would be enormous both to the Deaf Community and to the hearing community, both in terms of increased accessibility for the former and inclusiveness for both. Because it was not until I embarked on this research that I realized what a closed culture Deafness is. It is very enclosed and self contained. Not because Deaf people want to be separate but because if no-one else speaks your language you have no choice but to be separate and a world apart.
And given that we all share the world and are all human, that seems a very great shame.
Not being able to hear music is actually the smallest loss that Deafness bestows upon you. Not having the ability or the opportunity to make yourself ‘heard’ is far, far worse and deeply, hurtfully isolating. And yet the remedy is so simple.
Come on, Education Minister; put sign language onto our school curriculum! Or for those of you that understandably can’t wait for that great day or are past school attendance age... I know a great way for you to put £450 to very good use. I guarantee you won’t regret it.