The Silent Community

As the debate about mainstreaming vs. ASL rages, a culture and a historic Knoxville institution are at stake

The excitement is palpable inside the First Baptist Church as proud parents beam and friends chat animatedly, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the graduates-to-be. Small boys cut up and make faces from the balcony; spectators look around curiously, seeking anyone familiar.

The melodic strains of "Praise Ye the Lord of Hosts" cue the processional and the graduates appear, resplendent in purple robes and mortarboards, tassels swinging with each step up the aisle. It's a graduation like any other--a rite of passage marking the beginning of adulthood for the 11 young men and women of the Class of 1996. Just like other high school graduates, some will go to college, some will go to work; some will marry, some will embark on rewarding careers; some will succeed, some will fail.

But in at least one respect, these graduates are unlike most others. These nine young men and two young women are graduates of the Tennessee School for the Deaf, a residential school were they have spent much of their lives learning a language all their own--a language that binds them tightly together, yet in many ways isolates them from the hearing world.

This language, American Sign Language, and the setting in which it is taught, residential schools for the deaf, have pitted many in the deaf community against those who believe in mainstreaming--educating deaf children in public schools with their hearing peers.

The dichotomy of a language that both unites and separates reflects a deeper concern and raises questions that are not easily answered: Does sign language isolate the deaf from the hearing world? Is the concept of separate-but-equal attainable in a hearing world for those who cannot hear? Are the deaf truly handicapped, or have they been unfairly labeled by a society that cannot--or will not--speak their language? Can the deaf attain what hearing people consider a normal quality of life if they use a language different from their surrounding community? And perhaps the most basic question of all: What constitutes a normal life?

Normal Is as Normal Does

Sheri T. Moran bristles at the suggestion that she is handicapped, and dismisses, with a wave of her hand, the politically correct term "hearing-impaired" as well. Instead, Moran writes carefully, she is deaf with a capital D. While "deaf" (small "d") is an audiological term that indicates she cannot hear, "Deaf" defines her culture as well as her community. Hearing-impaired, she explains, is too vague to suit her.

"Impaired means brokenness," Moran says, and "our ears are obviously not broken."

Moran, a graduate of the Tennessee School for the Deaf and Maryville College, and now a 36-year-old American Sign Language instructor at Maryville College, has little patience with the arrogance and ignorance of hearing people who consider the Deaf pitiful, helpless and handicapped. Indeed, there is nothing in her manner that hints of handicap: She is bright, charming and mischievous, and exudes an air of self-confidence many would envy.

Moran's deafness was not detected until she was two because she mimicked the movements of her identical--yet hearing--twin sister. Born to hearing parents, she read lips and learned to speak with her family until, as a teenager, she rebelled against the hearing culture and asked them to learn to sign. Her frustration with their unwillingness to learn her language is written on her face. Her sister is the only one of all the family who can sign--even her mother knows only the basics.

But Moran doesn't seem to sweat the small stuff. Her life is full, she emphasizes, and she has no desire to hear. She rattles off a list of Deaf activities and confesses that of all her close friends, only one can hear--her husband of eight years.

Her language is slightly stilted in translation, as though English is her second language. And with good reason: English is her second language; ASL (American Sign Language) is her first. She relaxes noticeably when Peggy--her secretary/interpreter--appears and she is able to express herself in her native tongue. Leaning back comfortably in her chair, she signs with the grace and fluidity of a conductor leading an orchestra. Her vocabulary, like her face, is rich and expressive. The only thing missing is sound.

It was Latin that convinced Michael Prochaska to stick to signed English instead of learning ASL. Although the 31-year-old newlywed attended the Tennessee School for the Deaf for three years before transferring to public schools, he was taught the Rochester method of sign (signed English and fingerspelling) instead.

"When I started junior high and started taking Latin," he writes, "I figured it'd be easiest to learn straight English so I'd have to deal with only two languages." He reads lips "a little in context" but does most of his communicating with the hearing world via pen and paper.

The fifth of seven children, Prochaska was born deaf after his mother contracted rubella when she was pregnant. Having six siblings "helped a lot in terms of education" since all the kids attended the same schools.

Prochaska is a testament to the merits of mainstreaming. He graduated from Bearden High, attended Haverford College--a small Quaker liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia--and spent a couple of years at UT studying English. He is married to a hearing woman, and works with hearing people exclusively at Lawson-McGhee Library, where he was hired after leaving Whittle Communications about three years ago. Mainstreaming was good for him, he says.

"I feel like I've benefited from it, in that I had more access to more advanced education, i.e. Latin, and advanced placement classes in high school, so I had a more comprehensive education than I might have if I'd gone on to TSD." But he's quick to point out that he's not against schools for the deaf. "TSD works for many people, and mainstreaming works for some others. I feel like I was in the latter category."

Prochaska is in sharp contrast to Mark Allen, a 47-year-old biology, physics and chemistry teacher at TSD. Allen, who spent most of his youth at an "oral" school in Michigan learning to read lips and speak, says "the deaf should be here (at TSD) for social reasons." Like many other deaf people, Allen firmly believes that deaf kids should be educated with other deaf kids and taught by deaf teachers exclusively. "If you want to learn about deafness, learn from us," he says emphatically.

Allen, who went deaf at three months after a bout with spinal meningitis, wasn't raised with sign--a teacher once told his mother that signing was a sin--but has used it since coming to TSD nearly 20 years ago. He's married to a deaf woman, has a seven-year-old hearing daughter, loves to camp, go out to dinner and the movies, and has a black belt in karate. Like most other deaf people, he doesn't think of himself as handicapped; and he, too, lives a normal life.

Hearing Children in a Deaf World

Though not deaf themselves, children of the deaf are more than honorable members of the Deaf community. They're considered Deaf because they sign. Despite their physical ability to hear, Children of Deaf Adults (CODAs) who use ASL are permitted entry into an otherwise closed society. Signing is as natural as breathing to them, and constitutes the only significant difference in their upbringing.

Alice McBride Lowe, Marty Marine, Larry Mynatt and Mary Ellen Carr Vaughn, now in their 30s and early 40s, laugh and tell stories about their Saturday nights at the Silent Club--a weekly outing for deaf parents and their deaf and hearing children. The roughhousing and rambunctious kids were barely aware their families were different.

The members of the Silent Club have no memory of their first signs. All four signed before they could speak, and they took on the responsibility of interpreting for their parents. Mary Ellen was three when her parents installed their first phone; as an only child, she became the family receptionist and message relayer.

Life at the Carr home was little different from any other. Mary Ellen relates matter-of-factly--her father was a mechanic at Reeder's Chevrolet and her mother was a sports fanatic. They watched TVs--one on top of the other (one of the perks of growing up in a deaf household)--read the paper and went out to dinner like most families. She was not aware that her family was different until her first year of school.

"I had three teachers who got me up in front of the class--singled me out--and said, 'Everybody, this is Mary Ellen. Her parents are deaf and dumb. Doesn't she talk good?'

Confused and embarrassed when one teacher asked, "How do you all live? Where do you get money?" she stammered and answered indignantly, "My daddy works! My momma and daddy went to school!"

Marty suffered through a similar experience that resulted in a three-day suspension from school. When a teacher told the class that his parents were deaf and dumb, he jumped up defiantly and retorted, "They're not dumb! They know sign language! Do you know sign language? If you don't know sign language, you're the one that's dumb!" The association of the words deaf and dumb was an ingrained prejudice in the hearing world of the early '60s.

A dinner outing to Shoney's underscored that prejudice for Marty when he was eight. Silently signing with his parents as they sat down to order, he was surprised and shocked when the waitress appeared and began to make derogatory comments about the deaf. Without thinking, he began to sign her words to his father.

"My dad jumped up and screamed," Marty recalls. "He could say a few choice words, and he did." The waitress, unaware that Marty could hear, burst into tears of embarrassment.

"In its own way, it was racist against us. It didn't have anything to do with color, but it had everything to do with a person's ability to hear."

Mary Ellen nods sympathetically. Personally, she's never understood the hearing world's "oh-I'm-so-sorry" attitude toward the deaf.

"I got so tired of people--like when we'd go out to eat and someone would come to take our order--who'd say, 'Oh, I'm so sorry.' I got so sick of hearing that. I just wanted to say, 'Why? We're eating out--you're the one taking our order!' "

The conversational tone changes as they reveal the ways in which their families were different from hearing families. Marty had to interpret spinal tap surgery for his father; Mary Ellen had to tell her father he was dying; Alice was asked to interpret at her grandfather's funeral. Larry recalls growing up and accompanying his parents on doctor visits. Because interpreters weren't readily available, the responsibility fell on him, and frequently, on family friend Alice. In the early '60s and '70s, the deaf were frequently on their own, depending primarily on family members for communication with the outside world.

Larry, the son of the late R. B. Mynatt, owner of Mynatt Shoe Shop on Cumberland Avenue, inherited his strong work ethic from his father. His dad, Larry says, was a determined, hot-tempered entrepreneur who established high standards for himself and his children. Deafness was never an obstacle, just an inconvenience. Indeed, all four kids describe their parents and their other deaf friends and acquaintances as the hardest working people they know.

The kids of the Silent Club continue to work together as interpreters: Larry and Marty at the Tennessee School for the Deaf, Alice and Mary Ellen at Pellissippi State. Their focus is vocational training--teaching the deaf skills that will enable them to achieve independence.

TSD at Risk

The Tennessee School for the Deaf has been an integral part of Knoxville's Deaf community for over 150 years. A residential school, TSD provides training, socialization and structure for deaf youngsters from all parts of the state. But TSD is currently embroiled in a controversy that threatens its very existence.

Barry Swafford, a history, government, economics and Spanish teacher at TSD, as well as the head basketball coach, is third-generation Deaf. His newborn son is fourth-generation Deaf. Swafford attended TSD and intends for his son to attend, too, if the school still exists.

"The question about TSD--Will it exist?--I think it will, but you know, for how long depends on the philosophy of education for deaf children," Swafford explains through Alan, his interpreter.

"There's always a big controversy over mainstreaming versus residential programs," Swafford signs. "There are those that think the Deaf school shelters children from the real world. Personally, I disagree with that."

The push to mainstream has political and financial roots, Swafford believes. In his opinion, Public Law 94-142, (also known as the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975)--which says that deaf children can't be denied the opportunity to participate in mainstream programs--is frequently misinterpreted. Swafford thinks that in local educational districts throughout the state, the law is used to keep federal funding by keeping deaf kids in public programs.

As a result of that, Swafford says, TSD is suffering. Enrollment at the school in 1971 was 400; for the past five or six years, enrollment has hovered between 180 and 200.

"We're stuck with the concept that mainstreaming is better and deaf kids can function better if they learn to function in the hearing world, and that TSD is more isolated and doesn't give them that opportunity. Personally, I think we need to sell the idea that TSD (and residential schools in general) is not isolation," he says.

Madeline Kline, a sensory communication consultant for Hearing Services Programming of Knox County Schools, and a hard-core proponent of mainstreaming, disagrees with Swafford. She says she believes PL 94-142 was intended to desegregate residential schools for the handicapped, and that it's working.

"I think the thrust toward mainstreaming has been an attempt to desegregate the residential environment in such a way that you don't have all the blind together, all the deaf together, and all the mentally retarded together," Kline says. "What you're doing is taking them away from the institution and from the segregated environment and offering them opportunities to deal with other handicapped--other disabilities--in other environments."

Bob Furman, Deaf Studies teacher at TSD, and a Deaf Culture and ASL Linguistics instructor at UT, argues that despite good intentions, desegregation winds up being segregation instead. The mainstreaming programs were designed primarily for kids with other handicaps--blindness or other physical disabilities--and deaf children tend to be lumped into the same category.

"What happens is that we've been given that label of handicapped as part of a much larger group and we feel like we're stuck," Furman says. "We encourage our children to be normal. We don't consider ourselves handicapped."

"The mainstreaming programs may be good for those folks, but because of the language and the cultural differences, it's not necessarily what's best for the deaf student," Furman continues. "When you put the deaf kids into the mainstream, they lose their language."

ASL is at the heart of the mainstreaming controversy. Proponents of mainstreaming say it's detrimental for deaf children to focus on sign language exclusively and that the opportunity to associate with hearing people provides them the least restrictive environment in which to learn.

For Kline, the least restrictive environment is one in which deaf and hearing students learn together in a hearing and speaking environment. Mainstreaming for youngsters in the Knox County School System begins as early as three, an age Kline thinks is too old. Ten to twelve months old would be ideal to begin the evaluation process, she says. Kline believes institutions such as TSD are necessary only when quality mainstreaming programs are not available.

"I'm a firm believer that counties and school systems should co-op and offer opportunities for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and the hearing-impaired so that they may learn to work side by side with hearing people, deal in a hearing environment and be productive members of society," she says.

"I'm not an advocate of separating them or isolating them in their neighborhood school with just an interpreter," Kline emphasizes. "I do think they need to be grouped for a certain period of time and to be trained initially by teachers who are skilled in deafness."

Furman and Swafford fear Kline's attitude and believe the push toward mainstreaming is robbing the deaf community of its future leaders.

"Back in our time at the Deaf school, the kids knew how to function," Furman explains. "The (mainstreamed) students are very smart right now, but they can't function. What we're afraid of is that we're losing our leaders--our Deaf leaders of the future. We see very few of them, and we're starting to look for who's going to help us when we get too tired and too old. Who's going to do the community service? Who's going to do all this stuff?"

Swafford, the current president of the Tennessee Association of the Deaf, reiterates Furman's concerns.

"In the past, most of the presidents (of TAD) were people who graduated from Deaf schools, TSD or others, and those were the people who have been instrumental in going to the Legislature and changing laws and making life better for deaf people. And when they're gone, we're afraid that Bob and myself are the last of our breed."

The fight over ASL is a serious worry for Furman, Swafford and many others in the Deaf community.

"My concern about ASL: It's got to be accepted as a language, and then we can use that to help deaf people communicate better and have more open communication with hearing people, improve reading skills, improve English skills." Furman says "We've had many obstacles throughout history and, basically, I believe it's because hearing people don't understand sign language. It's an attitudinal thing. They think it's inferior or something. They say 'Deaf people have to learn signed English so they can be like us.' It's easier for hearing people."

Kline's argument against ASL is that it doesn't provide deaf students adequate skills in English.

"The problem I see with people who use ASL," Kline says, "is that they have very poor written skills and they have a very difficult time competing in the educational environment because they can't write a grammatically correct sentence. In reading and comprehending what they read, they require an interpreter," Kline says. She believes it's fine to use ASL to teach the deaf English, but that ASL alone is not sufficient in a society that uses English almost exclusively.

Why do the deaf prefer ASL over ESL (signed English)? Swafford and Furman say ASL is an innate and integral part of Deaf culture. English--signed or otherwise--is not.

"ASL is our native language," Furman explains. "We're born with it in our hearts. It's part of us. But there's a resistance (in the hearing world). And we understand."

Furman understands more than most. His two children are hearing. Though their first language was also ASL, as hearing adults they speak English as well.

"When I was born, there wasn't a choice for me--spoken language was not a choice," Furman says. "But as a deaf parent, my children learned sign language as their first language. But because they could hear, they also had the hearing environment where they developed and learned language in a natural order. I have no problem with that. I know English is their language. Sometimes, if there's a problem with ASL, we go to English so that they understand. The point is, I'm changing to meet their needs. That is their language. I respect that. And I want hearing people to respect our language. That's all we ask for."

Kline and other mainstreaming advocates insist that training the deaf to speak and to operate verbally in the hearing world is the only way to ensure their success.

"Most of our students who use other forms in addition to ASL, whether it be signed or spoken English or whatever, are academically more successful and have better test scores," she says. "As far as their future, and how they make it in the real world, the oral/aural ones are the ones that fit in."

But fitting-in in a hearing world is not a primary concern for Swafford and Furman. Having a separate language and a separate culture are. The two men are eloquent in their plea and resolute in their determination to retain their language.

"We have a message. ASL is here to stay. You can't get rid of it-- it will always be our language. How can anyone try to take that away from us?"

Speaking for the Deaf community, Swafford and Furman say the equation is obvious and simple: ASL equals independence. Swafford's summation is swift, expressive and poignant. Touching his wrists together, he signs a simple message: No chains. Don't tie our hands.

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.