By David Smooke
November 7, 2010
The Written Word: Communication in the Deaf
and Hearing Communities
The interpretation of the
written word between and amongst the Deaf and Hearing Communities creates a
different set of boundaries than their primary forms of communication,
signing and the spoken word. This is not arguing that the written word
eliminates the inhibitors of communication between the Hearing and Deaf
Communities. This paper demonstrates how the means and boundaries of
communication created by the written words are often less inhibiting to
communication between the Hearing and Deaf Communities.
What defines the written word
as a form of communication beyond two-dimensional visual symbols that form
language? First and foremost, it differs from signing and speaking by
lacking body language. "Body language is an important part of communication
which can constitute 50% or more of what we are communicating," reads the
using body language section (while speaking) of www.changingminds.org. Every
ASL sign is advanced form of body language. When reading, body language must
be inferred from descriptions, tone, and meaning; the lack of body language
is a greater loss to those who rely upon it more, the Deaf Community.
Amongst yourself, reading is
a silent activity; one who can hear and one who is deaf both sound silent
when they are reading. However, some foundations of literature, poetry, and
music, the recognition of rhythm, rhyme, pitch and intonation rely upon
sound. Deafness exposes one to fewer examples of how to interpret and
create differentiable sounds. Comprehending the phonological nature of words
when reading can be easier for the Hearing Community; members of the Deaf
Community, especially those who were born deaf, imagine or through
repetition imitate sound. Letters themselves take on a different meaning;
in learning proper spellings, Deaf Communities more quickly learn where the
letters visually belong -- seeing letters as delineations to form and sound
as a positioning of lip movements -- whereas, the Hearing Communities more
quickly learn how sounds of letters and groups of letters could form the
sound that is a word or imitates the sound of a word. Not so surprising,
Beryl Lief Benderly explains in "Dancing Without Music" (pg 90-91) that deaf
children choose spellings from a different set of knowledge that is often
more accurate than hearing children:
"Usually the deaf child omits
one or more letters; only rarely does he make the typical hearing child
error, inventing a wrong spelling that gives the same pronunciation. No less
an authority than Dr. Samuel Johnson, the dictionary maker, made this
observation two centuries ago. Marveling at the orthographic skill of deaf
pupils at Thomas Braidwood's school in Edinburgh, he remarked that ‘letters
to them are not symbols of names, but of things, where they write they do
not represent a sound but delineate a form. It may be that deaf children
have an advantage of spelling English, the most unphonetic of alphabetic
languages. They're not mislead by sound.'"
While phonological decoding
can be more difficult for the deaf, there are many examples of members of
the Deaf Community producing sound based art. Poetry is the form of written
language that relies most heavily upon sound. Yet there are and have been
many deaf poets. While the most complex forms of expressions are as likely
to be understood and created by those who can hear or cannot hear, the
performance of these ideas is more readily completed (or accepted as
completed) by those in the Hearing Community. The demonstration of this fact
I found most saddening was in a nonfiction account in "Dancing Without
Music" (pg 198). "Mary," states:
"When I gave the valedictory
(at a school for the deaf), I spoke it even though no one in the class could
hear. Finally, I got out of school, and went among hearing people with my
wonderful voice. Can you imagine my shock, my humiliation, when, as often as
not, they couldn't understand me! I was so mortified that I decided I would
never speak again unless I really had to. If I was going to be deaf, then
I'd be deaf."
The discrepancy in pure oralism that "Mary"
describes here in an extreme fashion is an important factor in preventing a
great deal of communication between the Deaf and Hearing Communities. In a
blunt paraphrasing, the deaf are hesitant to speak and not be understood
while the hearing are impatient to listen without comprehension; this is why
the written word holds great power between the communities.
When cell phones originally
became nationally used in the 1980s, they offered little help to the Deaf
Community, even though the Hearing Community changed vastly, anyone with a
phone could be reached just about anywhere. Then in the 1990s and 2000s, a
similar wave hit the deaf community when text messaging became prevalent in
the nation. Members of the Deaf Community now had a handheld way to
communicate with friends, acquaintances, and associates who were not
present, which is akin to the phenomenon that audio cell phones created for
the Hearing Community. In a Fort Wayne News-Sentinel on Sept. 20, 2010, Jay
Reeves wrote about how texting creates independence for the hearing
impaired. In the article, Derek Schmitz, a graduate of the Mississippi
School for the Deaf and attendee of Gallaudet, took the effects of the new
means of communication to another level in saying that they bridged the Deaf
and Hearing Communities, "I do use texting to communicate with hearing
people, (Communications) between hearing people and deaf people are
improving a lot by texting."
Technology has made
communication of the written word more immediate and accessible;
nevertheless, the use of the written word to communicate between the Deaf
and Hearing Communities is not new. An early example can be found in
Beethoven's conversation notebooks. On Feb. 16, 1970, Time Magazine
From the age of 45, he was
totally deaf, and anyone who wanted to talk to him had to write out the
message. For this purpose, Beethoven would obligingly pull a pencil and a
rumpled 5-in. by 7-in. notebook out of his pocket and offer them to
visitors. Because he usually replied orally, the conversation books are as
one-sided as one half of a telephone call.
Many consider Beethoven's
ninth symphony to be his greatest musical achievement. Microsoft Word
defines music as "sounds that produce effects." Without hearing the effects,
Beethoven wrote so others could produce his musical effect. In the 1820s
when he was at a complete loss of hearing and no longer played the piano in
public, Beethoven created his most historically significant piece of work.
The most complex communication in any form--
words, music, whatever -- can be understood by those that hear and those that
cannot. The difference between the communities lies in the expression and
fluency, and not the ability to understand ideas. Many of the Deaf
Community, such as Beethoven, have chosen to communicate by speaking
although they cannot hear their own words because it accelerates the rate
and broadens the range of people one can communicate with, and others such
as "Mary," have chosen to cut off much of their communication with the
Hearing Communicate as to prevent potential ridicule. The written word,
which is more accessible than ever, allows the Deaf and Hearing Communities
to communicate while each sacrificing less of their own purity of expression
and comprehension. [End]
Benderly, Beryl Lieff. Dancing Without Music.
Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubbleday, 1980.
Deaf American Poetry, An Anthology. Ed. John
Lee Clark. United States of America: Gallaudet University Press, 2009.
Local Scribes. "Music: The Master's Voice."
www.time.com. 16 Feb. 1970. 5 Nov. 2010. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,904184,00.html#ixzz14dsHAbcB>.
Microsoft Word Dictionary courtesy of
Microsoft Office 2011.
Prevot, Dominique. "Beethoven's Biography."
www.lvbeethoven.com. Dec. 2001. 7 Nov. 2010. <http://www.lvbeethoven.com/Bio/BiographyLudwig.html>.
Reeves, Jay. "For deaf, text messaging opens
a new portal to world." www.news-sentinel.com. Ed. Morris, Leo. 20 Sept.
2010. 5 Nov. 2010. <http://www.news-sentinel.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/SE/20100920/NEWS/9200319>.
Straker, David. "Using Body Language."
www.changingminds.org. 5 Nov. 2010. <http://changingminds.org/techniques/body/body_language.htm>.
Additional notes from the author, David
Note: Those who have entered the Deaf
Community later in life can create sound -- with similar ease as those in the
Hearing Community -- by choosing from memory, as illustrated by Beethoven's
ability in continuing to make symphonies in his long process of hearing loss
(ex. The compositions of Symphonies 1 through 9).
See John Lee Clark's Deaf American Poetry, An Anthology, which features
John R. Burnet, James Nack, John Carlin, Mary Toles Peet, Laura C. Redden,
Angeline Fuller Fisher, Alice Cornelia Jennings, George M. Teegarden, J.
Shuyler Long, James William Sowell, Howard L. Terry, Alice Jane McVan, Earl
Sollenberger, Felix Kowaleski, Ly E. Galladay, Rex Lowman, Robert F. Panara,
Mervin D. Garreston, Dorothy Miles, Linwood Smith, Curtis Robbins, Clayton
Valli, E. Lynn Jacobowitz, Debbie Rennis, Willy Conley, Pete Cook, Katrina
Miller, Damare Goff Paris, Raymond Luczak, Abiola Haroun, Christopher Jon
Heuer, Kristi Merriweather, Pamela Wright-Meinhardt, John Lee Clark, Kristen
Ringman, and Alison L. Aubrecht. Taking this form of expression further in
the musical sense creates rapping. Deaf rappers include but are not limited
to Sean Forbes, Signmark, Jcdainfamous, Jeremy Joseph aka "Chosen," and
Chakaron (interestingly, most of the time, those on this list chose to sign
while they rap and as countless music videos depict, most rappers choose to
communicate with their hands, arm, and facial expressions while they rap).