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A Town for the Deaf

A New York Times article which can be found here reports that a Deaf man named Marvin T. Miller is trying to establish a town in South Dakota to serve as a Deaf enclave. The article, "As Town for Deaf Takes Shape, Debate on Isolation Re-emerges," begins with the paragraph "Standing in an empty field along a wind-swept highway, Marvin T. Miller, who is deaf, envisions the town he wants to create here: a place built around American Sign Language, where teachers in the new school will sign, the town council will hold its debates in sign language and restaurant workers will be required to know how to sign orders." Miller apparently already has 100 families committed to moving there and creating the community of Laurent, named after Laurent Clerc, a 19th-century French educator of the Deaf.

I'm fascinated by this for a number of reasons. First of all, I've had some exposure to Deaf culture (which is why I capitalize the word Deaf the way I do). When I taught at the Cambridge School of Weston, one of my colleagues was a Deaf man named Ron who taught American Sign Language to the students. He graciously allowed me to sit in on his class every day for one of the five-week modules, and I picked up enough ASL to carry on a rudimentary conversation. For the six years I was there, I often sat with Ron and signed with him and his friends, and that gave me a glimpse into that subculture. I was so taken by the culture and ASL that I even put Ron into one of my stories, "In Space, No One Can Hear" (Analog, July/August 1998), as a Deaf man who helps save a sabotaged spacecraft.

Secondly, ever since I learned what little ASL I did, I've come to feel that it's an incredibly useful language. If it were up to me, the entire country would function like the community in Martha's Vineyard, where Deaf and hearing people grow up together. Oliver Sacks wrote a book about the Deaf community, "Seeing Voices," in which he noted that the hearing people in Martha's Vineyard routinely would sign with each other even though they were not Deaf. Basically, they were brought up with both languages, and they use them interchangeably with each other. As for the Deaf people living there, they know they can always communicate with their hearing friends. If the entire country learned ASL, it would go a long way to reducing the isolation that Deaf people feel in our society -- and, as I said before, it's a useful language. Nomi and I were once at a loud party where we couldn't hear each other, and we signed with each other to communicate. We've also signed across crowded rooms when we needed to ask the other one a question; it's a lot more effective than shouting.

The third reason I'm fascinated is because of the debate. The self-identified Deaf community feels that they constitute a culture, and as such, are threatened by attempts to "cure" their deafness, such as with cochlear implants. They feel so strongly about this that they say things such as this quote from Miller at the end of the article, when asked if he wants a cochlear implant: "I am very happy being deaf. To me, this is like asking a black or Asian person if he/she would take a pill to turn into a white person." However, others feel that Deaf people should be given a chance to become hearing, and should also be taught how to use their voice well enough to integrate into mainstream society.

I'm not about to open up that debate here, although it should be fairly obvious that I am somewhat enchanted by the concept of Deaf culture. And in the end, this true story makes me recall John's Varley's award-winning story, "The Persistence of Vision" (1978), about an isolated community of people who are both deaf and blind and how they interact with each other. It's a story worth seeking out if you haven't read it yet, and currently available in The John Varley Reader.


Re: A Town for the Deaf

Michael, I saw this article and was likewise fascinated. Your experiences/perspective are very interesting as well.

Now to find that Varley story....
I'm also fascinated by the discussion. A good friend of mine is dating a Deaf woman, and I had the fun experience recently of trying to teach her to play poker. She's one of the best people at figuring out if other players are bluffing!

And I've read The Persistence of Vision -- an extremely good and very creepy story. I second your recommendation.
Deaf culture good. Everyone/most learning ASL good.

Creating a community solely around Deafness, not so good.

Isolation isn't the answer to allow Deaf people to feel more welcome. Education is the answer. I've been lax in my ASL studies, especially as I have a Deaf cousin. I do wish I knew it more. Many parents are teaching their babies ASL because young children can learn ASL before they can vocalize effectively. This is good, in the communication happens earlier. But bad, in that sometimes the child then refuses to learn how to speak.

I posted this, but LJ ate it. Sorry if we get two similar posts:

The Persistence of Vision is also available in the John Varley anthology of the same name. Also has stories like The Phantom of Kansas, and Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, classics both. It's also available in one of the Nebula anthologies.

Varley is not nearly as well-known as he should be.
Interesting post. Thank you.

I think teaching ASL early on would be useful for everyone. It won't, of course, solve all problems, and could contribute to those with vision problems being a little more isolated, but so long as it's taught as "just another way to communicate" and not "the preferred way for everyone to communicate", I don't see that being a problem.

December 2016

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