Protecting and Interpreting Deaf Culture | Glenna Cooper | TEDxTulsaCC

Translator: Araminta Dutta
Reviewer: Queenie Lee I’m Deaf. I’m profoundly Deaf. My parents didn’t know I was Deaf
until I was 18 months old. My parents’ world fell apart, primarily because of the hearing society’s
view on Deafness as a negative. My doctor, an ear, nose
and throat specialist, told my parents that I should not
learn sign language, because it would make me isolated
from the hearing community. I had to learn to speak and to read lips
to fit in with hearing culture. So I did. I grew up learning to speak and read lips,
trying to fit in with hearing society, and man, it was a challenge. Frustrating. Communication was not always there
with a hundred percent access. When I was three years old,
I spoke my first word – boat. My parents were driving,
and out the window, I saw a boat and kept repeating the word. That’s, I guess, why I have
a 29-foot cruiser today. (Laughter) My parents, upon looking back, realized
that the doctors didn’t really understand the critical part of language
development for infants. It’s so critical that Deaf babies
have a first language, American Sign Language. It’s a natural, visual language
for them to develop as a basis, and then they can learn
to speak and read lips later in life. That’s the most important part
for Deaf babies – to have that critical access,
that first language. Today, I’m 53 years old. I’m proud to be Deaf. American Sign Language
is something that I greatly value because it flung the world
wide open for me, even more than I had before. I love American Sign Language,
Deaf culture and Deaf history, and the Deaf community. We know we’re not disabled. We just have a different language. We know who we are. We can do everything just as you can. We have successful Deaf attorneys,
Deaf doctors, scientists, engineers, college professors, athletes, actors – we even have a Deaf receptionist
in the White House. When I talk about culture, what do I mean by
that I love Deaf culture? We have a culture,
just like any other group – Hispanic, Asian, Black – they value their language
and their own culture such as we value our own Deaf culture
and our own language. Let me give you some examples
of normative Deaf culture. We can be really blunt. (Laughter) I mean, if you come up to someone Deaf, they’ll say, “You’ve gained weight!
Wow, you’ve gotten fat! What’s wrong?” (Laughter) Hearing people will not say that. “Oh, you look good.” If that’s a bad haircut,
you know, we’ll tell you. “Those clothes aren’t right for you.” (Laughter) Hearing people are so nice, culturally. (Laughter) “Oh, you look good,” is all they’ll say. It’s nice to get that honesty. We typically are very detail-oriented. If someone passes away,
we’ll ask questions. “What’s wrong? What happened?
How’d they die?” and ask for a lot of details. But in hearing culture, they’ll say,
“Oh, I’m sorry that they passed.” If a hearing student
comes into my classroom, they’ll say, “I’m so sorry
I was late,” and sit down. But if a Deaf student comes
into my classroom, they’ll say, “Oh, sorry I was late.
You’ve got to know why! A truck on the highway
that was full of egg crates fell over, and the police and ambulances
came in and blocked the road! I couldn’t get through” – and on
and on for two or three minutes, and then they end with, “Sorry I’m late.” (Laughter) That’s part of our culture. We value that information sharing. Let me tell about our five-stage goodbye. If hearing friends come over
to my house for a party, they’ll stay about an hour,
hour and a half, and they’ll leave. “Bye.” “Oh, okay.” But if my Deaf friends come over,
they will stay forever. (Laughter) I mean, forever. Even if I’m urging them to leave! (Laughter) If we’re in a restaurant together, we’ll be talking, and the manager will come up
to the table and indicate, “We’re closing in about five minutes.” “Okay.” But we don’t leave – we still talk
for another 10 to 15 minutes. Then we realize it, and we step a little further
away from the table, but we’re still talking
for 10 or 15 more minutes, sharing information. Then we’re standing by the door
in a group, talking, and the manager’s
angrily shutting the lights off and motioning us to leave. That’s the third stage. Then we’re out in the parking lot,
and that’s our fourth stage of goodbye. And in our cars, still talking. We’re still catching up. And finally, we leave. That’s the reason we really depend
on each other to share information. For hearing culture, you, typically, can hear the radio
or talk amongst yourselves to get news and information whereas we rely on sign language
for our information, between ourselves, and that’s how we communicate. That’s the most important part
of our culture. Talking about sign language,
sign language is nothing new. It’s been here for thousands of years. When we have to fight, almost daily,
to protect sign language, we experience a lot of oppression
and discrimination, just as any other cultural group
experiences oppression on their cultures, discrimination on their languages; we are the same. Looking back, historically, in 427 B.C., in the essay Cratylus
by the Greek philosopher Plato, the character of Socrates is quoted, “If we do not have voice or tongue but we wish to communicate
our feelings and thoughts, what should we do? Such as those Deaf people, who use gestures, body language,
facial expression and movement to express their thoughts.” That’s the earliest documented
use of sign language. It’s been here ever since. Here in America, in the 1700s, the island Martha’s Vineyard had the largest rate
of generational Deafness. Every one out of twenty-five individuals
was hereditarily Deaf, and everyone on that island
both signed and spoke. Everyone, hearing and Deaf,
knew sign language. It was one cohesive community
that understood each other. The community’s events, meetings –
everything was conducted in sign language. No barriers – Deaf people
were fully included and successful. Now, later on, in 1817, the American School for the Deaf,
America’s first Deaf education, was established in Hartford, Connecticut. That’s when many of Martha’s Vineyard
residents moved to that school, and graduates from the American School went on to other states
to found Deaf schools all over the US. That was the most glorious moment – a well-educated Deaf community –
college educated, the establishment of Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts
university for the Deaf, founded in 1864, which provided a college degree
for Deaf individuals. Many Deaf graduates
from the American School for the Deaf went to Gallaudet University. It was the best time for us. We had access to education;
we were successful business owners; we conducted business
and our lives on equal footing. 66 years later, in 1880 – that was the year we will never forget. It’s indelibly etched on our minds
within the Deaf community. The world delegates
convened in Milan, Italy, for the Second International Congress
on Education of the Deaf. There, the delegates voted
to forbid sign language, and mandated that Deaf children
learn to speak and read lips, just as hearing society does, and that’s what vastly
changed the Deaf world. The result of the impact on America
was that they fired all Deaf teachers, most of whom couldn’t speak, and replaced all of them
with hearing teachers who taught Deaf children
how to read lips and speak. The impact was felt worldwide, and that was the darkest,
most oppressive era of the Deaf world. Job opportunities vastly declined. The world’s hearing
and Deaf were rent apart – our world using sign language,
hearing world using spoken English – and it was the darkest time
we’ve ever been through. Finally, in 1960, at Gallaudet University, an English professor, Dr. William Stokoe, recognized that Deaf students on campus
were signing very fluently and similarly, and recruited two Deaf researchers
to work with him. They researched American Sign Language
and finally proved definitively that American Sign Language
is its own language – its own grammar, syntax,
morphology, mouth movements, hand shape, locations,
and the Five Parameters of Sign, spatial movement, facial expression and that it was not a form
of English, after all. It was a completely different
and separate language with its own rules. People would assume that sign language
was based on English, but it was not. That, finally, brought our Deaf community
back to where it should’ve been all along. The use of ASL flourished. At that time, many children
who had Deaf parents, that had been born into that Deaf world, had American Sign Language
as their first language, and they had grown up
in the Deaf community. Those individuals
took on the responsibility as our first interpreters
because of our worlds being so separate, and communicated between both
the hearing and Deaf worlds. But we didn’t have enough,
we needed more interpreters. There was a baby boom
and we needed more interpreters, so finally, in the 1970s, college programs were established
nationwide, all over the US, to train interpreters, and many students who are hearing,
with no prior knowledge of sign language, entered those interpreter
training programs but realized that you can’t learn
the cultural nuances of the language in two or four years, because of the deep roots of our language
and the cultural implications. The interpreters, themselves,
experienced challenges learning to interpret
between Deaf and hearing cultures. Over the years, as the interpreting field has grown, you’ll be seeing a new movement – Deaf individuals taking on
the responsibility to be interpreters. American Sign Language
is their first language. A full understanding of language
and culture, intrinsically. They take signed language
and interpret it to a hearing interpreter, who will then translate it
to spoken English, and back and forth; a team of interpreters, Deaf and hearing. If you look back to the year 1880 and to now, we’re seeing more Deaf interpreters. We’ll see them interpreting
in legal settings, in medical and hospital settings, working for a more complete interpretation
between our two separate worlds, interpreting back and forth. But in that year of 1880, if those delegates had never voted
to forbid sign language, remember the Golden Era
of the Deaf community – the Deaf teachers, the children
with full access to language, with everyone on one level playing field – if 1880 had never happened
and rent our worlds apart, suppose that had never occurred,
that that vote had never happened, would that mean that you would
be signing today along with us? Signing fluidly, we would be one world. We wouldn’t need interpreters. We could go back to those days
of Martha’s Vineyard, and have that experience
from then until now. It’s a nice idea that we
would be one world with no barriers, back to our Golden Age of successful, well-educated
Deaf individuals – it’s something to think about. Thank you. (Applause)

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