Deaf Crows

This blog was originally published on February 19, 2017 under a different site.

I saw Deaf Crows in Edmonton last night and read Judith Butler’s essay “Being Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy” on the flight home today, so I’ll try putting them together in this review.

Deaf Crows is the artistic creation of Regina high school teacher Joanne Weber and her ensemble cast that includes her students and deaf elder/master ASL teacher Allard Thomas, along with various other supporting characters. The play grew out of an arts-based intervention by Weber to try and reach her students, all of whom grew up in mainstream elementary settings without exposure to ASL or deaf culture and experienced significant academic and language delays as a direct result.

We come into the world on the condition that the social world is already there, laying the groundwork for us.”

The play begins with the image of a tree cast on the wall beside the stage using light and shadow. With Thomas narrating, the tree is a metaphor for the R.J.D. Williams School for the Deaf in Saskatoon, which closed in 1991. Where formerly birds had gathered on each branch of the tree, they became dispersed after the school closed and the tree was chopped down. Soon, the birds can no longer fly.

If we are not recognizable, if there are no norms of recognition by which we are recognizable, then it is not possible to persist in one’s own being, and we are not possible beings; we have been foreclosed from possibility.

The six students in the play, wearing black clothes and crow masks, dramatize their experiences as deaf children in elementary school. These episodes highlight the students’ neglect, exclusion, and tormenting by teachers and other students. At the close of each scene, there is a single student left alone on the stage, whom Thomas the narrator approaches and attempts to engage with. He gives each student in turn a single black feather to represent their brush with ASL and deaf culture.

Fantasy is what allows us to imagine ourselves and others otherwise; it establishes the possible in excess of the real; it points elsewhere, and when it is embodied, it brings the elsewhere home.”

In a sense, this is Thomas’ play. Slim and erect in dark suit and tie with white hair pulled back, his clear and classical ASL narration draws parallels between the students’ childhood experiences of isolation and his own of being fully immersed in language, culture, and community. In this way, he insists on the lived experiences and knowledge of deaf community elders. My initial reaction was to think that Thomas and the students are worlds apart. Yet Weber told me that he has been involved in every aspect of her intervention with her students, from the beginning. Unsentimental and dry-eyed, Thomas’ discourse was mirrored in the faces and signing of other deaf elders in the Edmonton audience last night. It is important to raise awareness. It is important to support the kids.

It may be that what is right and what is good consists in staying open to the tensions that beset the most fundamental categories we require, in knowing unknowingness at the core of what we know, and what we need, and in recognizing the signs of life in what we undergo without certainty about what will come.”

I have not yet begun to explore the relationship between art and language revitalization. In a world bound up with assessments and normative benchmarks, perhaps art is the sole remaining hope of freedom for no-longer children who have been deprived of childhood. Discourses of language deprivation are concerned with prevention; they offer no guidance for how we may attempt to address the present needs of an entire generation who have been deprived of language. At the end of the play, the students stand onstage and sign about their dreams for themselves and their futures. They admit they have forgotten their lines, and there is no script for them.

Some History is in Order

Yesterday, CBC News reported that the province of Manitoba and its Human Rights Board of Adjudication had denied Cody Zimmer’s application to have the full cost of his studies covered at Gallaudet University. Social media has been largely silent regarding this matter. I do not recall seeing a Facebook vlog or Twitter thread on this subject. In fact, what social media discussions I have seen and participated in have tended toward criticism of and indifference to Zimmer and his family—for not paying his $56,000 per annum way, for not pulling himself up by his bootstraps, for seeking what used to be available to some prospective deaf postsecondary students in Canada but is no longer, or not to the same degree.

I worry that for deaf communities, seeking access to higher education has become an exception when it used to be a norm, at least for some of us. In 2014, the Canadian Hearing Society reported a 70% increase since 2002 in deaf Ontario Disability Support Program recipients. The numbers of Canadian students at Gallaudet have declined from 119 in 1989—the year following the Deaf President Now protests—to 13 today, with all but one student coming from Ontario. (If my math is correct, this is a 91% drop in enrolment.) In statistical terms, this is known as a negative correlation. Mike Harris-era cuts to vocational rehabilitation supports for deaf students have been accompanied by expectations that deaf students are to get by with uneven and precarious access to often unqualified sign language interpreters in mainstream postsecondary classrooms, where they are often the only signing deaf student in their classes and program and faculty, if not the entire university or college. Since my own undergraduate days at the University of Toronto and since working at four different universities across Canada, I have not personally witnessed an increase in deaf students at Canadian postsecondary institutions. I can count on one hand the number of signing deaf students that I have taught or supervised over the course of a decade.

Moralistic hand-wringing over Zimmer’s request also overlooks the history of Canadian attendance at Gallaudet, starting in 1888 with one Michael James Madden of the Ontario School for the Deaf, Belleville, who received his B.Sc. in 1893 (Carbin, 1996). David Peikoff of Manitoba, who received his B.A. from Gallaudet in 1929, started the McDermid Scholarship Fund in 1928 to raise money for other deaf Canadian students to attend Gallaudet. In 1949, this became the Canadian Deaf Scholarship Fund under the Canadian Association of the Deaf. Eventually, some provincial governments across Canada began to provide vocational rehabilitation support for deaf students to attend Gallaudet. Today, however, only British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia provide funding for this purpose. The limitations of current Canadian government support for deaf students are evident in Gallaudet graduate Jasmin Simpson’s ongoing legal challenge of the Canada Student Loan program that results in some disabled students graduating with astronomically higher debts than nondisabled students.

We overlook the significance of losing a critical mass of university-educated deaf signers who, as in past decades, can take professional positions in our communities as teachers, lawyers, accountants, members of parliament, and deaf advocacy organization and service agency staff and board members. We overlook the importance of having deaf researchers and instructors in Canadian postsecondary institutions. We forget that deaf children and youth today continue to need educated first-language models in order to thrive. Investing in Canadian deaf students’ education reaps more awards than are visible at first glance. Gallaudet University provides essential resources and has immeasurable value for deaf people who have never attended this institution, myself included.

We overlook that according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, education in sign language is a human right for deaf learners, including in tertiary education. This does not only mean providing a sign language interpreter in a mainstream classroom; such access and inclusion measures are often limited and illusory. Rather, environments that maximize academic and social development include instructors and students who communicate in sign language. As Patrick Kermit writes, “Inclusive communities must be communities where everyone has the opportunity to express, and to receive, recognition in the form of solidarity. But this might only truly work between peers.

References

Carbin, C. (1996). Deaf heritage in Canada: A distinctive, diverse, and enduring culture. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd.

Thinking About Teaching Online as a Deaf Faculty Member

Pure and unconditional hospitality, hospitality itself, opens or is in advance open to someone who is neither expected nor invited, to whoever arrives as an absolute foreign visitor, as a new arrival, non-identifiable and unforeseeable, in short, wholly other.

-Jacques Derrida

We all want to be Frye at the podium. Standing in a sunlit classroom, the windows open to a September breeze wafting across the ivy-covered quad. Students sit rapt at their desks, nary a phone or laptop in sight, as the sonorous tones of our voice fill the room, later to be transposed for posterity as a Massey Lecture.

The fiction of professorial authority has been challenged by the COVID-19 crisis and the abrupt shift to online teaching. Some colleagues may panic at the demands of online technology; others, like Mark Kingwell, may mourn the loss of “face-to-face Socratic engagement, the special benefits of group interlocution with nothing but a shared text before us.” But what happens when our Socratic dialogue is interrupted by a sign language interpreter’s requests for repetition of what are to them unfamiliar terms or names? What happens to group interlocution when a deaf student is 60 seconds behind in the discussion due to the time lag in interpreting from English to ASL and the student’s own processing of information? Is this really engagement with special benefits for everyone if no allowance is made for communicative stops, lapses, multimodality, or multidirectionality?

Officially, during the COVID-19 crisis, instructors are doing “emergency teaching online” without purporting to teach online courses. As much as possible, our teaching is supposed to be an approximation of what Kingwell calls “real seminars and lectures,” while acknowledging our online efforts are “poor shadows of the real thing.” But what is here posited to be “the real thing” is predicated on the assumption of a typically hearing/speaking body and the emulation of normative communication standards. Thus, there is a strong orientation toward synchronous lectures and class meetings via Zoom or Google Meet, which, as safeandsilent, Kusters et al., and the World Federation of the Deaf note, present new barriers for deaf learners and deaf faculty members. There is much less of an initiation into the capabilities of online learning and the myriad possibilities and responsibilities for human communication.

For example, I need to develop and teach a brand-new M.A. course that will be wholly online for the foreseeable future. I will assign students the responsibility of moderating online discussions of course readings; these discussions need to be accessible to me as their instructor. In thinking through the ways in which this may be possible, I hit on the idea of asking students to add captions (or a transcript) if they decide to produce a video about a given topic. When I broached this idea with colleagues, I was met with scepticism. It’s too hard! It takes too long! Is adding captions a course objective? Incidentally, however, few colleagues seemed familiar with the range of ways that captions can be added to a video.

I have since determined that I will offer my students step-by-step instructions regarding how to add captions and/or produce a transcript of a video or audio presentation, even if they decide not to complete the moderation assignment via either mode of delivery. Aren’t captions just another mode of human communication that happens to be enabled by the online environment? And shouldn’t a university environment committed to principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion be open to facilitating access by and for everyone involved?

For deaf faculty and learners, access to online teaching and learning may require thinking beyond the provision of sign language interpreters, who can have more limited utility in a remote format but who are often assigned sole responsibility for the deaf person’s access. As De Meulder and Haualand note, this view of interpreters as a quick fix has consequences that are borne mainly by deaf people. Online learning can enable more text-based, direct communication between participants: an affordance not always available in the face-to-face classroom. Online learning should facilitate a shift and an expansion in our repertoires, a discovery of new ways of communicating and engaging.