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Learning & Laughing in a Deaf World

First published in March 2015, this article has been reposted as part of International Week of the Deaf.

The first thing you notice when you walk into the Centre for Deaf Studies in Trinity College is how quiet it is. This, of course, isn't a surprise, but it can be a bit jarring when you're a hearing person who is used to relying on sound. You can't stand outside a classroom and listen to check if you've found the right room for your lecture. You can't shout across a corridor to get a lecturer’s attention. And if you forget to turn your phone on silent and you get a call during class, you can be sure every other hearing student in the whole department will have heard your embarrassing ringtone.

Once you're in the Centre for Deaf Studies, being able to hear is of no real advantage to you. If you can’t sign, your communication is severely impaired. If you're not used to spending time with Deaf people, you won't know what's socially acceptable. Deaf culture is what's "normal" there, and the hearing people have to adjust to fit in.

When I started studying in the Centre for Deaf Studies in 2011, I had no knowledge of Irish Sign Language (ISL), no real understanding of Deaf culture and I didn't really know any Deaf people. However, suddenly I had entered the "Deaf World" and I had to get used to, not just a new language, but also the customs, attitudes and etiquette of the Deaf Way. It was like being in a foreign country and it took me a good few months to adjust to the culture shock. For example, if my classmates and I were chatting to each other before class, the lecturer might turn the lights in the room on and off to get our attention.  Or, that in our classes we would always sit in a circle, so we could all see each other, not in the traditional lecture style of sitting in rows. The more I settled in, the less I noticed the absence of sound. Instead of focusing on the lack of noise, I was shifting all my focus into the visual. I still find it funny though that if I’m in a room where everyone is signing and something falls or a door slams, you can still see all the hearing people's heads whip around to see where the noise is coming from. Old habits die hard!

After being in the Centre for Deaf Studies for 3 or 4 hours at a time, sometimes I leave college and my brain is still in ISL-mode. I'll instinctively sign to whoever I meet; a friend, the bus driver, the person at the deli making my sandwich. I have to stop myself and take a second to switch my brain back into spoken-English mode. Sometimes I feel like there are parts of my brain that were always hard-wired to operate in a visual mode, like through sign language. Things like giving directions or describing what something looks like can be so much easier, and accurate through ISL. Expressing emotions or feelings through ISL can seem so much more natural and direct than through spoken English. Only about 30% of any sign language is what you do with your hands, the other 70% is what you do with your facial expressions, how you hold your body, where your eyes are looking, etc. This other 70% is the bit of ISL that I love. The way you squint your eyes or purse your lips can completely change the meaning of what you’re saying.

Sign language has its own humor, its own metaphors, and its own poetry. It's a beautiful language that has such depth and is so reflective of the community it's developed in. A visual language like ISL allows you to do things that English doesn't. In my opinion, if everyone knew sign language, we might all be better communicators!

I feel the Centre for Deaf Studies is unique in that it’s impossible for a hearing person to do Deaf Studies and study it in a detached, purely academic way. Most of my lecturers are Deaf, some of my classmates are Deaf, and because of this my learning was enriched by their views, their stories, and their experiences. When you are studying a group of people, you can read every book, article and essay that exists in the world, but still not fully understand that group of people until you get up from your desk and actually meet them.

I always find it funny the range of reactions I get when someone new finds out I’m doing Deaf Studies. I get all manner of reactions from hearing people: mostly people are really interested and want to find out more about the course, and about the Deaf world in general. I’d say about 20% of hearing people’s first reaction will be “Oh, I have a Deaf neighbour” or “My auntie is Deaf!” And then, for the other 80%, their first reaction will be “So are you going to be one of those people in the corner of the telly doing the sign language?” For a lot of hearing people, this is the only interaction they have with sign language, and indeed, Deaf people in general. Or else people ask me “What’d you think of that fake interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral?” I think it’s really interesting that when most hearing people think about Deaf people or sign language, they immediately think of these hearing people who are Sign Language interpreters, and not about Deaf people themselves. It seems strange to me that there are about 5,000 Deaf people in Ireland but only 60 or so sign language interpreters, yet for most people sign language interpreters are the image the Deafness conjures, rather than the Deaf people themselves. Of course, I get other questions or comments from hearing people who are even less well informed about the Deaf community, my favorite being “Oh you do Deaf Studies? So, do you know Braille?”

My time in the Centre for Deaf Studies has been an amazing one. It was such a rich learning environment for me, once I got over the initial period of settling in to college, combined with the period of settling into a whole new Deaf world. I can remember coming out of my first ISL class, and looking at people being so comfortable with sign language, and just comfortable in the college atmosphere in generally, and thinking to myself “I’ll never be able to get to that point, I just don’t have it in me”. I was so overwhelmingly intimidated when I was starting in college, and indeed when I started being involved in the Deaf community. I certainly still have a lot more learning and a lot more understanding to do, but now that I’m preparing to finish my course, I can’t believe how far I’ve come and how much there is to learn about the Deaf community and the ‘Deaf Way’.

As Nelson Mandela said;

Everything seems impossible until it’s done.

First published on 24th March 2015

Blog Author 

When writing this article, Stephen Lehane was a final year student in a bachelor degree course in Deaf Studies as part of Centre for Deaf Studies in Trinity College Dublin. Deaf Studies is a 4 year long course which trains students to work in the Deaf community as sign language teachers, sign language interpreters and other positions. Stephen completed his 8 week work placement module with AHEAD as a GetAHEAD Intern and upon graduation was hired by AHEAD as a Project Worker.

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