By Michael Capodiferro
Everyone enjoys vibrations, one way or another. In an overstimulated too much is never enough world, we cling to our headphones and screens, and switch our devices to vibrate, which incidentally is just another type of sound, a kind of physical one. But this is a story from a place between worlds; a place where one of our classic five senses is missing a beat. To those who are hard of hearing or deaf with a capital D, society’s inability to recognize their world’s rich and infinitely resourceful culture has left them in many ways far ahead of the curve.
The deaf are the rock and roll royalty of early adoption of communication technology, they invented elements of behavior eventually adopted by mainstream cultural organizations, have a more profound relationship to language, and excel at storytelling. So as the deaf community has grappled with what society considers to be a disability, time after time, their solutions to practical problems have in some ways made the deaf community the ultimate life hackers.
The first Text Telephones (TTYs) were developed by deaf people. And while at one time the only films they could watch were foreign films with subtitles, it was the deaf community itself behind getting closed captioning made more widely available. Once upon a time, a cordless phone with a 2 foot antenna was a wild innovation in communication to most people in tech. But the average deaf person was onto shorthand texts and emojis long before most of us even dreamed of instant messenger, using their Sidekicks in a truly symbiotic way. Communication is literally what the deaf world is all about as they are continually starved for ways to share words together.
The Text Telephone (TTY), was first widely used by the deaf in the 1970’s with its QWERTY keyboard solid stream of blue text rolling from right to left on a small screen. To convey a happy emotion on their TTY, for example, a person would simply type out “smile.” Before TTY, deaf people had to literally be in the same room or write a letter if they wanted to communicate with other deaf people. Today, the first to obsess over pocket pagers with full keyboards, Blackberries, Sidekicks, and now, of course, touchscreen phones; the deaf community was onto the pocket computer craze right from the start, adopting and sending complex intuitive visual cues long before there was Snapchat or Animoji.
American Sign Language was not recognized as a “real” language in the United States until 1974. And some schools still don’t allow Sign Language classes to be counted as a foreign language credit, though it has the same complex rules as any spoken language. We tend to underestimate the role our bodies play when it comes to language. Ask a heated question out loud and you would surely raise the pitch of your voice. But through Sign you might raise eyebrows, widen the eyes, and tilt your body forward; not unlike we all tend to do for effect while speaking passionately regardless of sound or lack thereof. But when deaf people argue, no matter how vicious it might get, all it takes is for you to shut your eyes and the conversation stops cold. Take that hearing world.
Sign language, with its physical and visual idiosyncrasies has also hacked its way into mainstream popular culture in surprising ways. For instance, every time you see your favorite NFL team in a huddle, you can thank the deaf community, and in particular, some very clever athletes at D.C.’s Gallaudet University, “the world's only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students.” In the 1890’s, Paul Hubbard, the quarterback for Gallaudet at the time led his team into a huddle so that the other team couldn’t see the plays they were signing to each other. Another innovation was the giant drum on the sidelines for the snap count. The deaf players relied on feeling the vibrations of that drum to begin their plays. Today they’ve developed silent count systems in lieu of a giant bass drum. Now think about how baseball pitchers and catchers communicate through hand gestures. The deaf community are the world champions in finding ways to communicate that throw barriers to the sidelines.
Walk into a deaf club and you will feel the music booming because most likely down in the basement there are at least six subwoofers banging out some bass heavy pop. They might not hear the music, but they certainly can feel it, regardless of whether or not one has a working inner ear. It makes sense when you consider hardcore EDM fans buy expensive custom earplugs to filter out certain frequencies of sound so that they can feel the ones they want to feel. Imagine Beethoven feeling his way through music with his head on the piano keys when by 1820 he was almost completely deaf. But with the loss of distraction and a focus on the lower notes, he did some of his greatest work: the last five piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, and the Ninth Symphony. The deaf community can feel vibrations, they just don’t have the mechanism to translate those vibrations into sound though all the tiny bones of their ears. Remember that next time you happen to be at a stoplight and see a middle aged deaf man blasting Britney Spears because Toxic’s beat is so damn good. And of course, Brian Wilson’s partial deafness was a major factor in his obsessively complex sound designs. This pursuit of sound is really just a search for these types of good vibrations.
Deaf people are excellent storytellers, and they make sure to touch on each and every detail of a story, jumping around in time, making sure the person they’re talking to has the complete context for their story. They just can’t leave anything out! If you’ve seen a large group of deaf people at a coffeeshop and stay long enough - and by long enough we mean until closing - you will see that same group of people still intensely conversing until closing time, when they will just all stand out in the parking lot for another thirty minutes. This is known as the Long Deaf Goodbye. They form tight knit groups and are very prone to gossip. While they might know you got a new car before you’ve driven it home, they also know when you are in need and will jump in to help before you ask. As always, deaf people don’t wait for change to happen, they just do it themselves.
In America in the 1920’s, Deaf people were forbidden to drive thanks to insurance companies’ refusal to insure deaf drivers. Once again the deaf community took it upon themselves to go forward and not be set back. The National Fraternal Society for the Deaf was formed in Chicago to insure the deaf and pushed themselves towards equal footing. In 2004, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled against UPS’ argument that deaf drivers are less safe; studies were inconclusive on whether the deaf were more accident-prone than other drivers. Many actually say it’s the Daredevil effect, that you compensate with other senses if one is diminished. So by that logic, deaf people have a hell of lot more than just good peripheral vision. Deafness does not hold a person back, it is society’s ignorance of their culture that does.
Over time, deaf culture in mainstream media has evolved from telling a deaf story, like the 1979’s Children of a Lesser God, to telling a story with deaf culture woven through it, as in Deaf West’s reinterpreted 2015 staging of David Mamet’s American Buffalo. And like all cultures, deaf culture is full of subcultures. For instance 90% of deaf parents have hearing children, creating another layer all together in terms of acceptance, as well an an entire underclass of interpreters: CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults). A CODA’s tourist visa to the non hearing world is strictly based on legacy. “Who are your parents?” “Are you deaf or hearing?” and “Do you know Sign Language well?” are some of the typical interview questions that must be answered before these kids start building bridges for family and friends to the hearing world.
Telemarketers are always apologizing to young CODAs who answer the phone. They say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” thinking that the young kid on the other line just told them, “My parents are dead” when they are just saying, “My parents are deaf.” According to Oscar Cohen, head of the Lexington School for the Deaf for 35 years and a CODA from the Traditionalist/Silent Generation, if two CODAs are in a crowded room together they do not need words to find each other and whenever people ask him what was it like to have deaf parents, he simply says, “what was it like to have hearing parents?” Touché. “When I was a kid in the Bronx, there was no phone in our house. I would go to the candy store with my mother to use the payphone and call her friends with hearing children to set up a playdate.” Now CODAs and their deaf parents can simply text or hit the FaceTime button.
Certainly, communication for the deaf has always been visual. It is loud and wild and free. Deafness is not a loss, it is gain. Deaf worlds are full of energy, even if everyone is sitting for a silent dinner. Deaf is not deaf, it is bold and proud. As generations go by and new versions of the iPhone arrive, the way the hearing world communicates is now almost more visual than auditory. Nobody calls each other on the phone anymore and if they do, they’ll say you’re “Old School.” The space between deaf and hearing is shared through technology, art and people. Sometimes when you’re talking to someone from the deaf community over messaging or video, they’ll say “hold news.” They’d rather have long detailed conversations in person, in a parking lot, long after the restaurant has closed. The rest of hearing society can catch up; come meet the deaf world in the parking lot and communicate - SKSK.