Image courtesy of Missy Barrie
“Silence is the last thing the world will ever hear from me.”
From her bio in the International Movie Database. IMDB.com
Marlee Beth Matlin was born to Don and Libby Matlin; she was their third child. Marlee lost much of her hearing at the age of 18 months. That didn’t stop her, though, from acting in a children’s theater company at age 7; she was Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Her deafness never held her back. As an adult she said it so eloquently: “I have always resisted putting limitations on myself, both professionally and personally.”
Around 30 years ago, my employer participated in a state run program to integrate many deaf and hard of hearing people into the workplace. I can only say that this program has been an amazing success. Back then, hearing people sometimes found themselves uncomfortable associating with people who spoke a different language when they couldn’t understand or participate in the conversation.
Yes, I did say different language. American Sign Language or ASL is not just a translation of English. It has its own rich culture, each word describing an object or concept, just like any form of verbal communication. Facial expressions are very important,and there are dialects, accents, and slang that is different based on local traditions and practices.
When I took a beginner class back in the 80’s, I was taught to use the sign for “home” when I was going home. Locally, our deaf community says basically, “I’m going to the house”.
This being said, I really believe that ASL is one of the most elegant and beautiful languages in the world. The emotions expressed and received makes it quite intuitive even to those who can’t sign a single letter. Learning is so much easier as well since each sign in form describes the word or concept, many times creating a picture of it.
Another dimension of the beauty is expressed when ASL is used for art purposes by signing to music, interpreting the words and emotions of the piece. It has a similar feel to expressive, interpretive dance, and can easily move you to tears.
In high school, my daughter Ecil performed an emotional sign language translation of Flyleaf’s “All Around Me”. While most people think of signed songs as being slow, flowing, and quiet, this song has energy throughout, and on the bridge has a rapid fire, almost violent emotional outburst that opened the eyes of many to new possibilities of using language as art.
The friendships I have in the local deaf community are valued for exactly that. These are my friends. While I am by no means fluent in ASL, my friends have accepted my handicap and help me to learn more with every conversation. I could only wish that hearing people would be so tolerant and forgiving of my mistakes.
Another of the wonderful things is attempting to master humor. I find it quite rewarding when I give a quick sign accompanied by the proper nuance of facial expression and am rewarded with a literal laugh out loud by one of my deaf friends.
The integration in our workplace is complete. I realized this was the case when I began to see hearing people signing to each other across the noisy workroom floor. The deaf and hearing employees socialize outside of work as well, and everyone is enriched as a result.
Listen, there is a full community of wonderful people all around you that seems to be invisible to many hearing people who rush through their lives ignoring all but their own pursuits. Find them. Learn their language. I suspect you will be rewarded for these relationships even more than they will.
Links to resources to interact with the deaf and hard of hearing community will be included in the show notes for this episode.
Official Marlee Matlin Website
National Association of the Deaf