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How To Learn Sign Language

Deaf ideology | Marika Kovacs-Houlihan | TEDxUWMilwaukee

Translator: Jenna Wahl
Reviewer: Theresa Ranft (Offstage voice) ASL interpreter:
The term “deaf” evokes a response. I’m on stage, I’m giving my talk
in American Sign Language. That may not be what you expected. You may be wondering
if I can hear, if I will speak. You may be trying to figure out
where the interpreter is. Your thoughts and questions
are derived from your ideology. We have been socialized to think
that everyone we encounter will speak. That’s a very phonocentric point of view. And I’m here to tell you
that this ideology is limited. I know firsthand just how limited
people can be in their understanding. It’s often disorienting for people
to meet me for the first time because I use my first language
when I communicate. I’m in the bank and I meet
“deer in headlights.” It doesn’t really help me. Or it could be at
the customer service desk trying to figure out what my concern is, and I’m met with, “Hey! I don’t know
what to do with this lady. Can someone come help me?” As if I’m the one with the problem. Or, on occasion, my family goes
to a restaurant and I’m ordering my food and I get the “doesn’t know the difference
between deaf and blind”, who hands me a braille menu. (Laughter) That happens! So, as I mentioned,
the ideology is limited, and in our society
we have created a narrative that has stigmatized deaf people. Assumptions are made
that a deaf person may be isolated, uneducated, or without language. And that narrative is so ingrained, it’s in our social media,
it’s in the articles you read, the things that you see,
and it’s even reached the CDC. If you go to the CDC website
and search “deaf”, it’s there listed as a condition
along with every other disease. Think about that,
the Center for Disease Control. A disease! Can I ask you, do I look diseased to you? This value system has strongly impacted
how people view me. The phonocentric value
that someone must speak and hear has been equated with intelligence. And when a person does not speak or hear
they are viewed as inferior. They receive a lower status
in our society. Our value systems are just
at odds with one another. The value of speaking
and hearing is one thing, but on the other hand,
you look at the deaf community, and our value is on
American Sign Language. The research has been done. Our language is bona fide and there’s a cultural community
that is supported by it. People in this community develop
their identity from the use of ASL. Now, identity and identification
are two separate things. Identification is something
that comes from an outsider. In our society deaf has been
conflated with disability, so we endure these terms of handicap,
hearing impaired, and disabled. I remember I was on a business trip
and I was on my layover. I was trying to catch my connecting flight and I had a suitcase
with a defective wheel, so I’m really booking it,
struggling with this damn suitcase, and I finally get to the gate and one
of the airline agents comes up to me and tells me that I can’t bring
my bag onto the plane because it’s so small,
so I have to stow the baggage. So we ticket the baggage
and my bag is stowed. I take flight, and after we land
I’m getting off the airplane and I see an airline agent with a sign
with my name on it, and she’s standing behind a wheelchair. So I stand back, I’m waiting
for my luggage anyway, I’m just observing what’s happening, and there are lines
of people passing her by. So I’m done watching her
because my bag has arrived, but then I remember my defective wheel. So I go to the woman and she starts
to get the wheelchair ready for me, but instead, I take my suitcase and say, “Oh, I’m so glad you have a wheelchair
for my disabled bag.” (Laughter) (Applause) So let’s talk about that. Who determined that I’m disabled? Oftentimes in our society
we look to the experts, those people who are
academics and scholars. I would say that the group of people who have been making decisions
up until this point are specialists, and specialists do not possess
cultural and language competency. Instead, can’t we look
for those scholars and academics who have the life experience
as a deaf person? They know how a deaf person
experiences this life. So let me ask you
who you think the experts are. I think it’s pretty clear. I want to make that distinction
between experts and specialists because these people have impacted
the educational system of deaf children. I have several experiences from my time
when I navigated this broken system. In elementary school
I was placed in a program, and I remember coming into the classroom
and I saw another girl who was deaf. So naturally I started signing with her,
and I was approached by the teacher who very quickly pulled
me out to the hallway and asked me to put my hands out. She took a ruler and slapped my hands
to discourage me from using my language, and it was the first of many times
that my identity was suppressed. Later in middle school, just like any other teenager
I wanted to be with my friends and you have lots of conversations
with your friends, whether that be in the classroom or not, but oftentimes I was pulled away
from my peers to be in speech training. This was an exercise in futility. I wanted to be with my friends,
I wanted that collective experience, and that was just another point
where my identity was suppressed. Later in high school I remember
I was approaching graduation, and I was looking to the future
thinking about what I was going to do. I had this grand vision
that I’d become a flight attendant. I really did want to become
a flight attendant, the reason being my dad
was a world traveler, and I really wanted to have
those same kinds of experiences, and I thought, “Hey, if I can travel
the world and get paid for it, that’s the job for me.” So I go into a meeting
with my high school guidance counselor, and we’re having this conversation
about what I’m going to do in the future. I tell her I’m going
to be a flight attendant, and she says, “Oh, Marika,
don’t be silly, that’s impossible. Honey, you’re deaf! You’ll never be able to hear
what they’re saying on the airline. I think I have a better job for you,
you should become an accountant, you like numbers right?” Well, that was true, I did like numbers,
but it wasn’t my true passion. So it was again a time
where I felt my identity slipping away. I could have let that system and those oppressive experiences
determine my future, but luckily I had my parents
there along the way supporting me and helping me
figure my way through it all. I didn’t have the
cultural-linguistic experts that would have helped me
navigate that system, but I had my parents. There are 2,300 deaf
and hard of hearing students who are placed in the public school
system in our state. And not all of those students
are in a classroom that’s designed
to optimize their education, because this educational system
has been designed by these specialists. Let’s just imagine what would
those classrooms look like if the cultural-linguistic experts
were the ones designing them. The classroom would be optimized
for the deaf child. But guess what? Every other child
in that classroom would be benefiting. They would be benefiting
from using a visual language. All children would benefit
from having that perspective available in the design of the classroom. All children would gain something. And when I say gain
I don’t mean economic gain, there’s a big difference here. The gains that have been made
from exploiting deaf people by medical advancements
and the profits that people have made, that’s not the kind of gain
I’m talking about. I’m talking about deaf gain. Dr. Dirksen Bauman and Joseph Murray wrote a book about deaf gain. They have defined this thinking as a way of looking at the world
in a different way, and understanding and valuing
a deaf perspective and their expertise. The skills that a deaf person has can be used to contribute to society. Here at UWM we have an American
Sign Language studies program. When that program was beginning and just
in its budding phase, I joined the staff, and today this program
has grown exponentially. There are over 500 students
that enroll every semester. And the reason that has happened is because I have contributed
my expertise as a deaf person, in being able to design a classroom and design a program
that can help students, and everyone is able to benefit. The university has gained something
by us being on this campus. Deaf people are
on this earth for a reason. We are part of human biodiversity, and if you’re familiar with evolution you know that occasionally there are
species that will cease to exist. Deaf people have been on this earth
for thousands and thousands of years, we’re still here. We have endured
many attempts to eradicate us. And no matter what people
have tried, we are still here. And I believe it’s for a specific reason. We are here and we are human
just like you. We have human experiences
just like everyone else. Set aside the physiological function
of hearing and speaking, and you will see that. And what I mean about being human,
it’s what we all experience: life, joy, tears, inspiration, heartbreak, death, and birth. That is what makes us who we are. I remember when I was pregnant
with my daughter who is my third born, it was the middle of the night
and I woke up to my water breaking. I quickly woke my husband, and said,
“Honey, it’s time, we got to get ready.” So that’s what we did, we got in the car and got ourselves
on the way to the hospital. When we got in the car and started off, I realized I had reached
the point of no return. My husband is still driving
and he’s checking in on me, and I said, “Honey, I’m sorry.” Because he was still driving and in
my next contraction my baby was born. (Laughter) So he’s driving, I’m delivering the baby,
I’ve got her in my arms, she’s crying so I tell him,
“She’s fine, I’m fine, just get us to the hospital!” So that’s what we do. He’s driving fast and furious and caught
the attention of a police officer. Now we’re in a high-speed chase,
we’re getting close to the hospital and when we get there, there are three
or four other squad cars waiting for us. I’m still in the car waiting to see
what’s going to happen. My husband jumps out of the car
and comes around to the side, and once the officers saw that I had
the baby in my arms they backed off. They did what they had to do, they got the stretcher
and I was brought into the hospital, and they were trying to take
my husband in another direction until they realized
he needed to be with me. We got into the hospital
and up to the birth center. I still remember clearly the moment
when those doors opened. The nurses were running
thinking I was going to be laboring and instead saw me holding the baby, so they bring me to the room
and had to shift gears very quickly. So they were checking on the baby,
checking on me, taking care of both of us. And we were all there
together in that moment. Then the nurse looked and realized
that my husband and I were deaf, and the connection we had been
experiencing was severed completely. We both became very stressed, her stress was around
trying to find an interpreter, and my stress was around the fact
that we had just lost that connection. So right now in this moment I want you to think
about your thoughts, your feelings. We’re all connected through this story. You’re seeing me as I see deaf people. I hope that your ideology
has been expanded to include the definition of deaf people to be
a cultural-linguistic group of people. I want you to remember this
as you leave today, and react differently. Thank you. (Applause)

40 Replies to “Deaf ideology | Marika Kovacs-Houlihan | TEDxUWMilwaukee”

  • Brilliant! This video has definitely changed my perspective. Thank you Marika! Keep spreading this positive message.

  • Er. Can we have some man-made subtitles, instead of the ugly automatic subtitles, for all those deaf ppl from other countries? 😛 thanks 🙂

  • I had no idea that the CDC considered deafness as a disease that is news to me. And it obviously needs to change. But the speech was amazing. Im hard of hearing and new to ASL, so i did need to use the subtitles for some the conversation. And I noticed right away that it was oral to text. In order for subtitles to work there has to be written speech that becomes video text. I was able to get what was going on but others might not. TEDx Talks has a lot of deaf speakers but they don't have good subtitles.

  • What an excellent presentation!–There's $$$ to be made off deaf kids who can't read/write. Replace speech therapy sessions with literacy/recess. Calling the Deaf "dumb" because they can't read/write. Think twice – literacy might've been withheld from the Deaf by the Audists.

    Whose fault? 🙂

  • WOW!  well done!  thank you and now I feel much better because we are in same boat with different experiences!!

  • A hearing person who doesn't know sign langauge in a world full of Deaf signers has the 'disability'. Something to think about.

  • I'm sick of deaf people acting like being able to hear doesn't matter. Being able to hear is inherently better than not being able to hear. Would you ever consider being able to see to not matter? Would you be saying the same things about children born blind if we were able to give them their site back?

  • the camera angles make it impossible to understand at times. also the interpreting is so scripted it made me turn off the volume after the first two minutes because the message is greatly skewed.

  • Just Amazing, so blessed by your open heart and know that we're all in this together. Agree totally with all you've said.

  • Amazing! I had that same experience (offer of a wheelchair) in Phoenix. I told them I was deaf, not paraplegic! Didn't help.

  • Great presentation. I am a hearing person. I also am a special education teacher. . Back in 1984, I started working with handicapped kids…..and one day, my director came to us and said: we are going to receive deaf kids. Well, I started learning ASL….being physically handicapped, I had to adapt it for one hand. I learnt French sign language and learnt Israeli sign language.  I volunteer today in Israel with deaf blind adults. I think Sign language should be thought in school as a mandatory language. It is a beautiful language, and it does serve if you meet a deaf person. Just something to think about.

  • anyone know if the interpreter is certified? I'm an IPP student and need to observe an interpreted presentation, but the interpreter must be certified.

  • Terrible video, too many camera changes from all over the place and the subtitles are just horrible. And this is coming from a deaf person. 👎🏻

  • This is the challenge – inclusion. The Deaf Community must become as inclusive of other deaf individuals and hearing individuals as they seek from them. Though I never learned any sign language, I was pre lingually deaf. My parents were advised by the experts in the early to mid 1950's to institutionalize their deaf, retarded and incorrigible son. I learned to hear well with hearing aids and those began to wane in effectiveness, I was able able to transition to bilateral Cochlear Implants. My speech and hearing skills were good, despite the deafness. But I was not immune to the same issues that the culturally deaf individuals faced. When I missed things, sometimes folks would think their was something wrong with my brain. I have doctoral level education and yet found employment mostly difficult to obtain. I believe that I am a smarter person because I was deaf. It forced me to sense and understand more than the average person would to discern what is going on around me. It made me a phenomenal analyst. Yet when I take with others about Deaf employees, the number one issue that would pop up – "their anger." It was alarming and disarming. Hope these insights help.

  • What a great speak of being deaf. I'm a hearing people but i wanna fight for deaf education's right in Indonesia

  • The CDC claimed gun ownership was a disease. Like so many other organizations, they tend to get infiltrated by people with political/social agendas.

  • I sometimes have my doubts about a few of these "deaf challenges" anecdotes. Some of the incidents reported seem unlikely but are reported by a suspiciously large number of deaf people. No, I am not being naive, and I don't say this with a hint of irony.

    The two most common examples:

    1. being offered a wheelchair at the airport.
    2. being given a braille menu

    Most people know the difference between deafness and blindness, even most stupid people. They know that braille is for blind people. They also know that deafness does not prevent people from walking.

  • I'm a hard of hearing individual and trying to learn ASL it's very difficult to be hard of hearing and learning the language that I should been doing from the start I'm inspired by people like Markia Erin and others that have met over the course of my journey and who I want to be . My goal is to along with teaching special education teach ASL classes In a high school setting

    I am who I am I love being identified as hard of hearing because it has open so many doors in my life that I never would though possible like being able to interact with my community is a blessing both as a member and alley to them

  • Deaf people trying to undermine the importance of hearing. What would you say if someone blind was making similar case about vision.

  • This was a terrible video. It's on deaf culture and the video moves everywhere. How about next time you set the camera IN FRONT of the person so we can see the sign language? Rude.

  • You are the one with a problem. You are deaf! As a profoundly deaf man I learned early that to deny my handicap is unfair to others as well as myself.

  • ZI love the talk, but the camera man is awful! I need to see the woman head on to understand her! No far away shots! No other Ted Talks film like this person did!

  • Is a deaf person disabled or not? If they are disabled then it is a fact of life and they can get help for disabled people. If a deaf person isn't disabled by being deaf, then they don't need extra help and can stand with everyone else without any help.

  • I have just started to learn BSL and already I'm in awe of this. I have grown up taught to love and appreciate all sign languages and personally I feel they are far more expressive than most verbal languages. I do find it mind bending that people view deaf people as somehow lesser or disabled? Every experience I've had with a deaf person made me feel I was desperate to learn the language. Even not knowing more than a handful of signs as long as you pay attention to the whole person you get a real sense of them as a person, their personality and a rough idea of what they are trying to say – if you just try to listen with your eyes! I've been watching and reading as much as I can about deaf culture and as a hearing person I have to say its self me feeling ashamed of how hearing people generally have treated the deaf. Trying to "fix" or "change" or make them speak – all this time has been wasted when personally I feel sigh lessons should have been put in all schools. In Wales and Ireland they want to teach their children Welish and Irish to preserve the culture because the language is part of who they are. Why isn't sign viewed the same? Deaf people are part of our community and part of us as people! I wish I could have learned from a young age and I wish I had the privilege of knowing more deaf people. The few experiences I've had taught me about myself and exposed me to the most beautiful and expressive languages I've ever known. When I see someone sign I feel privileged to be with them and I wish I was better as signing so I may be able to be part of it.

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