By now, most people who follow current events are well acquainted with the story of the South African “signer” who was to pass along the eulogies and words of praise to the deaf community and hearing impaired at the South African memorial service for Nelson Mandela, a Nobel Prize winner and one of the most extraordinarily individuals ever to populate this planet. Mandela died December 5th at age 95.
Dignitaries, from every corner of the globe, were in attendance at the service. President Barack Obama was among them, as well as 3 of the 4 living ex-presidents. Age kept the elder George H.W. Bush at home. The words of these leaders should have been the primary takeaway from this memorial but were overshadowed by the actions of the individual charged with translating their words into sign language. He made a mess of it. His signing made no sense and was so far off the mark as to be irrelevant and totally confusing. He couldn’t even sign for ‘thank you’ signed simply by putting the tips of your fingers on one hand to your lips and gesturing outward.
The deaf community was outraged. Whether this fellow is to pitied or censored is yet to be determined. Most experts agree that his signing was pure jibberish. Others, who have seen him at other South African venues, say he actually knows how to sign. For his part, he (his name is Thamsanqa Jantjie, but you’ll never remember or know how to pronounce it) claims to have seen angels during the fiasco and was, in fact, once hospitalized for apparent schizophrenia for a period of 19 months. The final determination of blame or forgiveness is still very much up in the air, but I’ll forgive just about any person with serious mental distresses of almost anything.
The whole perplexing and sad issue got me to thinking about the deaf community. Its members get few headlines beyond negative snafus or when a high-profile name like Rush Limbaugh has a cochlear implant to restore hearing that was apparently rapidly deteriorating. Otherwise, the closest most people get to the issue of deafness is Marlee Matlin, an Academy Award-winning movie actress, who also does a ton of TV that included a hilarious turn on an old Seinfeld episode. Marlee, who lost her hearing at 18 months, is totally deaf in the right ear, 80% in the left.
I had not become acquainted with a single hearing-impaired or deaf person until a memorable chance encounter with the deaf culture in Hollywood of all places. As a very young man, I found myself working for American Health Studios, located at the time at 6624 Hollywood Blvd. in Tinseltown. I trained people, mostly in weight lifting. I also did my best to get them to affix their signatures on the bottom line of a lifetime membership contract or however many years I could get out of them.
While thus employed, the verdant fertility of my mind sought out lessons in American Sign Language in my off-hours. I had a few months of ASL under my belt when an apologetic-looking young man wandered into the gym and started looking around. He was quite shy at first and seemed to not want to talk. Not unfriendly, just not talkative. Still, I followed him around as he checked out the equipment. He turned to me and cupped his ear and pointed at me. I was supposed to pick up that he was deaf. I circled my inwardly clenched fingers on my chest. He lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree recognizing “I’m sorry” not necessarily that he was deaf, but that I failed to recognize it. I knew ‘un peu’ ASL, but just like knowing a little bit of French, a little bit of ASL goes a long way.
Between my limited ASL phraseology and spelling out words with my speedy one-handed alphabet, I knew just enough to bring my new D(eaf)BFF and about a dozen of his deaf community pals into the fold. We all became fast gym-rat friends.
My second exposure was about a decade after the first. I worked as a free-lancer in Chicago. A young woman and I were both represented by the same talent agency. Her name was Ralitsa and she and her veterinarian-trained mother had emigrated from Bulgaria. She had minimal hearing and relied mostly on reading lips to communicate, though she was picking up ASL quickly.
She sounded much like Marlee Matlin when she talked. She was attractive and an excellent actress. She was also highly frustrated that all the juicy parts calling for a deaf actress went to Marlee. If you weren’t doing a stage production of “Children of a Lesser God” you weren’t doing much serious work, being relegated to ‘extra’ duty in whatever movie happened to be shooting in or near Chicago. If I was signing for Ralitsa’s creative life, I would form my hand into roughly the shape of a ‘C’. I would then circle that hand clockwise in front of my face meaning “search.”. That was Ralitsa; constantly ‘searching’ for an entry point into a career that could sustain her, creatively and financially.
Occasionally, the name Gallaudet University will pop up. Gallaudet serves the deaf student community; students who are not afraid to raise a little, (or even a lot of) hell when they feel disrespected. Such was the case in 1988 prior to the appointment in March of I. King Jordan as the first deaf University President after 124 years of leadership from hearing presidents. Students, faculty and alumni raised that hell on campus closing down the institution earlier in March. Soon their goal was realized.
Little attention is paid to the deaf community by politicians. Not enough voters to woo. Still, the federal government is a source of numerous grant and assistance programs, many administered by the very agencies Teapublicans want to eliminate like the Department of Education. On a social level, many deaf, especially the profoundly deaf, seek out their own kind. A surprising number of those who don’t have a speck of hearing actually like it that way. They’re unwilling to dive into the latest hearing recovery or technical doodads and oft-times actually look down on those who opt for the Limbaugh-like cochlear implants.
I find the deaf community an endless source of fascination and not in a freak-show way. Going back to the mid-80’s “Children of a Lesser God” the stage play, then movie, pitted a deaf school student advocate of sign language against her lip reading and phonetic speaking teacher; a battle that’s still being fought to this day.
There’s so much more to say and know, such as Marlee surviving six rounds as a Dancing With the Stars contestant, while barely hearing the music. Other in the deaf community can dance equally well, hearing nothing.
I hope this has whetted your interest. I don’t know whether mine has been a particularly political piece. I just wanted to give the deaf culture some exposure and encourage the hearing to learn more about the deaf who live and strive among them.