I’m about to post my first review about a book dealing with deafness or hard of hearing issues, but there are sure to be many more. Personally I am not deaf (yet) but several family members have gone through severe hearing loss in middle age, so it’s a possibility I’ve been aware of since I was a child.
As an adult I chose to study American Sign Language for a year and still use it occasionally at one of my jobs. Through my classes (and briefly wanting to be an interpreter) I learned a lot about Deaf culture and made several Deaf friends. My signing is still very basic but I try to learn a new sign with every conversation. Right now I am not really a part of Deaf life in my area – most of my friends are also able to verbalize and lip read some, so we communicate in a mixture of speaking, signing, and text messages when all else fails!
What many people are not aware of: having hearing loss and being Deaf are two different things, similar to how someone can be culturally and ethnically Jewish, but may or may not practice Judaism (the religion). Being Deaf is not about loss but rather about embracing a rich and unique culture. There are different levels of deafness and different amounts and sounds that each deaf person can hear. There are different techniques for managing in the hearing world including hearing aids, cochlear implants, lipreading, and written communication. And there is a different culture in the Deaf world.
One of the hardest things for me is that Deaf culture is very blunt and honest. You might be described how you look – if you are overweight you will be called fat, if you have a birthmark it might be part of your description, if you are shy or have red cheeks or long bangs it will be noticed. In hearing culture we often skirt around these things, but Deaf people openly comment on them and expect everyone to accept their physical appearance. It can be shocking at first but is simply a part of a different culture.
Deaf people also tend to be more honest about how they feel simply because a conversation in sign language can easily be “overheard”, so it makes sense to just be honest anyway. So whether a Deaf person calls you the stupid hearing person or says that you’re nice, they probably really mean it.
Most hearing people aren’t aware that there are some people who are in Deaf culture but aren’t deaf. Mostly these are CODAs – (hearing) Children of Deaf Adults. Deafness is unique compared to things like race or religion. Most black parents know they will have a black child. Most Muslim parents plan to raise their children in their religion. Deaf children may be born to deaf or hearing adults, and hearing children may be born to hearing or deaf adults, so there is constant intermingling with the hearing world.
If you want to learn sign language, I recommend ASLU’s free online materials. Beyond that it is very important to interact with your local Deaf culture. You can also immerse yourself in deaf culture by watching tv shows and movies such as Switched at Birth or Children of a Lesser God. And I found my brief experience of formally learning ASL immensely helpful for learning the unique sentence structure and basic handshapes and movements. Be aware that there are some different ways of signing such as “Signed English” which mimics English and uses fingerspelling for words like “of” and “the”. If your program is not teaching you a different grammatical structure than English, it’s NOT ASL. ASL is a separate language, with its own structure and idioms.
If you live in or near a city, there’s a good chance that multiple churches near you offer a sign language interpreted service. If you don’t mind sitting through unfamiliar religious worship, this can be a great chance to watch a lot of interpretation for free. As a bonus there are often opportunities for socialization after the service where you can meet local Deaf people and interpreters.
Many areas also have ASL gatherings to practice and improve. All the ones I attended were free but there are some that charge a fee for admittance or request a purchase from the host (such as buying a coffee if the meeting is held at a coffee shop).
Please keep in mind that I am in no way an instructor of ASL and all of my advice and opinions in reviews and the like are from a hearing person’s perspective. If I am in error regarding a statement in this or another post, I am open to constructive criticism.