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The world is both beautiful and ugly, and more so when you are a teenager. It’s a time for figuring out who you are: your limitations and abilities and how they fit into the wild world. High school, at its best, is a safe place to learn, providing structure and motivation to continue the never-ending task of growing.
For Deaf students, the task is just the same, but the world isn’t set up for them. High school is full of sounds– bells, voices, the intercom system. Stacey and George can’t hear them. Both high school students at Portland High School, they communicate with sign language, and attend normal classes with interpreters, as part of a program with the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf at Portland High School. Tracey, a program liaison and administrator, works with 18 Portland-area students like Stacey and George, ensuring that a world that isn’t set up for Deaf people can still provide them an excellent education.
TELL ME ABOUT DEAF CULTURE.
Tracey- Deaf culture is something that Deaf people are extremely proud of being a part of and preserving. There are definitely certain nuances that are different that as a hearing person we don’t tend to think of. It’s a way of being for them. Most people that are born Deaf don’t think of Deafness as a medical deficit. They’ve never missed out on anything. They don’t think of it a disability, they are very proud of who they are. They see the beauty in the ASL, the beauty in the language. It’s the language that brings them together, and it’s something that should be cherished and preserved.
Stacey- Deaf culture is very different. It’s more deep and strong than hearing culture. I don’t really get the sense that hearing people know much about their own culture. One of my Deaf friends died recently, and it affected the whole community. There is a strong connection in the Deaf community. There are a lot of facial expressions and a lot of jokes within the Deaf community.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Tracey- To make sure that these students are educated to the best of our ability. To make sure that we are providing the best education that we can. To make sure that they are striving for the best possible outcome. It doesn’t always have to be college. To make sure we are providing the best possible education.
George- To keep learning, that’s very important to me. And to have more people, hopefully, become knowledgeable about Deafness and Deaf culture. And also, I like more young Deaf people to become successful in the future.
Stacey- Experiencing the hearing and Deaf worlds. My family is hearing, and I’m the only Deaf person, so I read lips and I’ve experienced that world. But I haven’t had as much experience with a Deaf community until I came to Deaf school and started learning about Deaf community, which was a culture shock for me. I had always experienced bullying in the hearing world, and I wasn’t sure if that’s what friendship meant. In the hearing world I’ve experienced so much and faced so many challenges, I had to read lips over and over. Later I learned about signing. Learning about the different worlds and the different challenges in each of the worlds. The Deaf world has had such an impact on me. I found I was a different person than I thought I was when I was growing up in the hearing world.
WHAT DO YOU THINK A HEARING PERSON SHOULD UNDERSTAND ABOUT THE DEAF COMMUNITY?
Tracey- First of all, that we are all human, to begin with. They have feelings and hopes and dreams just like a hearing person. To be open-minded in communicating– that a Deaf person would want you to try and communicate with them in any way that’s possible. The world is set up for hearing people, and that’s something that Deaf people are aware of that hearing people are not. For example, here in schools we have intercom systems. The world is just set up for hearing people. We don’t realize that we take that for granted and that access is not always the same for Deaf people and to keep that in mind, we need to keep it balanced.
George- I wish they knew how to become more patient with people, because you can feel left out of the group. So, like it would be nice if they know there is a Deaf person, to just try and include them. And maybe if you do socialize and include them, maybe you could learn about their culture.
Stacey- I wish they were nice and didn’t bully deaf people, like I’ve experienced so much bully through my life, and I wish they knew more about not labeling Deaf people negative things and realized the struggles of the Deaf community.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE WORD IN SIGN LANGUAGE?
Tracey- ‘Suppose.’ (tapping pinky finger below here eye). There’s so many favorite signs, it depends on what stage you are in your life. When I first learned sign language when I was 16, it was ‘whatever’, (slapping hands against each other). Suppose is a creative sign, you don’t know what is going to happen next. There are so many beautiful, beautiful signs. One sign can mean a whole English sentence. And I’m not a native ASL user, there’s a big difference between me and what they call CODA’s (Children of Deaf Adults) language level. I don’t have the same depth. I will always be a second-language learner of ASL. When you are learning American Sign Language, there is a whole grammatical structure that’s on your face– facial grammar. For example, when your eyebrows go up, it’s a question. On your hands, there are classifiers on how you use your hands.
Stacey- ‘Book’. Because I really love to read. And reading is my passion, same as writing and acting.
George- The ‘I Love You’ sign is my favorite because it incorporates peace, love, and bonding experience. In a small group like this, it’s like a family.
Note: For this interview, George Dennis worked with interpreter Kristin White and Stacey Smith worked with Evah Hellewell.