Dehumanizing the Deaf

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By Fatima Najm

Michael Cyr walks up to the woman at the admissions office window and gesticulates that he is deaf. She raises her voice, assuming he’ll somehow be able to hear if she does that. He can see the exaggerated movements of her mouth and can only imagine the startled people in line behind him.

It’s humiliating, but it happens all the time.

When Cyr gets pulled over by a police officer there is the requisite amount of shoulder-shrugging and eye-rolling, as soon as he realises Cyr is deaf, indicating what a hassle it is to scribble notes back and forth on a notepad.

“And it’s because we are unique,” he said. “We are different in a very fundamental way – communication. Our struggle stems from this – a total lack of respect and acceptance of our innate need to use our eyes and hands to communicate.”

There are countless incidents like that that he can cite, but Cyr prefers to dwell on the positive.

He often tells people that deaf people aren’t trying to fit into mainstream society, it’s society that is struggling to understand them.

The perception that deaf people need to somehow change to fit in can do drastic damage to a deaf child’s self esteem.

In high school, Cyr was made to undergo speech therapy, a standard part of the curriculum.

“It was ridiculous, because some of us can be trained to speak but many can’t, and those who can make sounds like words are held up as successes and those who can’t get ignored,” said Cyr, who is studying film at Ryerson. “We should be able to identify as Deaf.”

Unable to parrot sound to the satisfaction of his teachers, Cyr was stuck in a repetitive rut. That meant he couldn’t move onto delving deep into subject matter. Eventually, Cyr gave up trying to produce sound.

He chose to communicate solely through signing. But he is one of a fortunate few who got to go to deaf school and learn standard sign language.

Often, hearing’ parents will not send their deaf child to a school that caters to their needs, so the choice to identify as a member of the deaf community is taken from them at an early age. Sometimes, they will insist their child learns to read lips and talk’, instead of learning American Sign Language, the most commonly used sign language in Canada. Their reasoning is that it will be easier for a deaf person to integrate into society armed with lip-reading skills and years of speech therapy.

It is the same reasoning that has parents signing up for cochlear implants, devices designed to produce hearing sensations by electrically stimulating nerves inside the inner ear.

Cyr cannot help but cringe, when he realizes a child has an implant, also known as a bionic ear. It’s not that he has anything against the hearing aid.

“I just don’t feel comfortable with parents making decisions for their children, especially the younger ones who get an implant without ever getting any exposure to American Sign Language or to deaf culture,” said Cyr, speaking through an interpreter.

The use of the implant also encourages society to see the Deaf in medical terms instead of understanding that they are a diverse cultural entity. The community has recclaimed the term deaf’, capitalizing it to denote their culture instead of a medical condition. It is because policy makers once defined the Deaf in medical terms that speech therapy was considered the solution’. Being deaf is not a problem to be solved. It is a culture that Cyr, for one, is proud to be a part of. And there are many more who gain access to their culture and community when they shake off the idea that communicating is restricted to hearing and speaking.

“I have friends who grew up oral’ because that was the only way they were shown, now they chose to communicate only through sign language,” he said.

And not the informal Pigeon’ sign language of made up signs that they improvised to communicate with their parents. Real sign language: American Sign Language. The kind that empowers them, opening up a whole new, elegant world of communication they had never before imagined. Where they aren’t mimicking sounds that mainstream society wants to hear.

At Silent Voice, which runs a summer camp for deaf children and their hearing siblings, Cyr works with his staff of camp counselors to undo society’s stereotypes about the deaf and instill a sense of pride in the children.

“The children leave here so much more confident,” said the 24-year-old program director at Silent Voice.”They are in an environment where they are no longer different, where they are being understood.”

Cyr loves what he does.

Helping boost 70 campers’ sense of self. Making sure they have a memorable summer.

Watching the kids communicate with each other seamlessly. Monitoring their progress as they absorb more sign language as they play.Watching hearing siblings learn to interpret the world as their loved ones do.

This is their turf. Sound means nothing. Fingers fold over each other, flipping forward and waving, as hands twist and turn in conversation, arms rising and falling as insults and jokes fly back and forth between the campers. The depth and scope of their every gesture as meaningless to the hearing as sound is to the Deaf.

Cyr watches them play by the poolside at Sunnyside Park on Lake Shore Boulevard West, wishing he could somehow world-proof them against the ignorance that is out there.

“Despite what people think, we are not socially handicapped, in need of help, seeking pity, or dependent on parents or hearing spouses,” said Cyr. “We are productive, independent members of society who communicate differently.”

Cyr is sick of political rhetoric reminding Canadians that we live in a democratic society that extends equal respect to all cultures and communities.

“What about the Deaf? All we are asking for is basic respect and acceptance, whether one is deaf, hard of hearing or hearing. Until (we get it), we will continue to live in a world that does not recognize our humanity.”

The key to getting to that point is to stop pitying the Deaf.

“It is often pity that blinds one from seeing the potential talents of a deaf person, and to their unique perspective of the world.”

Untill then there are other challenges at hand. Things that many members of society take for granted, like registering for a course last minute, just aren’t a part of Cyr’s reality. He has to give two weeks notice for the Access Centre to be able to procure the services of an interpreter for the class.

Then, because it’s a film class, there are group discussions, and his fellow students tend to decide to meet at the spur of the moment. So far Cyr hasn’t missed a beat. He has managed to make it to every single meeting, sometimes by enlisting the help of a friend who can interpret, at others by getting a volunteer interpreter. But he wishes the government would allocate more funds towards equipping classes with interpreters. He figures it’ll happen eventually. It will take a lot of voices raised against the injustice of being excluded from so many of life’s simplest things, but it will happen.


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