Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

It just ain’t the same!

April 7th, 2008

Weird how certain things come up in bursts, isn’t it? In the past month I’ve encountered three situations involving some combination of Deaf people, American Sign Language, and Koko, the “signing” gorilla.
To be fair, as I consider this, I would probably have to converse with Koko myself to know whether I thought there was actual language happening – you know, the kind of communication that we consider the particularly special feature of language. My understanding is that Koko knows some “signs,” responding “appropriately” to some of them and and generating some “signs” herself (is Koko a she?) Please don’t misunderstand me, I think it is awesome that there is such strong evidence of high-order cognition from other animals besides ourselves, and I want gorillas to persist on the planet. In fact, I would be stunned and amazed and thrilled, actually, if humans could develop languages or other means of communication that enabled us to learn from the other animals what they know about living on earth. Maybe signed language is one of those modes – just like human babies can learn to project meaning with signs sooner than they can project meaning with spoken words (all those pesky muscles in the tongue and mouth!) – it is not surprising that gesture is a powerful tool across species (as well as between different language groups among our own).
Equating what Koko does with what culturally Deaf people do with their linguistically-complex signed languages (yes, plural!), while cool for the great ape can also serve people inclined to stereotype. Old prejudices persist, with sometimes appalling consequences. I’m not just referring to a deaf person’s hurt feelings because a non-deaf person is unable to understand that the mind works just as well with signed languages as it does with spoken ones. I am referring to the casual attitudes one develops towards those considered somehow inferior or otherwise less-worthy. I am referring to a cavalier attitude toward Deaf people’s concerns with medical genocide, so easy to pass off if one assumes a Deaf human being is more like a gorilla than like me.
Another irony involves this popularity of non-deaf parents teaching their non-deaf babies to sign. What a fad this is! Parents value those five or six word vocabularies so much! And then drop them (?) as soon as baby starts to speak. I’m not saying parents should not take advantage of the temporary relief signed language provides, but – this is a bit of cultural appropriation, isn’t it? Where’s the give-back? I have friends who are doing this and I am happy to provide a few ‘survival signs,’ and – I hope they’ll remember, someday, to support legislation recognizing signed languages and residential schools for the Deaf, reject moves to medicalize deafness through research and (what some people consider) experimental surgery on children, to reject eugenics, be willing to pay for signed language interpretation to create accessibility, and even be bold enough to talk with and to Deaf people in meetings or classrooms or anyplace where an interpreter is available for that very purpose (instead of talking to the interpreter as a proxy!)
I know. People don’t consider these things, and why should they, really, if it hasn’t come up? We’ve all got plenty to do. Most of us say we’ve got too much to do, rushing on and on, in a hurry to get things done so we can immediately start the next task. Get those kids signing so we can move on to other things!
All I’m saying is, let your mind be joggled!

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Categories: Deaf stuff, group dynamics, Interpreting
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