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December 24, 2003

A day without sound

From: Mount Shasta Herald, CA - Dec 24, 2003

By Paul Boerger, last of the three-part 'Signs of a Culture' series

As part of Camille Johnson's College of the Siskiyous American Sign Language class, students are required to become "deaf for a day" to experience life without hearing.

ASL is the signing language used by the deaf to communicate. It does not translate directly to English, but is its own special language with facial expressions and hand movements for emphasis.

With the aid of ear plugs, headband and hearing protectors, I take the plunge into the deaf world.

As with the vast majority of the deaf, I will not speak. A notebook and pencil will have to suffice for communication.

Unlike the deaf, I have the luxury of choosing the day I cannot hear and this becomes my first revelation.

If by accident or illness I was to become deaf, I would be unemployed as a newspaper reporter. Even if I learned ASL, would all my co-workers? And in that unlikely event, I would still be unable to cover city government and the other myriad stories that require being able to hear people talk, whether on the telephone or in face-to-face interviews.

When a person's world is silent, the larger world cannot possibly accommodate that condition.

In preparation for being deaf for a day, I also realize there will be no music or television. I will not hear a bird sing, my dog bark, play guitar or listen to the wind blow through the trees. The list goes on and on.

After a few moments of silence with my ears sealed, I begin to notice the absence of small sounds that otherwise I take for granted. Footsteps, doors opening, the rustle of paper and the water flowing from the tap are all eerily silent.

On the practical level, I cannot hear the microwave bell announcing my coffee is warm or hear members of my family.

My family has agreed to respect my temporary inability to speak or hear, so written notes pass between us.

Written communication, however, requires physical contact to get a person's attention. You can't just call out through the house.

After an interesting hour of adjusting to silence, I find I am bored. Very bored. So much of what I find pleasurable in life revolves around hearing.

Without any interaction other than written notes, I am already feeling isolated. COS instructor Johnson says isolation is a common problem with the deaf.

Written notes are terse with no inflection, sound or emphasis. Spoken language, I realize, conveys far more than information.

My first inclination is to spend the day at home surfing the Internet and reading. It feels incredibly complicated to go out into the world. The isolation is deepening.

My eight year old son and I try a computer game that we both enjoy. Incidentally, he is not happy with my decision to be deaf for a day on his time, but he stoically goes along with my self imposed silence.

The game has no sound and our normal groans, cheers and strategy discussions are replaced by silent pointing and an occasional written note.

It's not even close to our normal level of fun and interaction.

I decide I must venture into the community to see what the deaf face in day-to-day living.

The car engine is just a whisper. About a mile down the road, I discover with a casual glance that I have reached 3,500 RPMs in second gear. I could not hear the roar telling me to shift to a higher gear. The rest of the day, I keep glancing at the tachometer to ensure I don't blow the engine.

Twice I leave my keys in the car because I can't hear the warning bell and once I forget to turn the car off altogether.

The deaf must stay very aware of their physical environment.

In addition to a pencil and notepad, I carry a note I show to people when interaction is necessary that reads "temporarily deaf."

Only one person nods and takes the pad to write. The others acknowledge the note with speech, often turning away as they talk. Johnson says it is common for hearing people to talk louder when encountering a deaf person.

By its very nature ASL is completely visual and it is considered rude to break eye contact in deaf conversations. I realize as I watch a silent world that a surprising amount of verbal interaction between hearing people is without eye contact.

At a busy store, I encounter another dilemma common to the deaf. How do I move through a crowd?

I can't announce my presence with an "excuse me." If I am to move through a throng, I must make physical contact with everyone in my way, get eye contact and then somehow get them to understand I wish to pass.

How will they react if I pull on their arms, look them straight in the face, nod my head and then push through? I decide to wait until there is a clear path.

In one store, I simply find a long way around through the other aisles. Not being able to speak or hear makes for a tedious day.

A busy intersection downtown is strangely silent. Cars speed by like a silent movie.

I realize that if I cross the street, I will not hear warning honks or the wail of an emergency vehicle siren. For their own safety, the deaf must continually use visual input in place of hearing.

The experiment ends in the evening and the sound of my family's voices are delightful. I jabber on and on about my day, just thankful to be able to speak and hear.

In an unintended by-product of my experience, I find myself keeping eye contact when conversing.

The sense of isolation I felt while deaf was palpable. Without hearing or speech, the world becomes dangerous and people become distant and unapproachable. There is little emotional texture in written notes.

If, by some circumstance, I was to become deaf, I would fully expect my family to learn ASL with me.

I could not, however, reasonably ask the larger world to do the same, and life would change dramatically if I could no longer hear.

Conversely, I would make it my life's priority to learn ASL if one of my loved ones became deaf.

Johnson has commented that deaf children of hearing parents can feel a tremendous sense of isolation if the parents do not learn how to sign.

"It's amazing," Johnson said, "how many do not."

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