Can You See Me Now?

Meet Deaf America—a culture, a class, and a choice

| September-October 2011

For most deaf Americans, being deaf is not the inability to hear but rather the ability to perceive life in a different way from hearing people. For many, it’s a blessing.

I first decided to take up American Sign Language as a teenager. Sadly, I had no deaf friends or family members with whom to practice ASL. I didn’t know any deaf people at all, in fact. I was driven mostly by fascination with the silent language itself, which is powered by a clarity and expressiveness absent from everyday spoken English.

There is an illustrated diagram in my ASL textbook explaining that to properly ask a question in ASL you first make a statement and then shrug your shoulders, cock your head to one side, and open your eyes wide, perhaps adding an inquisitive expression to your face. To a hearing person, this feels like overkill—like donning a Greek theater mask every time you need to find the bathroom. But communicating with your whole body is a fundamental part of ASL. It’s a visual idiom, a language of the eye.

Modern deaf poetry is filled with intense imagery, as in J. Schuyler Long’s “The Poetry of Motion”:

In the poetry of motion there is music if one sees,

In the soaring birds above us there are moving symphonies.

There is music in the movement of a ship upon the wave

And the sunbeams dancing o’er it, that the minstrels never gave.


. . . in harmony of motion there are songs that Nature sings.

And there is music all around us if we have the eyes to see.

What deaf people have realized about themselves in the past century is that being deaf opens up a new mode of experience. ASL is the language of that experience. They are creating their own world. But it’s a world they have to defend.