Even before the performance of “Land of Oz” begins, it’s obvious that different rules apply here. Eyes dart around the auditorium and settle down in focused “listening”—sight is the primary way people here share information. To get someone’s attention, wave a hand in the air. To ignore someone, at which the high schoolers are particularly adept, turn your face away, shoot your eyes up to the opposite corner of the ceiling, or look bored. A conversation might be with someone next to you, or three rows behind you, or with someone standing along a far wall. If the line of sight is clear, communication is possible. All of these conversations are happening in the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf auditorium, where students, families, alumni and members of the local Deaf community have gathered to watch the school’s annual play.
The lights dim, and the signing fades. First, the black-and-white opening scenes unfold via film, and then the stage opens to Dorothy, a curly-haired middle schooler, tiptoeing into Oz, a land of two-dozen colorfully dressed children holding painted flower cut-outs over their heads. They wave them back and forth in perfect imperfect harmony—complete with that one kid off to the right, frozen stiff with the flower covering the whole of his face. Dorothy never speaks, but signs. “Where’s home?” An interpreter voices for the hearing people in the audience.
It wasn’t always this way in deaf education. For close to a century, sign language was widely disallowed and punished in deaf schools, and students learned to be ashamed for signing. It was a movement first embraced in the latter half of the 19th century, as our culture’s emphasis shifted away from embracing the extraordinary and moved instead toward prizing so-called normality. It’s been a social struggle ever since, both in deaf culture and in culture more broadly: Do we embrace our distinctiveness, finding our ways towards self-confidence and self-knowledge, or do we strive to blend in, becoming successful by not being too different?
The rise of cochlear implants has thrown this question back at the deaf community again, as the parents of deaf children, and the children themselves, work to figure out where they fit in both hearing and deaf culture. Many parents—more than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents—choose to have their children with implants educated in schools for “hearing and speech,” or mainstreamed into hearing schools. According to Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf CEO Donald Rhoten, only about 10-15 percent of deaf students go to schools like WPSD, a private, nonprofit, tuition-free school for deaf children. Sign, not spoken English, is the language everyone has in common here. It’s sign language that the flowers use to point Dorothy towards home, sign language that ensures equal access to information, signing that is the revealer of all great things: brain, courage, heart.
For many, cochlear implants signify the ultimate movement away from the identity-embracing nature of signing and toward “becoming hearing.” And cochlear implants are gaining ground. As of 2010, 40 percent of deaf children had been given cochlear implants, according to the National Institutes of Health. According to the FDA, by December 2012, roughly 38,000 children in the U.S. had implants. Today, 30 percent of the students at WPSD have cochlear implants, as opposed to just three in 1995. But while many believe that cochlear implants essentially restore hearing to the deaf, that’s simply not true.
The implants are tiny electrode array coils surgically inserted into the inner ear, the cochlea. With the help of an external processer, they translate the vibrations of sound into electric impulses that the brain may be able to translate into meaning. For those deaf people who are candidates—and not everyone is—success depends largely on the brain and whether it can adapt to the sudden input of sounds. The brain essentially has to re-code itself, to rebuild, or build, its auditory understandings. It works best if the person’s brain has already trained itself for sound, as in the hard-of-hearing or those who lose their hearing later in life; or in those whose brains still retain the plasticity to adapt to sound: children.
To a hearing person, implants sound vaguely mechanical, like speech through a voice scrambler. But a deaf person’s mind still has to learn sounds, including those whose meanings require no thought for hearing people: a distant door slam, a flock of birds landing, the tick tick tick of a clock. A person with an implant goes through a whole process of categorizing and prioritizing an auditory world that is entirely new. It is at times all-consuming.
Shelley Zelei, a teacher in WPSD’s Children’s Center, who has progressive hearing loss and was completely deaf for several years before her implant was activated a year and a half ago, says she’s still working on her hearing. Every day she picks up on new sounds and understands new words without lip-reading. While her hearing aids amplified sound, she says the implant makes the sounds clearer. Instead of a muffled loudness, words have distinct syllables, and new sounds have reentered her world: the “sh” and “ch” and “t” sounds that had been missing for years. But she’s quick to qualify how much patience it takes to use the implant, how hard it is, how frustrating it can be to constantly figure out this new information. “It’s a lot of work. It’s not just a quick fix; it’s not something that you put on your head and you’re done.”
In short, cochlear implants are far from a cure for deafness. But more important, talk of a cure at all is insulting to a community that sees itself not as ill, but as a minority culture defined by language, shared history, jokes, customs, and even differences in how one says hello or goodbye. The culture compensates for the lack of hearing, and when deaf people are in it, they have no reason to feel disabled; Deaf culture functionally normalizes difference.
“…even though Zelei loves using her implant, she [like many of the implant users] isn’t shy about removing it when the noise gets to be too much.”
WPSD is both shaped by this culture and helping to maintain it. Students speak in sign language, and all staff—including audiologists, teachers and groundskeepers—are expected to sign to the best of their abilities at all times, whether they are hearing or deaf. WPSD calls this a “barrier-free, all-inclusive” education, meaning that regardless of the use of implants or aids, all of the students have access to what is being said around them. Signing is everywhere. And so even though Zelei loves using her implant, she [like many of the implant users] isn’t shy about removing it when the noise gets to be too much. Because Sign is ever-present, implant users always have this option to return to a place where they can communicate with ease and fluency. Zelei takes a deep breath, takes it off, and looks down to her beloved, and now quiet, students. She says, “Now sign to me.”
“Not fair!” they say.
“It is fair,” she says, playfully. “Now sign.”
When hearing coworkers, surrounded daily by the chatter of children, also say: “Not fair!” she offers to buy them earplugs so that they, too, can escape to the quiet of deafness.
That’s not to say that students don’t learn English; they do. Everyone learns to read and write in English. Those who desire, learn to speak it, and those who can, learn to hear it. In classrooms, teachers move between the two languages, depending on the needs of their students, resulting in a visual blend of sign language and what’s commonly called Sign-Supported English—signed vocabulary alongside English words.
In the Children’s Center, speech language pathologist Janine McTighe holds up a picture book and reads, “The wheels on the bus go…” then looks wide-eyed and expectantly at the children, who simultaneously sing and sign “round and round, round and round, round and round.” It’s a small class, only five students, and one is finishing an art project off to the side. McTighe addresses each at the table, focusing on their faces and making sure they’re singing the words. She makes small talk between choruses, speaking to each individually, “Did you come to school on a bus? Did I? Who comes to school on the bus?” She takes extra care with a student with Down syndrome, to make sure she’s not bowled over by the rest. Everyone gets a turn to spin the little wheels on the picture book.
The boy finishing the art project at first seems completely deaf—he’s working with a deaf paraprofessional, and together they are in a quiet, visually oriented world off to the side. It’s not until the boy joins the group working on speech that he transitions, greeting the teacher in clear spoken English and scootching a tiny chair up to the table.
Two of these students have implants, three have hearing aids, and school and parents are still gauging the best way to teach each student. Over the next year, the Children’s Center students will be split up for one class each day, into one of three “language groups.” Each group learns the same thing from a different teacher using different forms of language: Sign, spoken English, and Sign-Supported English. The teachers study students’ individual responsiveness to help inform parental decisions about which approach best serves the child.
As the children’s educations continue, the teachers will be aware of learning preferences. In a fourth-grade classroom, for example, a teacher who teaches mostly in Sign-Supported English switches into fluent Sign to speak directly to a student who is unaided and from a signing family. He goes from having been distracted to alert, quickly turning his attention to the worksheet and following her instructions. Likewise, if a student is working on his or her speech, a teacher might close the door and work exclusively in spoken English for a while.
WPSD is a place where difference is the norm, where being unlike the people outside the gates is typical. And the students here pivot gracefully and confidently between cultures. Despite the complex impact of cochlear implants on deaf culture, WPSD seems to suggest that the best way to care for kids with implants is fairly straightforward: Teach them to use the hearing available to them, and provide them access to sign language so they always have a way to communicate with ease. And while some have worried that cochlear implants will replace sign language, Rhoten shrugs off that idea. “I don’t think that’ll happen. I think there will always be [American Sign Language]…. Sign language is clear and distinct. If you don’t use it as a language, you use it as a tool, and I think that’s really helpful.”
Rhoten, who is deaf, remembers his own time in a hearing public school, where he constantly struggled to understand, where he often felt on the outside looking in. Students here don’t need to struggle the way he did. “Here, everybody communicates with each other,” he says. “Here, being deaf doesn’t mean being different.”
That’s never clearer than when the wider community is gathered. At the end of “Land of Oz,” the actors file back onto the stage into small groups—the flowers, the monkeys, the trees—and while some of the audience claps, most raise outstretched hands in the air and rotate them back and forth, in deaf applause. As the students cross that stage, none of them are so different—with implants and without, with multiple disabilities, hard-of-hearing, wheel-chair users, an array of races and countries of origin, every shade of deaf. None of them is on the outside looking in. Most wave, bow, or curtsy, all smiles. But there are a few who don’t do anything, who just pause and look out, stunned, beholding all those hands waving back at them, shimmering in celebration of what they can do.