Written by: Bro. Brian Poulin
September 3, 2022 – Memorial of Saint Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church
“I’m not ignoring you, I’m just deaf.”
So read my favorite t-shirt that I saw during a week of working with the annual week-long camp for deaf children held at the Marist Brothers Center in Esopus. This shirt was worn by a deaf counselor who had previously been a camper himself, and I delighted in imagining the various settings in which said counselor might wear that shirt and how hearing people might react.
American Sign Language (ASL) is not a language I know, and for some reason it intimidates me more than other languages I have tried to learn. As such, I spent the week of camp doing my best to help out behind the scenes (in the kitchen and scullery), with occasional forays into situations with little room for ambiguity—it was easier for me to tell when somebody wanted an ice cream bar than what kind of fruit they might prefer.
The Esopus camps very beautifully bring the margins to the center in providing a context where the sick, the deaf, or those with special needs can feel not only loved and cared for, but also normal. In most places, the deaf people I was with this weekend would be identified with their disability and treated accordingly. Although I am hearing, this was a week in which I was disadvantaged by being non-signing, rather than them being disadvantaged because they were non-hearing. I was the functionally mute one. They could each be seen as the uniquely wonderful individuals they truly are.
People who are used to having things work for them are often aware of all the accommodation made for those who are different, without acknowledging how truly arbitrary and undeserved their own advantages are. If I ever truly needed help understanding one of the campers this week, I could easily find an interpreter to tell me what they were signing. How many of them reliably have an ASL interpreter available whenever they want to participate in a discussion or understand a presentation?
One of the young volunteers helping in the kitchen was himself deaf. When I first met him, I asked how he was at reading lips—on the one hand, this would be a practical help to communication given my inability to sign and the lack of opportunity for me to learn quickly. In another way though, this must have been quite rude of me. After all, the whole point of Deaf Camp is to allow participants to exist on their own terms for the week, not on those dictated by the convenience of the hearing world.
Did you ever hear the one about the office-workers who insisted the light be on in their blind colleague’s office whenever he was there… because it made them more comfortable?
It would be a great thing to learn ASL, and I truly applaud those who make this effort. Being able to sign would allow me to be a greater agent of inclusion in any number of unforeseen situations. I am aware though of my own limited bandwidth. I can’t do everything, and I certainly put the time in to learn other verbal languages. So at least for the time being, I will let others learn ASL. Hopefully though, this experience of humility and service can help me continue to be more attentive to the voices of those who too often go unheard.
This month’s ‘ear candy’ is an instrumental piece from the great Miles Davis that actually constitutes the second side of the original album on which it appeared. Because communication is about so much more than words. The ‘brain food’ is an account of one of the few deaf Catholic priests and his effort to serve a community that is too often marginalized or ignored.
Ear Candy: “In a Silent Way / It’s About That Time” by Miles Davis
Brain Food: “How a Deaf Priest is Reaching a Neglected Catholic Community” by Pamela Hill Nettleton
Come back on the first Saturday of next month for a new post!