Recently, I attended a drum circle with my local Deaf community, and the experience solidified my belief that being part of the Deaf community is a lot like being part of an indigenous tribe.
When we first learned that Micah was profoundly Deaf, we accepted the traditional medical perspective on deafness; the script that says to be deaf is to be disabled, not normal, and in need of a cure. However, as the years progressed and we embraced American Sign Language and actually got to know Deaf people, we discovered the word deaf is less about a physical condition and more about a cultural identity.
Today, we hear a lot about racial, sexual, political, and religious identities; but it wasn’t until I saw the PBS documentary Through Deaf Eyes, did I realize that Micah’s deafness gave him and us access to a distinct culture often referred to as the Deaf-World. I learned that to be Deaf with a capital D was to embrace Deaf culture, its history, and the language that binds it– American Sign Language.
Deafness is not measured in decibels. Deafness is a lifestyle. While the Deaf community is diverse, they come together as a linguistic minority. They are proud of their unique perspective, the lens by which they encounter the human experience; and they are proud of their visual language that includes folktales, poetry, and performance art. Like many minorities, Deaf people are culturally marginalized and the struggle for equal access to employment and education is far from over.
“The problem isn’t in the ears of the Deaf. The problem is in the silence of the hearing.”
Today, my local Deaf community gathered on a busy street with signs as part of a Grass Roots Movement advocating for equality and awareness. To be Deaf is to reject the medical perspective. To be Deaf is to celebrate diversity. To be Deaf is to fight oppression, and to join the resistance.
In 1890, a deaf Sioux warrior named Black Coyote resisted the U.S. Cavalry when he refused to surrender his brand new Winchester rifle to the U.S. troops. The soldiers, attempting to oppress the religious freedom of the Lakota Sioux, surrounded the tribe, and demanded they relinquish every knife, gun, axe and tent stake. One deaf boy resisted. What followed was the brutal massacre at Wounded Knee, killing nearly 300 Sioux people, mostly women and children. Despite the tremendous loss, standing against injustice is something I deeply admire. Whether it is the Plains Indians, the Civil Rights Movement, or The Deaf President Now movement, which helped to bring into fruition the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, advocating for the rights of oppressed people anywhere liberates people everywhere.
Religious leaders, metaphysical poets, and Quantum Science have attested to the interconnectedness of all beings. Jesus called this connectedness the body of Christ; the psychiatrist Carl Jung called it the “collected conscious”; and the Buddhist teachings taught separation is an illusion. Being a part of the Deaf community reminds me that being connected is something I believe it deeply. It’s one of the things I admire most about the Deaf–the tribal principals I observe in their community.
When my husband and I were newlyweds, we lived in a rustic chalet on the rugged Irish coast in a small town called Falcarragh, the crossroads. There, we had no television, no internet, no movie theater or car. We learned to build fires to keep warm, and to content ourselves with books and music. In the evenings, we walked to the Irish pub to connect with neighbors and to drink Guinness. There the community gathered in solidarity to listen to an ancient Celtic drum called the bodhrán.
Drums hold a sacred place for indigenous people from West Africa, to the Americas to the Celts. In these traditions, drumming is more than music; it is the language of the gods, the pulse at the center of the universe. So perhaps it’s no coincidence, that when I attended the Deaf drum circle, I felt like our gathering too had transcended into something truly tribal. We were a Deaf Nation engaged in a Pow Pow, celebrating the value of connectedness.
The word bodhrán is from the Gaelic word bodhar, an adjective meaning deaf, deadness of sound. It refers to “the sound of a stone being broken when it has reached breaking point”(Dineen, 1927; Royal Irish Academy). Sometimes to be Deaf is to struggle even to the breaking point. The Lakota Sioux people learned this when their way of life was crushed by U.S. oppressors. And today, my local Deaf community holds up signs that read, “the problem with deafness is not that we can’t hear. The problem is hearing people don’t listen.” For them, they are beating resounding gongs against injustice and inequality, but very few people take the time to notice or even care.
Martin Luther king said, the ultimate tragedy is not oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Deafness is not a disease that needs to be cured. Deafness is a cultural identity. The problem isn’t in the ears of the Deaf. The problem is in the silence of the hearing.