The personal journal of author and photographer Jason Pettus

ASL Adventures: “Game of Thrones” night at Deaf Planet Soul.

A field report from my very first Chicago Deaf community social event, plus some sobering thoughts about my fellow late-deafened adults

#asl #signlanguage #Deaf #community #chicago #social #events #DeafPlanetSoul #GameOfThrones #history #oralism #LateDeafenedAdults #middleage #mortality #advice #moralcourage

Game Of Thrones night at Deaf Planet Soul

[Need to get caught up on the entire saga of me learning American Sign Language (ASL) and getting involved in the Chicago Deaf community this year? The complete set of links is at the bottom of the page.]

So the day finally arrived this week; the day I finally went out and attended an event in Chicago designed specifically for Deaf people to have fun with other Deaf people. As regular readers know, I've been feeling a bit of trepidation about this, for reasons I went into detail about in my last journal entry — how although I'm proud of the surprisingly large amount of ASL I've learned in just six weeks now of studying it, I still don't want to be some beginner pest to native signers who are trying to have a normal conversation at a party, plus I want to be mindful of the history of hearing people barging into the Deaf community and forcing them to change their ways to better accommodate their “hearing superiors.”

Let's never forget, all the way up to the 1990s, not only was ASL almost exclusively known only by native Deaf people, but it was actively banned from most Deaf classrooms (but read about the shameful history of “forced oralism” for more on this subject), which means that sign language was largely an insular and secret activity that helped define the “us” part of the “us versus them” equation among the Deaf. So although I'm sure that most native signers would be patient and tolerant of my terrible beginner skills, I also want to be hyper-vigilant about the idea of barging my way into non-educational social events and being all, “Hi! My signing is horrible and I'm slow and I use the wrong grammar and word order, but I'd appreciate it if you all could modify your own speech to mollify me, the wonderful noble hearing person who is deigning to learn your language (yay me!), instead of me doing the hard work of actually learning your language well enough to speak it correctly back to you. THANKS!”

But still, there's only way to become conversational in any new language, and that's by forcing yourself into actual conversations as much as possible; so when I discovered that the local Deaf advocacy group Deaf Planet Soul (DPS) was having a Game of Thrones season-premiere viewing party as a fundraiser for their organization (something they're doing with every episode this season), I thought this would be a great opportunity for my local Deaf community “coming out” moment, not least of which was because for an hour of it, I could sit there in silence and not have to worry about chatting at all.

DPS is a pretty cool organization; founded by two people of color (Puerto Rican Gallaudet University grad Gregory Perez, and Iraqi-American Muslim Zaineb Abdulla, who you might remember from her 2016 self-defense tips against hijab-grabbing alt-righters, which became a viral hit after Trump's election), it's a group that advocates not only for Deaf accessibility but accessibility among those who typically get most overlooked by society, and they're particularly well known for traveling to refugee camps every year and providing things like hearing aids and sign-language lessons to deaf kids who otherwise live in a solitary world of silence. Usually on Sundays I'm down in Hyde Park, having dinner with my friend Carrie and her teen sons, so I will probably miss the rest of the Game of Thrones parties; but certainly I plan on getting involved with DPS's other events a lot more as the year continues, and also plan on talking with them about their refugee work and whether it might be something I'd be eligible to participate in too.

The party itself went fine, although I was surprised to see that most of the attendees were actually hearing people who didn't sign, I suppose friends of the staff who were there to help financially support the organization. Still, though, I wanted to get in at least a little conversation, so I approached Gregory and Zeineb after the show was over.

“Hi!,” I started. “I want to say hello. I'm Jason.” (I still don't know how to properly sign, “I wanted to introduce myself;” this is something I need to learn soon, if I'm going to keep going out to events like these.)

“Hi, Jason!”, Zee responded. “Thanks for coming out!”

“I want to warn you, I don't know a lot of sign language yet. I'm a student right now.”

“Oh yes? Where are you studying?”

“C-O-L-U-M-B-I-A College.”

“Oh, C-C! They're great.” (Believe it or not, this was the very first time I learned the “name sign” for Columbia College; not even the teachers there had shown me at this point.) “I learned sign language in a class too.”

“Oh, are you hearing?”

“Hard of hearing,” Zee started speaking while simultaneously signing. “I grew up in the hearing world and thinking of myself as disabled, but it was after going to fjkld ajs difl;a jfjld fjdlow jdjmdk jldkfa.....”

“Whoa, sorry,” I said when she took a pause. “Could you maybe repeat everything you just said, slower and louder? Sorry!”

The whole group laughed. “Sure, sorry!” Zee said, and began again.

This is the main problem I'm having right now at these kinds of events; although I'm meeting way more people than I expected who can both sign and speak at the same time, my hearing loss prevents me from being able to follow them in large crowded rooms, while I don't know enough ASL yet to be able to completely follow them in sign language either. It's certainly proof that I'm doing the right thing by learning ASL in the first place, but it leads to these frustrating experiences where I can't exactly communicate with anyone right now, either hearing or Deaf. I'm glad for the experience, and I can definitely feel myself getting a little better at signing after every single evening like this most recent one; but I have to admit, I still have to really force myself at this point to go out to these events in the first place, because I know in advance how difficult it's going to be for me to converse well no matter which language I pick.

But on the other hand, I've also started having this sobering experience online that, although it's kind of a downer to actually witness, has definitely been producing positive emotions when it comes to the efforts to stick with the immersion events here in the city, where I just throw myself into situations where everyone around me can sign much better than I can, and I futilely try to keep up with the few isolated words I can pick out of their conversations. Namely, now that I've reactivated my Facebook account for the first time in three years (which I had to do in order to stay in touch with my fellow Columbia College students), and have started to join a bunch of other Deaf culture groups there, I'm starting to meet more and more “late-deafened adults” (LDAs) exactly like me; for those who don't know, this is a special term within the Deaf community to describe those who grew up hearing just fine, but are only now losing their hearing in middle-age. (Here's an alarming statistic for you hearing folks — two-thirds of all elderly people on the planet are functionally or profoundly deaf, so now you know that you've got that to look forward to. You're welcome!)

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the LDAs I'm meeting online display the exact set of stereotypes that LDAs are known for within the Deaf community. Since they grew up hearing, they see their increasing deafness as something “being taken away from them,” with the resulting grieving and anger that that phrase implies. They've often spent decades now cultivating a group of hearing friends and family members, and rising through the ranks of a corporate job; now their hearing loss is putting an end to that, and at the age of 35, 40, 45, 50, they find themselves without the enthusiasm or energy to go out there and start all over again. They find sign language extremely difficult to learn in middle age, and feel despondent over the idea of putting in all that work and having no one around to use it with in the first place, so most LDAs never bother to learn ASL at all, cutting themselves off from ever being able to get involved in the Deaf community to begin with. And so most LDAs just resign themselves to the idea of counting down the clock of their elderly years in a state of loneliness and confusion, no longer able to communicate effectively with their existing social circle but not capable of making a new one either, their lives dwindling and narrowing into the space of a single room and the giant TV that keeps them constant company in the years before death.

Most of the LDAs I meet online fit this description to a T; and while it always saddens me, it also strengthens my resolve to not let this be my eventual fate too. I mean, certainly it helps that I'm a freelancer and small-business owner who works by himself from home, and definitely it helps that I have few physical friends in Chicago I meet up with regularly, no hearing spouse or children to have to worry about, end-of-life parents who I only see a handful of times a year. But part of it, I acknowledge, is that I simply work harder at this stuff than a lot of other LDAs do; I force myself at the age of 50 to see the world in a growth mindset, force myself to see my hearing loss in terms of the positive new opportunities it's presenting, instead of the negative doors it keeps closing with each successive year. I force myself to practice sign language four hours a day, force myself to stay upbeat when I can still only recognize 1 word out of every 10 when someone signs. I force myself to be this way, because I think it's a healthier way to confront a world that is often shitty and unfair, instead of crawling back into my lair with my tail between my legs, admitting that this shitty unfair world of ours has beaten me for good.

Lord knows I'm a fuck-up in many other areas of my life — just take a glance at my credit score sometime if you doubt it, or note the unending trail of failed businesses and bitter ex-girlfriends that drag behind me like tornado damage. But as I was reminded this week by one of my online ASL practice partners, a perpetually sunny grade school teacher in Texas whose name is literally Joy, overcoming the depression and stagnancy that comes with the failing health of middle age is something that takes legitimate courage and legitimate work, and I'm glad that I've somehow been able to summon up that courage and discipline when it has eluded me in so many other areas of my life. So yes, I will keep throwing myself into Deaf community events, and yes, I will keep messing up royally at them, and yes, I will keep begging for forgiveness from those bemused, exasperated native signers who must deal with my fumbling, glacially slow, mistake-riddled attempts at communicating with them. Yes, I will keep doing all of that. Because life is still worth putting in that kind of effort, even a middle-aged life full of compromises and problems and a trailer park full of destroyed dreams, strewn about like so much garbage and just waiting for a FEMA clean-up crew. I hope you too will have a chance to remember all this, the next time you're forced to confront your mortality as well.

The Complete ASL Saga of Jason Pettus
4/14: Book review: Inside Deaf Culture, by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries
4/8: ASL adventures: The Chicago Inclusive Dance Festival, and my first “signing in the wild.”
4/4: Book review: The Mask of Benevolence, by Harlan Lane
4/4: Book review: Train Go Sorry, by Leah Hager Cohen
4/3: He speaks! He speaks! ...Er, he signs! He signs!
4/1: Book review: Seeing Voices, by Oliver Sacks
3/31: Book review: The Other Side of Silence, by Arden Neisser
3/28: Those sexy deaf teens sure are courageous!
3/27: Book review: Shouting Won't Help, by Katherine Bouton
3/25: Book review: Deaf in America: Voices From a Culture, by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries
3/22: Book review: A Deaf Adult Speaks Out, by Leo Jacobs
3/22: Book review: Don't Just Sign...Communicate!, by Michelle Jay