The personal journal of author and photographer Jason Pettus

ASL adventures: The Chicago Inclusive Dance Festival, and my first “signing in the wild.”

A field report from the annual Chicago conference on disabilities and the arts, plus a look at my first experience signing with strangers

#asl #signlanguage #chicago #deaf #community #fieldreport #inclusive #dance #festival #mayors #office #people #disabilities #kineticism #art #therapy #MOMENTA #AnitaFillmoreKenney #TheProblemWithNormal #ColumbiaCollege

Chicago Inclusive Dance Festival

[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 for those who don't know, in the last five or six years I've started attending more and more dance recitals here in Chicago, as my hearing continues to get worse and it becomes more and more difficult to attend my previous Saturday night events like movies, plays and rock shows. I'm not a dancer myself, and know almost nothing about the activity's history or theory; but I first became fascinated with the connection between movement and creativity in the 1990s while dating a woman who worked as a “kinetic art therapist,” i.e. someone who helps others work through psychological problems via movement and dance, and since then I've discovered a real joy in attending creative movement pieces here in the city. And better yet, much like the “storefront theatre” community for actors in Chicago, the city also has a network of indie spaces for startup dance companies and independent choreographers, meaning that it's entirely possible to go out every weekend and see an amazing dance recital for only $10 or 20, versus the often $100 tickets for downtown shows at the Joffrey Ballet and the Harris Theatre.

Anita Fillmore Kenney and Kris Lenzo

A few weeks ago I attended the spring recital of Oak Park's MOMENTA, which is basically a professional company that was established by the prestigious Academy of Movement and Music; the academy itself teaches students from grade school up to the age of eighteen, but MOMENTA is specifically a professional showcase for their older students and the academy's faculty, many of whom have longstanding ties with the Martha Graham Company, Julliard, the Kennedy Center, and nearly all of Chicago's local universities. The recital in general was great, but what really floored me were two pieces that night that were specifically written for people in wheelchairs, something I had never even thought about when it came to dance until witnessing it for myself. The dancers involved were adept movement artists, and in one case (with dance veteran Kris Lenzo) buff as hell too, using his athletics-optimized wheelchair as essentially an extension of his torso, able to twist and lean and spin and fall as easily as someone with physical legs.

The choreography for that particular piece was by retiring MOMENTA Associate Executive Director Anita Fillmore Kenney; so on a lark, I dropped her a random email the day after the recital, telling her how moved I was by seeing these dance numbers that had been specifically written for people in wheelchairs. And this emotional stirring is of course just a logical extension of what I'm going through this year in general, as I burn through a ton of books about the history of the Deaf community, and come to realize with some horror just how much discrimination and abuse deaf people have gone through in the last couple of centuries, and have frequently been moved to tears by the stories of resilience and progress you find within this community despite all this. It's been a really eye-opening experience this year, and is starting to profoundly and permanently change the entire way I even think about concepts like “disability” and “accessibility” in the first place. I'll explain...

Like most people, I've been raised to look at the US population as basically existing in two general groups: there are the “normal” people, who constitute the vast majority of our country, and then the “not normal” minority (currently known by the politically correct term “disabled”) who have something wrong with their bodies, whether it's that they can't see, that they can't hear, that they're missing arms or legs, etc. Looking at the world this way doesn't necessarily mean that you're thinking any less of the minority in the “not normal” group; but certainly it trains you to think that our goal as an enlightened society should be to provide special, attention-calling options for letting this “not normal” minority exist within the world of the “normals” in a better and more complete way.

What I'm coming to realize this year is that it's much more accurate to instead look at the world in this way — that there's a theoretical model of a “perfect” human being that exists on paper, but that not a single one of us actually lives up to that model of perfection, meaning that every single human being on Earth deals daily with some kind of imperfection to their system (and most of the time several). Some of these imperfections are very easy to see when you glance at a stranger — like people who can't hear, people who can't see, people who are missing arms or legs — but the vast majority of bodily imperfections are invisible to the naked eye, and most often incredibly easy to hide from strangers. Some of us have high blood pressure. Some have low blood sugar. Some are dyslexic. Some are autistic. Some of us have uncontrollable anger. Some of us have a predisposition towards addiction. Some have brittle bones. Some people have epilepsy. Some are color-blind. Some people have attention deficit disorder. Some have one leg that's shorter than the other. Some people are farsighted. Some are nearsighted. Some have acid reflux syndrome. And on and on and on and on and on.

So our goal as a society, then, shouldn't be to provide outlandish alternatives, handed on a silver platter like a benevolent gift from the “normals,” for “allowing” a small minority of people to be “like the rest of us;” the goal should be a constant series of small, manageable changes so that all of us imperfect humans can live in an environment that provides as equal an opportunity as possible for us as individuals to succeed or fail based on our own actions. Think, for example, of how in recent years, fast-food restaurants have started offering more and more “heart-healthy” choices for those who have imperfections with their hearts and blood. It didn't take a lot of effort for these places to offer these kinds of choices (it mainly just consisted of tweaking a few menu items so that they no longer contain salt, sugar and carbs); it didn't take a lot of effort to convince these places to do it in the first place (just a gentle but insistent demand from their customers); no one's forcing you to buy the heart-healthy versions if you don't want (by all means, libertarians, keep shoveling those Big Macs into your pre-diabetic system if that's what you choose to do); yet the addition of this option has meant a world of difference for those who do want to keep careful track of their salt, sugar and carbs, who before recent years simply couldn't eat at any fast-food places at all, making simple things like highway road trips or a day of tourist sightseeing an exercise in frustration.

This is what most people in the Deaf community want as well, I'm coming to realize this year — they don't want you to make a big deal out of their situation, they don't want to feel like you're doing them some big favor that they need to show subservient gratitude towards, they don't want you to somehow feel like you're being “forced” into some big obligation in order to accommodate them, but they do want some simple changes that better allow them to compensate for their own particular version of physical imperfection. I'm becoming convinced that our society will be a lot better if more and more of us can begin to adopt this mindset — that the goal isn't to create a world where “they” can become more like “us,” but to create a world where all of us have an equal chance to succeed or fail based on our own actions, no matter how close or far away we are from “perfect.”

In any case, Kenney nicely wrote back to me and let me know about an event coming up that she thought I'd find interesting — the 2nd annual Chicago Inclusive Dance Festival, sponsored by the Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities, and held down at that organization's headquarters on the Cook County Health campus (more familiarly known as “Cook County Hospital” and the buildings that surround it). And she was right — I did find it interesting! It wasn't really a “festival” per se, but more a series of workshops, film screenings, and panel discussions, devoted specifically to the challenge of incorporating disabilities into the field of dance, but more generally dedicated to the subject of disabilities within the arts overall.

Like I said, I'm not a dancer myself, so I skipped the movement workshops at the beginning and end of the day, and instead sat in on the films and discussions that took place between them. Some of it was a little too academic for my tastes; but there was certainly a lot of food for thought that was thrown out during the day, most intriguingly on the subject of “interaccessibility” in the arts, not just the challenge of providing access to the blind or deaf but of the intriguing possibilities of combining access to the blind and deaf. (As one example, a recent Steppenwolf production was highlighted during one talk, in which a French poet was first translated into English and then further translated into ASL, with all three performing on a stage at the same time, and with projections of each version showing on overhead screens behind them.)

As longtime readers know, I myself have been mostly involved with the literary community over the years, and all of this is starting to really make my gears turn as far as how I might be able to help provide more access for the Deaf at Chicago's various live literary and theatrical productions. After all, Chicago has one of the largest live literary-performance communities in the world, is the city that birthed Steppenwolf and a hundred other indie theatre companies, and is also the city where the poetry slam was invented; if there's one place that could benefit the most from incorporating ASL interpretation and live captioning into such events, that would be here, which has me thinking a lot these days about the subject and what I could possibly do about it.

And then of course there was one other big reason I wanted to attend the Inclusive Dance Festival, which is that this would be my first opportunity since starting ASL classes to be around a professional sign-language interpreter, as well as native Deaf people relying on this interpreter for their comprehension. Regular readers will remember me talking about this subject in my last blog entry, about how I've recently started the process of trying to throw myself into as many real-time opportunities as possible to witness and maybe participate in ASL conversations, now that I've been doing sign-language classes by myself at home for a month, and am just comfortable enough now with my skills to know that I can at least sign things like, “I'm a beginner,” “I understand very little,” “I'm here mostly to just watch,” “Oh Lord I'm so horrible at sign language” (not a joke, I actually know how to sign this), etc. I don't necessarily feel the obligation to be particularly good at signing to at least attempt to communicate with others, but certainly I feel the obligation to at least be able to express that I'm not particularly good at it, and to thank others for being patient with my slowness and rookie mistakes.

Watching a fluent ASL interpreter sign in real time was both an enlightening and frustrating thing; frustrating because, as you might expect, I couldn't follow the vast majority of what she was saying, but surprisingly enlightening because I could actually catch about one out of every ten words. I have to admit, that kind of amazed me, given that I've only been studying for a month now, and don't really have any experience yet at trying to follow a native speaker at full speed, and it gave me a lot of confidence in the idea that I'm actually starting to absorb some of this stuff. Then during a break, I decided to introduce myself to her, so that I could say that I had officially had my second-ever ASL conversation, after the one on Tuesday with my teacher at Columbia College.

“Excuse me,” I started to sign. “I wanted to say hello.”

“Hello!” she replied. “I saw you watching me earlier.”

“I'm learning sign right now...”

“Oh wow! That's great!”

”...But I'm just a beginner. I only understood a few words you said.”

She laughed. “Yeah, well,” she made clear through gestures instead of sign. “Where are you studying?”

“Um, three places,” I indicated through counting on my non-dominant hand, a new technique in ASL grammar I recently learned. “Two of them online. The third, a school in the city. C-O-L-U-M-B-I-A.”

“Oh!” She got excited. “That's where I go to school!”

“Oh! Is Deaf Studies your...major?” I signed with trepidation. (This is a sign I recently learned, but wasn't sure if “major” as in “not minor” also translated as “major” as in “main concentration in college.”)


“Are you hearing?” I asked, which I immediately realized was a stupid question, in that she had been interpreting the hearing speakers of the conference for the last two hours.

“Yes. You? Do you want to talk out loud?”

“Yes. I'm hard of hearing. I have a hearing aid.” (A sentence I'm already saying so often that it's starting to effortlessly roll off the fingers already.)

At this point we switched into pidgin-mode, signing and talking at the same time. “My dad's hard of hearing too,” she said. (This makes her what's known in the Deaf community as a “CODA,” or “child of a deaf adult,” a very common classification among hearing people who are good enough at ASL to become professional interpreters.)

“I don't know very much sign yet, but I'm trying to go to as many events like this as I can, and just throw myself into it.”

“Oh, you should come to our ASL club. It's run through Columbia. Just a bunch of us in the department who get together socially once every couple of weeks, to have fun and practice our signing. Here, I'll give you the contact information.”

Well, what do you know — officially one more step inwards towards my gentle introduction into Chicago's Deaf community! This is exactly the kind of group I'm hoping to get involved with right now, one that's made up of ASL teachers and students who will be tolerant of a slow, mistake-riddled beginner like me. Eventually my goal is to more and more immersed in just the general community of Deaf people in Chicago, but as I mentioned last time, I'm wary of doing this too soon — just like anybody who's a native speaker of a language, I don't want to be a pest to such people while I remain a beginner who can barely speak it, and I also don't want to come across as the “rude hearie tourist” who's trying to barge his way in and stomp around within a community that by necessity over the years has been quite insular and protective of its own. With any luck, the next blog entry I'll have for you will be a report from the club, and at the very least I'll get an update posted in a few weeks about how my evening workshops are going. Talk with you again then!

The Complete ASL Saga of Jason Pettus
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