There’s a legendary world in Deaf culture lore. It’s like Earth but it’s for people of the eye, so they call it Eyeth. (get it? EARth, EYEth) In this world, people listen with their eyes with the comfort of being normal, typical, just the way life is, unlike the heavily mediated existence of a Deaf person on Earth. Mediated through hearing devices, pads of paper, interpreters, lip reading, gestures.
I got a small peek into what Eyeth might look like last weekend. I jetted down to Louisville, KY at an unearthly hour in the morning on Saturday. When I got there, the biennial meeting of the National Association of the Deaf was wrapping its week-long meeting and they were launching DeaFestival, a day of arts and fun. My goal was to catch as much music and time with musicians as possible, especially with the Deaf rock band Beethoven’s Nightmare.
When I stepped across the crosswalk of the streets bordering the convention center, I crossed the threshold into a Deaf world. Everyone around me was signing. Every restaurant in the vicinity had a pad of paper on its counter, a few brave servers had learned some signs. I have been in Deaf environments before, like at the Deaf school. But this was different, like a small town, adults conducting business in ASL. There were interpreters and CART at all the events, but it was very much a Deaf majority.
At first I was a little worried. I have a hard time meeting new Deaf adults. As everyone has their own voice, everyone has a unique way they sign, and my receptive skills take a little while to adapt to a new person. Once I got into the groove, though, I found myself able to understand more and more, many different people and many different signing. And my job for the day was listening (LISTEN-EYES in ASL).
A break in the afternoon allowed me to approach the drummer of the band, “let’s talk.” He says “Ok.” And I’m whisked into a conversation about music with total strangers. He pauses in the middle “Are you getting this?” Just barely. A woman about my age said she’s never liked music, she never understood it, and it wasn’t fun to try to lip-read bands. Her friend said, “oh, you need to learn how to feel it. I love music! It’s like a drug!” She’s open to being convinced.
All afternoon I’m whisked around the vendor booths of the NAD meeting, following drummer guy who often introduces me to random Deaf people whom he may or may not know. Another woman was “forced” to take music classes in her mainstream education. (A mainstream education is something to be pitied in Deaf culture.) Many Deaf people haven’t had opportunities to experience music so it is nothing; others love it and over and over again I heard “Once you connect what you’re feeling with what’s going on on-stage, it’s amazing!” After a few hours I was exhausted, had an unanswered list of questions, but had met more Deaf adults than I ever had in one place and learned more about drummer guy (including the fact that he does not ever stop).
So I turned to the bass player, “let’s talk.” We sit down. It was 104 degrees under the tent. He tells me again how much they want to reach out to their Deaf culture with music. He said that things have changed more recently for Deaf culture. I assumed he meant post-Gallaudet protest of 1988. But he said, “No, since Obama.” This surprised me. I asked him if it was the captioning law Obama had passed, and he said, no, that now there is a greater sense of acceptance for Deaf people since Obama. I found it interesting how strongly he felt about Obama that he would put so much strength in this tide of change. Bass player also teaches in a Deaf school. He has middle and high school students and is experimenting with teaching them how to feel different sounds. Like “ear training” for the hands.
There are many more stories, but you’ll have to wait for the article. Much more to process.