Mainstreaming Deaf Culture
By Mark Palacio
ALTHOUGH STUDENTS WHO ARE DEAF benefit from interpreters in the school setting, what can become lost in the process of mainstreaming is Deaf culture, according to Sabrina Louise Dennison, an ASL instructor and Deaf advocate at Portsmouth High School, in Portsmouth, NH.
Dennison, who is deaf, teaches ASL and Deaf culture to students who are deaf and their hearing peers in grades 10-12. The school has a dozen students who are deaf.
“Our program is lucky to have about 12 deaf students,” she said via an interpreter in a telephone interview with ADVANCE. “In most mainstream settings there are only one or two.”
When talking about Deaf culture, she said, the first rule is that the term “hearing impaired” is not in the deaf vocabulary. “Deaf” or “hard of hearing” are the preferred appellations.
“Deaf people value their hands,” said Dennison. “Without them I have no means of communication. If I were deaf and blind, it wouldn’t be the end of the world; it would just be more challenging.”
She teaches the values of Deaf culture. Chief among these is accessibility, through such means as public TTYs, deaf-sensitive lighting systems, and the availability of interpreters.
“Getting together is also something we value,” Dennison said. “It’s such a small world for us.”
Public misconceptions of people who are deaf need to change, she observed. “Many people still think that deaf people can’t drive.”
It is important to introduce Deaf culture in the mainstream school setting because it serves to uniquely define people who are deaf, she said. For example, hearing people might think it is impolite when individuals who are deaf bang on a table to get someone’s attention, but that is an accepted cultural signal.
“Statistics show that most deaf people truly believe in ASL,” Dennison reported. “Most prefer to use their hands and sign rather than use their voice.”
Everyone has an individual value and belief system, she said. Providing individuals who are deaf with a common cultural background helps them to make more informed choices because they have a history and role models who communicate in either form.
Through her role as ASL instructor and Deaf advocate at Portsmouth High School, Dennison provides services and opportunities to students that were not available when she was growing up.
“It’s so different now,” she said. “I had no services, no exposure and no awareness of who I was as a deaf person. I was really clueless.”
Her experience was typical of other children who were deaf.
“At the time many deaf children thought that they would grow up and become hearing adults or die,” she recalled. “We figured that was what happened because we didn’t know any deaf adults.”
Deaf culture still doesn’t have enough exposure in society, she said. There continues to be a need for more closed captioning in movie theaters and for qualified interpreters.
Dennison teaches ASL to all students, both deaf and hearing, at Portsmouth High School.
These classes help integrate the Deaf culture into the hearing community.
For example, to help hearing students understand the deaf experience, she recently showed the video Dr. Doolittle, with Eddie Murphy, during class. She turned the volume off and asked the students if they knew what was going on or what was being said.
After 50 minutes she activated the closed captioning.
“The students didn’t realize what was going on in the background because they usually focus on the sounds to catch the information about the plot,” she said. “They didn’t realize that deaf people focus usually to catch the plot.”
She interjects her personal experiences into her discussions about Deaf history, signing her lessons to students who are deaf “to keep them advancing.” She also moderates an ASL Club twice a week during lunch to help students improve their signing skills.
Overall, she is pleased with how aware of Deaf culture the students have become.
When education about Deaf culture and ASL is provided in the mainstream school environment, it is important that a qualified deaf person head up the effort, according to Dennison.
If a school is unable to operate an extensive program on Deaf culture, some elements still could be included, such as offering a sign language class.
For more information, contact Sabrina Dennison at Little Harbour School, 50 Clough Dr., Portsmouth, NH 03801; (603) 436-1708.
Mark Palacio is an editorial assistant at ADVANCE