More than hands moving in the air
We see people moving their hands in the air, conversing without using a voice, and we think ‘deaf’. Most Caribbean people see a deaf person and think ‘dummy’. Political correctness says ‘hearing-impaired’. There are varying responses to the term hearing-impaired among Deaf Caribbean communities. Some forgive it as an example of hearing people’s ignorance. Others are irritated but overlook it. Jamaican Deaf, in particular, find ‘hearing-impaired’ quite offensive for they see no impairment in themselves.
The two main labels used by members of the Deaf community are deaf and Deaf. The term deaf refers to persons who have some form of hearing loss, ranging from mild to profound. Deaf refers to people who belong to a social group which has its own cultural norms and values and communicate primarily using a sign language. Both deaf and hearing persons can be Deaf.
When we get to the bottom line, the difference between the Deaf and the hearing is a communication barrier. The Deaf use a different language and in the Caribbean, we are generally not keen on multilingualism unless it means being fluent in more than one European language. The idea of hearing citizens being fluent in both a spoken language and a sign language is romanticised rather than practised. Most hearing persons are exposed to sign languages through school clubs and church groups.
The majority of these groups are guided by books teaching Signed English, an artificial sign language, and dance choreography. Natural sign languages are valid languages produced using systematic, rule-governed gestures and perceived via sight. As spoken languages do, sign languages have a full grammar and are able to express complex, abstract concepts. Sign languages represent and express the culture of a community. It comes as no surprise to the Deaf that these group members are often lost and baffled when in a conversation with a real Deaf person using a real, natural sign language.
In the field of Deaf Studies, there are two major approaches to Deafness – the Medical/Pathological approach and the Cultural/Anthropological approach. Caribbean societies tend to adopt the medical/pathological approach. They view deafness as being a medical problem with the ear that needs to be fixed so that the Deaf person can assimilate easily into a hearing society. The desirable outcome for such a child is intervention that results in hearing within the normal to mild hearing loss range and clear speech. Few healthcare workers are aware of the Cultural/Anthropological perspective and so the hearing parents of Deaf are rarely exposed to it.
In this approach, the Deaf person is seen as a normal human being who happens to have a communication barrier but is quite capable of leading a normal life. This person belongs to a cultural group with its own norms and values shaped by their primary means of communication, which is visual-gestural in nature, otherwise known as a sign language.
Stages of development
The Deaf communities in the Caribbean are in varying stages of development as sociocultural groups. The Jamaican Deaf community has spent the past two decades with a focus to improve deaf education and engender Deaf empowerment. Reforms have led to Deaf children at the primary level meeting and exceeding the national GSAT average.
The advent of PEP brought some retooling of the teachers to ensure continued satisfactory academic performance of the children. Esteem-building programmes that encouraged teenagers to aspire beyond the expectations of the hearing were designed and implemented with success. The Deaf have been taking their future into their own hands and identifying ways of ensuring that their presence is acknowledged and their contributions to societal development is tangible.
Despite the arduous work of the Deaf community, they still face the daily fight of lack of access to information. Many of us take information accessibility for granted. For 9 in every 10 deaf children, this deprivation starts at birth. Their parents are usually hearing and do not know a sign language.
No caregiver is signing to the deaf infant and providing language stimulation. Many caregivers do not attempt to learn to sign. The child’s linguistic and cognitive milestones are delayed. If the child is sent to a school for the deaf and begins to sign, the teachers have the challenge of not just teaching the syllabus but teaching language, which should have been acquired at home. Imagine a life in which you only used language at school …
The Faculty of Humanities and Education is bringing awareness to these issues through its Deaf Culture course which includes a community outreach component. Students who take the course are usually enlightened by the effects of members of the same macro culture being unable to communicate using the same language.
They are simultaneously intrigued by the rich culture and resilience of the Deaf community. Another course offers a module in legal terminology in sign language. This module is a response to the disenfranchisement of deaf persons in the judicial systems within the Caribbean. No one can dispute that effective communication is essential to healthcare, yet minority language users often suffer the consequences of healthcare workers who are solely majority language users.
The poor treatment outcomes include misinformation in history-taking leading to inadequate treatment planning and deaf patients being ill-informed of their treatment plans as per ethical standards. The faculty is also opening the eyes of students while creating information accessibility through the interdisciplinary field of Medical Humanities. At UWI, students in the Faculty of Medical Sciences can choose a beginner’s course in a Caribbean sign language as a foundation course. Intermediate and advanced courses for students in various healthcare programmes, such as nursing and physiotherapy, provide opportunities for students to learn to sign then treat deaf patients. The UWI Mona Dental Polyclinic runs a Deaf Clinic as a component of its mandatory sign language competence for the dentistry programme.
The Faculty of Humanities and Education has been a silent but committed partner in creating information access so that all, those with moving hands included, can contribute to society.
- Dr. Keren Cumberbatch is a lecturer in the Language, Linguistics and Philosophy Department, The Faculty of Humanities and Education, UWI, Mona. She also coordinates special needs patient care at the UWI Mona Dental Polyclinic. This article is one in a series that seeks to promote and highlight the impact of the Arts and Humanities on the individual’s personal development and career path. Please send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.