Change. Progress. Understanding. The biggest word that gets in the way of the first two and undermines the latter, is ignorance. Ignorance. It’s a loaded word, and certainly one that the Deaf and hard of hearing community is working hard to eradicate. Plato’s mentor, Socrates (d. 399 BC), and Plato’s student Aristotle (d. 322 BC), both shared Aristotle’s belief that:
“Men who are born deaf, in all cases remain speechless. They thus become senseless and incapable of reason.”
From the moment Aristotle claimed that the deaf were incapable of speech, learning, or being educated down to the 21st century opinions and inaccuracies of Alexander Graham Bell’s that still plagues the Deaf community; the deaf minority has encountered ignorance and discrimination for more than a few centuries.
While in the 21st century there has been recent celebrities helping to pave the way to an understanding of what it means to be deaf or hard of hearing, there is still much that can be done. Children’s literature has made some great strides in helping the hearing community to understand, in rare small doses, what deaf culture is, and what our challenges and triumphs are.
Growing up, I didn’t have EL DEAFO; there was a scarcity of children’s literature that encompassed that world. In fact, there was even less that explained my hard of hearing world to me. I would have loved to relate to a character like myself, especially because I was the only hard of hearing/deaf person in my family, which is the case with most deaf children. More than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents and only 2% have access to Sign Language. As a statistic, I had no one in my immediate circle that identified with my deafness. I didn’t know right away that I was an heir to this rich, amazing, animated language and culture. That realization came through children’s literature that my parents introduced me to. At least, what little they could find.
The first book I read, now out of print, was I HAVE A SISTER AND MY SISTER IS DEAF. It was introduced to me through the popular television show, Reading Rainbow. While the main character is not deaf, the story revolves around the experience of having a deaf sibling. It was refreshing to have that perspective, especially since I was the only deaf sibling in my family.
Really though, when it comes to picture books there have been roughly 1-2 books published every year or every other year between the years of 1976 and 1999. Titles like JAMIE’S TIGER (1978), I’M DEAF AND IT’S OKAY (1986), ROSA’S PARROT (1999), and SILENT OVSERVER (1993), to name just a few touching on the concept of what it is to be deaf.
From 2000 onward there seemed to be a slight jump in books published with characters that have a complexity and depth beyond their deafness, both in picture books, MG and YA. DAD AND ME IN THE MORNING (2014) is a tranquil recounting of waking early to catch the sunrise, and the wonder that the natural world enchants us with—all through the eyes of a hard of hearing child who uses ASL, voice, and lip reading to communicate. SECRET SIGNS: AN ESCAPE THROUGH THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (2003) tells the story of a deaf child who uses sign language to help guide and keep slaves safe on the Underground Railroad. GOODBYE TCHAIKOVSKY (2012) explores the life of an eleven year old master violinist who goes deaf at age twelve. READ MY LIPS, a YA novel, delves into the complex and sometimes interesting fortune of lip reading.
In all the books I have come across it was difficult to find characters who happen to be deaf, in a story which does not revolve around deafness or the concept of it. The closest I came to fitting that need was Brian Selznick’s WONDERSTRUCK (2015). It is a book like Selznick’s—with a plot that isn’t strictly focused on what it is to be deaf—that captures my mind and enchants me. Among the many deaf and hard of hearing I’ve asked, including myself, most of us want two things: deaf characters across the spectrum in mainstream books, and plots that do not revolve around the concept of deafness as a disability. There is an attitude among the Deaf/deaf community, “Deaf can!” We are proud, successful, and capable, and we’d like that to reflect in literature.
Angela Dahle is hard-of-hearing, and proud to be. Her articles are published in The Friend. She also writes picture books, MG novels, and is learning American Sign Language.