Ideal communication vs possible communication

Martelle interprets during story time by signing hand under hand with Oona. Martelle is seated on the left. He is a muscular dark skinned man with short hair, wearing a black shirt and jeans. One of his arms is raised in the sign for tree and the other hand is across his body touching the tree. Oona is wearing a yellow dress and white sweater. She is sitting across from Martelle with one hand feeling the tree sign and the other hand tracking his arm that is indicating towards the tree. This is a blurry still from a phone video.
Martelle interprets during story time by signing hand under hand with Oona. Sorry for the blurry quality – it’s a still taken from a phone video.

I want to start this post with a caveat that I’m not a linguist, I’m not Deaf or DeafBlind myself, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the incredible array of vlogs, blogs, and social media where Deaf and DeafBlind advocates share their knowledge. This is to say: I want to pay homage to others who have undoubtedly written on this topic from a far more authoritative personal and/or academic perspective. I hope to discover and learn from your work. My small contribution here derives from my observation of my child, and perhaps my motivation to explain things to other hearing people given how recently I came to understand so much of this myself. I hope that sharing my thoughts on this topic is helpful to other hearing caregivers of Deaf and DeafBlind children.

So, “ideal communication” and “possible communication” are not textbook terms. They are just two terms that I made up, although other people likely use them in different communication-related contexts or perhaps even the same sign language context that I’m going to apply them to. Here are my definitions: “possible communication” takes place when either the language itself or a given modality (visual, auditory, tactile) CAN be understood and managed by a given person in a given space, but it presents various limitations for them. “Ideal communication” happens when the language and/or its modality is enabling someone to access maximum information and human connection in a given space.

That sounds really wordy. I will give examples.

So the classic example for deaf and hard of hearing friends would be lip reading and talking. Many deaf people learn how to get by in hearing spaces, often because they were forcibly mainstreamed during their schooling (and completely denied access to American Sign Language), but sometimes because they chose to develop bilingualism in spoken English. Think of a student in a Deaf school who is fluent in ASL and decides to dedicate their elective or extracurricular time to pursuing speech therapy. (Of course, this “choice” is always within the larger context of society’s hearing hegemony.)

However, just because a deaf friend can get by – or even presents as fairly comfortable and high-functioning in hearing spaces – does not mean the situation is ideal for them. That’s why many deaf adults who never learned sign language as children find themselves gravitating towards ASL later in life. Despite the challenges of learning a new language, its visual modality is so much more accessible that they quickly reap the benefits in both social and professional contexts.

The same logic applies to DeafBlind people. This is why Pro-Tactile ASL is so exciting. For deaf people who identify as blind (this term encompasses a low vision, close vision, and other types of vision loss ranging all the way to profound blindness), using their residual vision to track visual ASL is kinda like a deaf person having to make extra effort to use their residual hearing or lip-reading skills to follow spoken language. The same goes for a profoundly blind deaf person who tracks visual ASL manually by putting their hands over the hands of the person signing. They get by, information is transmitted, but this visual language was not designed to be accessible to touch: all the grammar (example: raising eyebrows to indicate a question) and qualifiers (example: cheek size indicating big, small) conveyed through facial expressions will be inaccessible to the blind conversation partner. That person might find themselves constantly asking clarifying questions or straining to fill in the gaps (so similar to how deaf-sighted friends describe the difficulties of lipreading).

This is exactly why the DeafBlind community came together to develop their own tactile dialect of American Sign Language… which later became recognized as its own distinct language called Pro-Tactile ASL. In fact, many DeafBlind community members were not even able to get by in visual ASL spaces. They were profoundly alienated because they had to constantly use tactile interpreters instead of directly communicating with other Deaf and DeafBlind friends. (Before ProTactile, tactile interpreters were trained to use a kind of supplemented visual ASL with extra descriptions and/or touch cues added.) Since DeafBlind advocates developed the language and philosophy of Pro-Tactile ASL, the community has grown quickly as more and more Deaf people with a range of vision loss discover how affirmative and accessible the language is to them. Many DeafBlind people who did not previously identify as such were empowered to accept themselves and seek higher standards of communication and social connection.

In other words, many Deaf adults – both sighted and blind – are newly partaking in ideal communication possibilities that they were previously denied. Deaf-sighted people who were mainstreamed and became oral are discovering visual sign language as adults, while DeafBlind people who made do for so many years in visual ASL environments are discovering the exciting world of Pro-Tactile sign language.

However, why should people wait until adulthood in order to identify and pursue their ideal communication? Clearly these options should be presented from the youngest age of language acquisition. Both Deaf and DeafBlind children should be immersed in sign language of the modality most accessible to them. The Deaf community has long advocated for all deaf & hard of hearing children to be immersed in visual ASL from birth as their natural language right; the same logic applies to DeafBlind children and Pro-Tactile ASL. Obviously this would improve their understanding of lessons and directions in the classroom. But it’s about much more than that. We are talking about the fundamental sociopsychological right of Deaf and DeafBlind children to experience and develop ideal communication, as part of their larger developmental journey to know and love themselves.

Ultimately I think that differentiating between “possible” and “ideal” communication sheds light on all big questions I have about what “accessibility” means. The word “accessibility” seems to imply that there is this pre-existing world and disabled people just need some extra accommodations to join that world. It assumes that they want to join that world, that they need to join that world… that there is nothing else desirable for them outside of that mainstream world, and that we (able-bodied / hearing / etc) people do them a favor by including them. This is basically the philosophy between mainstreaming deaf kids: hearing administrators think they are helping by forcing them to learn how to function in hearing spaces, because of all the “opportunities” oralism will open up to them.

There is nothing wrong with Deaf friends who enjoy spending time in hearing spaces, or DeafBlind friends who spend much of their waking hours getting by in visual ASL. Of course they should have the choice to access any spaces they want. But don’t they also have a right to a world that they created for themselves, to spaces that unequivocally validate them and their way of being? The conventional frameworks of “accessibility” and “inclusion” seem to fall short in this respect. People should not have to simply default to accessing possible communication because they have never known anything else.

Perhaps, in this respect, the concept of ideal communication is transferrable to other anti-oppression contexts. It could refer to various communities’ right to express themselves in their chosen dialect, accent, or language, in a manner consistent with their social norms. And to have teachers who create that space and reflect their world back to them, even as they may simultaneously prepare kids to move through other spaces.

I want to end with a plug for our intuitive capacity to understand the basis of Deaf language rights. Ideal communication emerges from empathy, from mindful observation. It’s that moment when the parent starts to learn sign language. It’s that moment when any of us realize that we have to meet people we love in the world where they exist most vibrantly, instead of always forcing them to come to us in spaces not built for them. It’s the moment I realized that I myself inherently interrupt Deaf and DeafBlind spaces as a hearing-sighted person, and that – even as a parent of a DeafBlind child – there are times when I need to compassionately fall back.

I hope to further develop these closing thoughts on power, space, oppression and intimacy in another post. I also hope to write a future post on the application of ideal communication to the education of DeafBlind kids in Deaf classrooms. Thank you for reading.

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