This is the third in a series of reflections on essays from the book Deaf World, edited by Lois Bragg. All essays in this text are by d/Deaf authors, meaning it is both a primary resource, and thanks to the scope of essays, a historical reader.
“This Child of Mine,” by Barbara J. White, was published in 1999. White’s essay summarizes her dissertation on the effects of Deaf parents adopting Deaf children. She examines ten features of adoption, including communication, spirituality, and attachment. Throughout the essay White includes quotes from the fifty-five participating families she studied for her academic work. Prior to reading, I hadn’t realized Deaf families and Deaf adopted children both feel a sense of entitlement immediately. They believe they belong together, and the parents do not feel regret, as if they are “stealing” a child from his/her biological parents. I also had not considered the importance of them identifying with each other, as in both child and parent are Deaf. Considering the subject more, I realized I was naturally taught a sense of tribalism in my family, led by my paternal grandfather, but I never stopped to think about needing to identify with my family and pondering ways we are the same.
There is a lot of conversation around how Deaf children learn English. White contends, “Most professions still believe that Deaf children should be exposed to spoken language in the family setting at all costs” (69). I still don’t understand how hearing people arrive at this decision. What do they mean “exposed to” when the child, unless they have residual hearing, literally cannot be exposed to sound? The families White interviewed taught me that a lot of work is done at home in a creative fashion to teach ASL and English simultaneously. Deaf children are exposed to—literally—both signs and cards with English printed on them. Even if a child has residual hearing, Deaf parents were not concerned with speaking. As a result, the child is raised in a bilingual environment that can be supported at school.
In addition, I wasn’t aware of how much work Deaf parents who adopt Deaf children put in to expand the child’s education outside of school. Due to language deprivation, a Deaf child will be behind until he/she gains language and then explores concepts. I know a special education teacher who was under the assumption that d/Deaf children have cognitive issues, assumed to be the same as children with Down’s Syndrome, because they score poorly in literacy. I explained that language deprivation means that almost no learning can happen.
However, my opinion changed later when I read A Man Without Words by Susan Schaller. Although she basically fell into interpreting, Schaller ended up making a connection with a man who was almost thirty and had no language. His family, immigrants from Mexico, used some home signs and spoke only Spanish, and the man also developed some home signs with a few deaf people who also lacked formal language. The man had not learned nothing, but he was limited by his ability to express himself. Once he realized that ASL and written English were symbols connected to meaning, he started telling stories about not having a green card and dealing with ICE. His ability to recontextualize his past life with language is the same experience the children adopted in White’s essay had. Through language, they share history, trauma, memories, and can ask questions.
White’s study made me reconsider how I think about Deaf people navigating hearing society. That seems to be the primary concern of hearing parents with Deaf children. I know the importance of introducing Deaf children to successful Deaf adults, but I am embarrassed to admit I hadn’t considered the ways Deaf adults can teach Deaf children to navigate hearing society. Of course, they can; they do it every day. As my former interpreting professor used to say, stop trying to help Deaf people. They do [whatever task, like ordering at a restaurant] all the time without you. Honestly, it’s not that I believe Deaf people can’t interact in hearing society; my reaction derives from classroom discussions about oppression and exclusion and thinking of ways to not be part of the problem, so my internal response needs to be reconfigured by considering ability vs. access.
The last aspect of White’s essay that was new to me was the “incidental learning” (78) a Deaf child experiences when they live in a Deaf family. In my Interpreting Ethics class last fall, we discussed just how much incidental information hearing people get, not only from the ubiquitous TVs and radios in stores, but from overhearing conversations. Consider what a Deaf person may miss sitting in the waiting room of a hospital compared to a hearing person eavesdropping on staff and clients. And yet, once a deaf child has been adopted and interacts in the Deaf community, any signing he/she can see is information to be obtained and learned from.
White’s essay allowed me to create multiple connections to my Deaf culture studies. For instance, when she showed the video of the Deaf family signing at the dinner table, the hearing audience didn’t appreciate what they saw the way she did, because they could not relate. I was reminded of Susan Dupor’s painting Family Dog. Instead of being part of the family, the deaf child is well kept and yet excluded—because no one worries if the dog is included, but they do feed, water, and clean up after it.
Because I know many adopted people, I read Finding Zoe by Brandi Rarus, in which a Deaf couple with three hearing boys decide to adopt a Deaf daughter. The journey is long, and the social worker first places the deaf baby with a hearing family that quickly realizes they aren’t equipped to meet the baby’s needs. Throughout the memoir, Rarus explains that she felt the timing of everything was perfect, the stars aligned, that God brought the deaf girl to Rarus’s family. As Barbara White explains, Deaf parents are more likely to feel a spiritual connection in their adoption process, and not simply that they “got” a baby.