TEDxPSU - Dr. Joseph Valente - Hearing the Unheard

Uploaded by TEDxTalks on 05.12.2011

I’m absolutely thrilled to be here. Thank you everyone here at TEDxPSU for pulling this wonderful event together.
I want to start off by telling you two very personal things about me.
For starters, I’m a superhero. No. No. No. Not the kind of superhero that you all know and love—
—not Batman, not Superman, or my absolute favorite superhero, Spiderman. I don’t have some sooped-up Batmobile parked outside; or some bright red cape; or Spidey’s sixth sense.
I’m not the flashy superhero-type like them. But I have superpowers. We’ll get to that soon enough.
The other really personal thing I want to tell you about me is that I’m Deaf.
And as the family legend goes, when I was six weeks old, I had double pneumonia and a deadly high fever.
It’s because of this high fever that I became deaf.
Well...how deaf am I? I’m very deaf.
In clinical terms, I have what's called sensorineural hearing loss. That high fever ravaged my inner ears—it burned away the hair cells in my cochlea.
In my right ear, I’m 100 percent deaf. In my left ear, I’m severely hard of hearing.
In the hearing world, I use lip reading and a slew of tricks to try to understand folks. When all else fails, I usually pretend to hear.
I’m really good at pretending. I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid.
I have two aims for this talk. I want to tell you two stories.
The first story is about the day I discovered I was a superhero.
The second story is about deaf people.
I want to use this story about deaf people to show you how we can change what we think about deaf people.
We'll get back to that soon enough.
When I was a kid...this is me...when I was a kid, I wished so, so, so badly that I could be a superhero.
I loved superheroes—on TV, in the comics, and playing superhero in the woods. Being a superhero was my dream.
Well...on my eighth birthday, my dream sort of came true. I figured out how I could become a superhero.
It was a Saturday and I was trespassing with some older kids at the aerodrome.
It’s called the Bayport Aerodrome. It’s right across the street from my house on Bayport Avenue.
So anyway I'm running because the guards who are chasing us
—this is how we used to get our thrills—
the guards are chasing us in their pickup truck—and they shoot—
they are shooting at us with salt shotguns because we won't stop trespassing at the aerodrome.
So anyway, I'm running and the guards are shooting at me (makes shotgun sound)...(makes shotgun sound).
And I start to freak out because I realize I'm the only one not yet over the fence.
Everyone else is along the fence.
And I can see them—all the kids screaming:
Deaf kid go! Deaf kid go!
So as I'm running, I take off my cape and throw it up onto the barb-wired fence.
And I vault over.
And I turn my back around.
And I see the guards in their pickup truck.
They're coming to screeching halt (tire screeching sound).
Right in front of the fence.
They get out of the pick-up truck. They look at me they're all pissed because they can't catch me.
So anyway there's this kid everybody calls Commander.
And he busts his way through the crowd of kids that are surrounded around me.
And he gets in front of my face and he pokes me in the chest.
He says, Why yu here?
Dunno, I say.
And Commander mimics me to the whole crowd.
He says:
Duh-nnah-nowwa. Duh-nnah-nowwa. Duh-nnah-nowwa.
He gets up in my face and he says:
I wanna punch yu!
So all the kids that are in the circle around us, they back up a few steps.
And I stand there. I put up my fists to fight.
I pee my pants.
And I get ready to get hit.
And before Commander can hit me.
Someone distracts him.
He peed his pants! Deaf kid peed his pants!
And Commander doubles over in laughter (mimics laughter).
I see this as my chance to take off and run.
So I run for home.
When I up to my house, my mom—I see when I get through the door that she's on the telephone talking somebody.
So I tip-toe in real quiet without being noticed.
And when I get inside the bathroom, I take some warm soapy water and I wash away the urine.
And I change my clothes.
And a short time later, my mom rounds up my older brother, John—my little sister, Jill and me.
And she takes us to us to 5 o'clock Mass at Our Lady of the Snow.
When we get home from church, mom says to us:
Go play until we open up my presents and have my birthday cake.
So I do like I usually do—which is go into my bedroom closet and read.
So there I am in my closet. I got this blue blanket.
I pull it over my head. And I got this flashlight and I shine it down at the reading material at my feet.
I've got this Bible I stole from church a couple weeks ago.
And some comics.
And so I think, ya know, I get curious and open up the Bible at random.
So I open it up.
And I see...I see the name Moses.
And I think: I remember learning something about Moses in Mrs. Murphy's religion class—
—and seeing something on t.v.—
So this makes me even more curious.
So then I start to scan the page and I read these words:
And Moses said unto the Lord, Oh my Lord, I am not eloquent...but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.
And then it hits me.
Is Moses deaf like me?
Like Moses, like Spiderman, like Superman, I too have a destiny.
I will be a saver.
Father Michael always talked about the saver in church.
I will be a saver like him.
Moses saves the Jews; Spiderman saves Mary Jane; Superman saves Lois Lane.
I will be a saver like them!
I will be a saver like them!
This is my destiny!
I want to be a superhero—
I think it's really pathetic that Moses was the first deaf person I ever met.
Because I was mainstreamed, I never got to meet another deaf person.
Before I met Moses, I thought I was alone in this universe.
Now obviously there were deaf people around me.
There probably were deaf people in the grocery stores. Deaf people in the restaurants.
I probably saw deaf people everywhere I went but I never actually got to meet a deaf person.
Moses was my first.
In my world view, as a child, Moses was a superhero.
There was no difference between Moses and Spiderman.
Both had superpowers. Both did good deeds.
Peter Parker's Uncle Ben; Spiderman's Uncle Ben always says:
With great power, comes great responsibility.
When I was a little kid, I discovered one of my superpowers was the ability to tell good stories.
I learned the art of entertaining and informing people by using my stories.
Much later, when I was working as a preschool teacher—
—I discovered another of my superpowers to be the ability to understand the non-spoken communication of young children.
Because my first language was not English; my first language was faces.
Before I learned to read lips, I learned how to read people's faces and their emotions.
So who's story gets heard?
There are so many stories that are pushed aside as not important enough to hear.
For the deaf with their communicative differences, many of their stories are not being told to the larger world.
More hearing people write and tell about deaf people than deaf people themselves do.
So much of what we know about deaf people is largely wrong.
So I want to start off with a superpowerful message.
So I want to start off with a superpowerful message.
One that I want you all to hear.
It's this:
Deaf people are not disabled.
Go ahead repeat this out loud three times.
Deaf people are not disabled.
Deaf people are not disabled.
Deaf people are not disabled.
I want to take this idea that 'deaf people are not disabled'...
...and I want to use this idea to show you how our schools are disabling our deaf students.
If I could be so bold, I'd even say our schools are dumbing down our deaf students.
I'm going to tell you about the downright criminal graduation, literacy and employment rates of deaf folks.
At the end of this talk, I'm going to tell you exactly what you can do to help us deaf folks right now—today.
For many of you, it may be a surprise to learn that 90 percent or more of deaf children are born to hearing parents.
Many of these hearing parents have little or no understanding of sign language or Deaf culture.
For many hearing parents their deaf child is the first deaf person they ever met.
So say if you're Hispanic and you live in the United States and your home language is Spanish—
—and your school language is English. If you're lucky you're in a bilingual environment.
But for deaf children, they don't share the same language as their parents.
Spoken language is not a deaf child's natural language.
Deaf children are part of what my good friend and colleague, Ben Bahan, calls—
—the visual variety of the human race.
Study after study has shown that deaf children's first language is the visual world around them.
But because our larger hearing society can't accept the deaf for their communicative differences—
—we have these results
25 to 30 percent of deaf students will graduate from college.
4th grade is the average level of reading ability that a deaf student has at graduation from high school.
60 percent of deaf adults are unemployed.
Being deaf in today's hearing world is tough.
The odds are stacked against you.
The larger hearing world would have you think the reason being deaf is so hard is because we have a deficit—
—broken ears.
But what the larger world keeps missing is how it makes being deaf so hard.
Because it doesn't see us as a language minority.
It doesn't see us as 'people of the eye'—
—if you were to value diversity for the ways in which it enriches our world, if—I'm almost certain—
—that the lifeworlds of deaf children and adults wouldn't reflect these horrendous statistics.
7000 years ago, there is evidence sign language communities first came together.
200 sign languages—we have right now 200 sign languages around the world.
In a famous case in Nicaragua—
—in the 1970s linguists discovered that Nicaraguan Sign Language developed out of the blue—
—when deaf children who had previously been isolated came together at a school for the deaf.
This is why schools for the deaf are so important.
Because schools for the deaf serve as sites of socialization into deaf children's home culture and local Deaf culture—
—as well as their home spoken language and their local sign language.
We need to stop thinking of the deaf as disabled and start thinking of them as bilingual.
We need to stop putting the deaf in special education. We need to put them in bilingual education.
So the majority of deaf children today are mainstreamed. But this is not the way things used to be.
Deaf folks used to have a thriving middle class with jobs and money—
—not every deaf person had this experience—
—but those who were fortunate enough to be around other deaf people had opportunities deaf children don't have today.
Currently—I mean in 1850 about 50 percent of teachers in schools for the deaf were deaf themselves.
Today only 12 to 15 percent of teachers in schools for the deaf are deaf themselves.
(microphone falls off—no speaking)
There we go—(to the audience)—is that better?
Anyway 150 years there was this movement called Oralism and it was made up of scientists, educators, and stakeholders—
—whose goal was to fix the deaf.
So what they tried to do was make deaf people into hearing people.
So what ends up happening is the Oralists come along—
And they start to support oral-only programs and mainstreaming.
And once the Oralists come together with the mainstreamers—
—this is where we have the start of deaf children being warehoused in special education—
—ignoring them as language minorities and instead seeing them as people with disabilities.
And—at the turn of the 19th century there were 87 schools for the deaf.
One-third of these schools have since closed.
This past year the National Association for the Deaf put out an alert warning—
—saying that over a dozen schools for the deaf are in danger of closing or experiencing drastic budget cuts.
So I ask: Why not let the deaf be deaf?
We need to support deaf children by supporting by supporting deaf schools and deaf teachers.
We need to support deaf children by supporting them being around other deaf children.
We need to support deaf children being in both environments that use spoken language and sign language.
Well how do we fix all this? Well, it's already being done.
At the Maryland School for the Deaf, where I'm doing research right now—
—their superintendent's name is James Tucker. His approach to deaf education is simple: access.
(microphone static)
And so that—for those children there on that campus that means access to both English and American Sign Language—
Each and every child on that campus, whether they know English or sign language better than the other—
—has access to language.
So at the Maryland School for the Deaf children have opportunities to be accessible—or have access to—
—their deaf peers and deaf adults.
They have access to whatever is going on in the classroom and out on the playground.
So what are the results?
Well, the Maryland School for the Deaf, they hold the distinction of passing state exams at higher rates than their hearing peers in hearing schools.
Let me say that again: deaf students at the Maryland School for the Deaf passed their state exams at higher rates than their hearing peers.
Need more evidence?
Well, Maryland School for the Deaf has been regional winners in the academic bowl.
They also offer AP classes—Advanced Placement—classes in American Sign Language!
Maybe some folks ought to sit down with Superintendent Tucker and ask him how he's doing what he's doing—
Better yet maybe some folks ought to sit down with a bunch of members of the Deaf community and ask them what we ought to do.
The take-home message for my talk today is that I want you all think about what my experiences were like as a kid being alone—
—think about these deaf children who feel so alone in this universe—
—but that's not the whole point of my talk today—
—it's not just about listening to deaf people. It's also about listening to those who have been marginalized.
—so above all, what I want each and every one of you who are in the audience today or at home watching this on video—
For those of you who have marginalized to come forward and tell your stories in whatever way you can and want to tell them.
I want each and everyone of you to go home and tell these stories to other folks, so they will in turn, keep telling others.
Go spread the word—it's high time we hear from the unheard!