This week on HowlRound, we're discussing Deaf theatre. This series is a result of the NEA Roundtable on "Opportunities for Deaf Theatre Artists" hosted by the Lark Play Development Center in New York City on January 20, 2016.
2015 was a breakthrough year for Deaf artists. Deaf West’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening inspired rave reviews at every turn. Artist Christine Sun Kim enchanted TedTalk viewers with “the music of sign language,” and the hashtag #DeafTalent (brainchild of filmmaker Jules Dameron) trended on Twitter, garnering widespread awareness for the importance of casting Deaf actors for d/Deaf roles. Deaf people also featured prominently in the world of hearing entertainment: Deaf model/actor Nyle DiMarco won the 2015 season of America’s Next Top Model; ABC Family’s Switched at Birth entered its fourth season starring an array of Deaf and hard of hearing actors. In addition, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s Ukrainian Sign Language film The Tribe took festivals by storm across the US and Europe. It seemed like centuries of stigma against deafness might actually be falling away.
But if we look deeper, “seemed” is indeed the operative term. Simultaneously, Deaf education throughout the developed world is in a state of crisis. The medical community continues to push medical devices on parents of deaf babies, with the accompanying medical advice that the child be enrolled in oral-only education. Bilingualism, the goal for many hearing children, is framed as a fallback for deaf ones, who are supposed to focus on learning to pass in the “normal” world.
Here in the States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) stipulates that children with disabilities or special needs must be educated in the “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE); that is, the child should be placed in a mainstream classroom setting and should not be removed unless the nature of the disability is too “severe.” But the LRE is built on the definition of “restrictive” from a hearing perspective—it does nothing to consider a child’s holistic development. Even strong assistive technology and interpreters do not achieve 100 percent access to the linguistic and social environment of the classroom. What if the environment in which a Deaf student can be around other Deaf people and communicate freely without mediation is the least restrictive environment?
The problem that stems from IDEA is twofold. First, deaf children are isolated—in the mainstream one might be the only deaf child in his class, grade, or school. Actor and advocate Tyrone Giordano, who presented on the history of Deaf education at the National Endowment for the Arts’ Roundtable on Theatre by and Featuring Deaf Artists this January, purports that educators have confused “full participation in society” with homogeny. This “melting pot” concept “is actually quite harmful,” Giordano says, “because if you take the analogy a little further, if you stop applying the heat, what happens? There will naturally be separation, and some will rise to the top while others sink to the bottom.” Isolated from their teachers and peers, it’s no surprise that deaf students find themselves in greater danger of sinking in mainstream environments.
Secondly, the remaining Deaf schools and their pupils also suffer ancillary damage from the effects of mainstreaming. Those Deaf schools that have avoided closure have morphed from bilingual institutions and strong community centers to what Giordano terms “dumping grounds for the ‘failures’ of mainstreaming.” This of course “has a [large] impact on the best and brightest Deaf students attending these schools.” For the community at large, the absence of a strong, healthy center makes everyone weaker. ASL is a living language, and it cannot continue to thrive without interaction between Deaf people. Without ASL users, there can be no ASL storytelling, poetry or Deaf Theatre.
In both the mainstream and these deteriorated Deaf school classrooms, deaf children lose the single most important concept for a burgeoning artist: the understanding that one’s unique worldview has value, and should be shared with the world.
So while society’s positive response to Deaf art may seem like a step in the right direction, any gains we make in this manner are the proverbial house built on sand without robust educational support systems for deaf and hard of hearing children. Appreciating ASL aesthetically for its artistic value without also caring for the wellbeing of the people to whom it belongs is little more than garden-variety cultural appropriation.
The Deaf community cannot survive without its hearing allies, and the hearing world cannot continue to clap for Deaf artists while simultaneously eroding the infrastructure that makes Deaf artistry possible. Deaf children must be allowed to play and learn together in a language-rich environment, to be educated bilingually with ASL as a strong foundation for English and other languages. If we want Deaf art to continue to thrive, we need a unified front that ensures Deaf children have an education that will foster the linguistic and emotional capacity and the strong sense of identity it takes to become an artist in the first place.