“Who’s going to say what ‘normal’ is?”
What gets me most about my next model is how not disabled he is. Yeah, yeah, a lot of us will identify as not disabled, but Crom is actually not. Like, really.
His deafness is a language barrier, he patiently explains to me. American Sign Language is his primary language, but he is also well versed in English and Spanish, and, increasingly, Italian Sign (LIS: Lingua dei Segni Italiana). I’d like to note that Crom’s written English syntax and grammar is impeccable, by the way, which seems more and more impossible for even native speakers to accomplish these days. “A language difference,” he repeats in our interview, with the help of our Sign interpreter who also happens to be my most gracious and equally multilingual Aunt Terrie.
While I’ve always been aware of the Deaf (Capital D…I’ll get back to this later) culture and its richness and pride, Crom, professor of Deaf Culture and Deaf Studies at Columbia College in Chicago, has patiently decided to let me in a little deeper, to school me on all things Deaf. Well, at least all the things we can fit into a conversation over breakfast in a Chicago suburb, where he agreed to meet Aunt Terrie and me to spare us the car traffic clogging the roads to the annual Air and Water Show in the city proper. The near-sonic boom of the Blue Angels’ jets, Crom tells me, is so loud even he can hear them fly overhead.
As most people with disabilities can relate, Crom explains that our society sees his lack of hearing, his lack of this particular ability as a shortcoming. And, unless we begin to work toward greater universal design and methods of communication, society will continue to see him as “disabled.” In fact, most hearing people even think the most politically correct term should be “Hearing Impaired.” The term is everywhere: “Closed Captions for the Hearing Impaired” is in TV and at the start of films; “Hearing Impaired” is used in all legal terminology and in ADA laws, the very laws that were written to protect and support the deaf. But this is a measurement, he says. “And things like that are insulting. That word ‘impaired’ means that we are less than something, less than normal. But what’s wrong? Who’s going to say what normal is? We are measured by that impairment, so we are less. And that really ticks us off.” The best term is simply deaf/Deaf (again, I’ll return to the capital D Difference in a little bit).
To further illustrate Crom’s point, in most American hospitals, newborns’ hearing is tested, their teeny tiny heads hugged by enormous Beats by Dre-like headphones, their soft heads spotted with sticky electrodes that will measure the hearing nerve’s response as various clicks and tones flow through the speakers. I remember well these hearing screenings after the births of my daughters; their newborn beanies on, their arms hugging themselves in a swaddle, their furrowed brows and their enormous headphones made them look straight outta Compton. My girls “passed” their hearing tests, as each examiner happily told my husband and me. As opposed to failing it, which Crom says really sets the tone, so to speak, for how parents view deafness. They fail their hearing test, thus are deemed, from day one, less than, abnormal, something that needs fixing. “Every parent wants their kids to be perfect,” Crom states the hard truth, “So they look at [their new, deaf baby] like something’s wrong, something’s missing. And it starts right there in the hospital. That promotes the fear and the intimidation.”
The further irony is that Sign – or a baby-fied version of it, aptly called Baby Signs® – is widely encouraged for hearing babies. Signing with your baby, they say, will speed up both language and cognitive development, encourage communication, foster baby’s security and sense of self, and build baby’s confidence. But when a newborn is diagnosed deaf, medical professionals are quick to advise parents to “fix” the problem, often with cochlear implants, which far from fixes hearing loss. Deafness doesn’t need to be fixed; it is not an impairment, explains Crom. Deaf Americans simply won’t use English as a first spoken language, but will learn and use American Sign Language. The same goes – or can go – for deaf people in other countries with their respective Sign Language. While some Americans learn to speak Spanish or Cantonese or Russian or whatever from their immigrant parents at home and supplement that primary language with English as learned in school and from peers, so too will Deaf children learn Sign. “It’s a language difference,” he reminds me yet again. Not a physical flaw. Not a disability. Of course, more complexity is added to language learning when the deaf individual isn’t diagnosed until later in life, which is often the case. Crom, though he was born deaf, was 2.5 years old before his parents realized, leaving them to scramble to make up for lost language development time for Crom and to learn a completely new language themselves to communicate with their toddler. Don’t even get me started on the intense struggles late-deafened adults experience.
It should be further noted that ASL is a language in its own right. Fluent Signers will sometimes need to simplify their Sign for family members, mostly parents, who learned Sign only after their child was diagnosed, and only learned enough to communicate essentials with their child. Philosophical conversations and political debates don’t usually happen to English-Signers who speak a pidgin version of Sign, Crom shares with me. I’m reminded of my mom’s own Vietlish: Vietnamese-English hybrid that’s become our own unique language that most other native English speakers would struggle to understand. He’s right: my mom and I have never – could never – converse about the nuances of Bukowski or debate Nietzshe or really even talk about the depth of flavor in a bowl of her famous phở; the words to do so simply don’t exist in our pidgin. Crom continues, “Unfortunately, this is common with deaf children who grew up in hearing families. Some of [those kids] don’t have any real contact with the family or the parents, because less than 40% of all parents with deaf children Sign. And of that 40%, not all are fluent.” Fortunately, the Deaf community is a rich, dynamic, and welcoming one for those brave enough to shrug off mainstream ideas of ability and seek it out. I ask Crom if he and his longtime (hearing, Sign interpreter) girlfriend hope to have children someday and, if and when they do, what language will be the child/ren’s first. “Oh, yes. They’ll Sign, of course. We’ve talked about this: that Signing will be their first language. I want that rooted into the children. Sure, the children need to be fully conversant in both [Sign and spoken English], if they can speak. We want to Sign at home. And then outside, they’ll need to learn how to talk. But at home we are Signing. It’s what we do now anyway.”
He then begins to explain that Deaf enclaves and larger concentrations of Deaf people exist in various parts of the world, and that the hearing people who live in those parts have successfully learned to adapt to their Deaf counterparts. These communities serve as an example of the universally designed coexistence that is possible, but that our larger society repudiates. “There are probably about 16 Deaf villages around the world. There used to be one in the United States on Martha’s Vineyard. Because that’s an island and because about 25% of its residents were Deaf, everybody on the island could Sign. So it wasn’t an isolated community at all. That island didn’t have a Deaf culture because everybody was the same, everybody was part of the same culture. I remember reading an interview of a hearing person who lived on the island, and he couldn’t remember if a specific individual was Deaf or not. Because everybody could Sign!” With no communication barrier, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard were able to see past each other’s level of hearing. Deafness simply didn’t matter.
That’s where the difference between capital D Deaf and deaf come into play in the rest of the world, though. Lower case d deafness indicates someone who is pathologically hard of hearing. But the term is also used to describe deaf individuals who are not active within the Deaf Culture, meaning that they probably make use of hearing aids or even have a cochlear implant, users of which are sometimes seen as traitors to their own kind. Lower case d deaf people may or may not speak Sign language, and when they do, it’s more commonly the English-Sign hybrid, mimicking the syntax of English, which looks verbose in ASL.
But capital D Deaf describes someone who is keenly aware of and active in the Deaf community and culture; a Deaf person speaks fluent ASL, is most likely familiar with Deaf history and current issues surrounding the community, proudly identifies as Deaf, which includes not wearing cochlear implants or, the more gray area, hearing aids, and, like many people with disabilities, roll their eyes at the portrayal of their own kind in the media. The Deaf are given his/her own Name Signs, almost a rite of passage in which, usually, a teacher in grade school but always someone within the Deaf community him/herself bestows upon the young Deaf person their own name/motion in Sign. It is different than their birth name, the one written on one’s birth certificate, but can include a component of it, and is usually inspired by something visual or behavioral unique to that person. Crom’s Name Sign is the sign for the letter C for – you guessed it – Crom, but includes an outward motion from the speaker’s eyebrows. If you take a good look at Crom’s eyebrows in his portrait you’ll see that they’re much like hairy tarantulas pasted low on his forehead, with a few spindly wild hairs reaching out as if to ensnare the nearest innocent bystander. “My Name Sign handshape does look like a C, but it’s actually a bent 5 handshape representing the tarantula-ness of my eyebrows,” he further clarifies. I’ve never seen eyebrows such as his. In the same way Austin Powers can’t keep his eyes off of Fred Savage’s mole, I can’t look away from Crom’s eyebrows, feeling simultaneously terrified of them and as if I want to give them the fuzzy bear hug that they deserve. His eyebrows are the stuff of legends; people around the world know exactly who he is before they officially meet him as he travels all over the world theater acting and continuing his Deaf advocacy.
That both Crom and I majored in writing in college brought us into a fascinating albeit nerdy conversation about the linguistics of Sign that, for me, really hammered in Sign’s unique nuances and the general awesomeness of Deafness itself.
For example, ASL does not require conjugation of verbs (the same goes for plenty of languages around the world: Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Finnish, and Hungarian, for example), but listeners need only pay attention to the context of the story to understand what happened when. Similarly, pronominalization is simplified, or rather, non-existent. “Pronouns in ASL, we don’t have them. [In] a face-to-face meeting,” when the person you’re speaking with is right in front of you, he simultaneously pantomimes to me and Signs the explanation to Aunt Terrie (He’s got skillz to pay the billz, y’all), “my friend is right there. I don’t say he over and over again. I just point to him. That person, that one. He knows how to fix my truck. That means I’ll call him. So when I say him, my Sign is directional towards him.” He elaborates, “Then he’ll drive my car here later. So I owe him money. I owe him dinner. I just point in his direction.” No need for pronouns when your buddy is standing right next to you, I learn. Similarly, and the aspect of ASL that I find most captivating, is that Signers use their surrounding space to communicate as it’s more efficient to point to a nearby building, car, shoes, a spatula, whatever, instead of Signing it out. In a Tom Cruise-in-Minority-Report way, Deaf Signers pull from their surroundings to converse, while we hearing folk are rarely aware of our surroundings at all when we speak, as we’re merely cognizant of our words (and perhaps the sounds of our own voices). A Deaf conversation easily grows into an exchange much larger than the topic or the people speaking. “Another example [of what Signing is like] would be like topography,” Crom continues to blow my mind. “So if I say, ‘Would you mind putting that paper on the shelf?’ and if the shelf is just over there, I’ll just say, ‘Paper on shelf.’ I don’t have to the follow English sentence structure. I just use the space in my environment.” I then begin to perceive ASL as a very powerful language and its speakers more attuned to their environment than the average hearing Joe, more cognizant of and creative as to how they can utilize these life props in their quotidian, arguably more beautiful conversations. As someone who loves – LOVES – spoken words, I begin to see their weakness, how they can distract from reality, how much in them is open to interpretation even when all parties speak the same language. It’s at this point in the interview that I feel simultaneously eager to expand upon the limited Sign I learned as a child and shame that I am not already a fluent ASL speaker. I even begin to feel jealous of Crom.
Crom is one to talk about the art of words. When he’s not performing (he did an all-ASL production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at my alma mater), doing improv, teaching, creatively writing, advocating, and traveling the world, he runs Ink-Stained Fingertips, an on-going project in which he weekly translates written poems into ASL, takes video of his interpretation and posts them on social media, spreading the literary magic of the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Samuel Coleridge, Allen Ginsberg, and Edgar Allen Poe to his quickly growing fan base. If you’re into poetry, watch Crom Sign it out and be captivated by the visual beauty of the words. His performances really are mesmerizing. In his recent December 21st performance of Edith Thomas’ “Talking in Their Sleep,” Crom is outside in front of a tree-lined walk as snow falls, seemingly, artfully, unfazed by the bitter Chicago cold. By the end of the poem, a shelf of snow has formed on those intense eyebrows of his. So there’s that, too.
During our interview I admit that I winced a little when we agreed that Crom did not, in fact, have a disability. Was it envy? Was it confusion or perhaps frustration with my own identity as someone with a disability? But disability or not, Crom and I, and our respective communities aren’t so different. We’re all working toward a more inclusive world. We’re all trying to shed the weight of pejorative semantics. For ourselves and for others, we’re all redefining “disabled.”
We talked for hours and, frankly, I could easily speak with Crom for days on end, though my sweet interpreter Aunt Terrie’s hands were surely tired and her voice had grown hoarse. We couldn’t anyway, though, as Crom giddily smiled behind his explaining hands, “I’m going to a KISS concert tonight!”
Crom’s work is prolific, thought-provoking, and, much of the time, hilarious. Check it out:
- A Double-Edged Sword: Social Media as a Tool of Online Disinhibition Regarding American Sign Language and Deaf Cultural Experience Marginalization, and as a Tool of Cultural and Linguistic Exposure
- Cromania, Workshops, and Clogs!
- Ink-Stained Fingertips on Facebook
- Crom’s improv Schedule: Portland (Jan.23), Philadelphia (Feb.13), and Houston (March 5)