I have always prided myself on treating people as people. Always doing my best to ignore the things that make us different and focus on the fact that we are all human beings on our paths. I believe in our day-to-day lives the ability to relate to people on that level makes for better interactions and deeper connections generally. However, it is important to note some intricacies and differences should be explored and understood to have meaningful relationships with different individuals. The film, “Through deaf eyes”, does a fantastic job of introducing the uninitiated into the world of deaf culture.
Through deaf eyes is a documentary that explores nearly 200 years of Deaf life in America. The film presents the shared experiences of American history from the perspective of deaf citizens. The film covers a broad range of topics including family life, education, work, and community connections and the similarities and differences between the hearing and deaf worlds. Speaking for myself, as a hearing individual, I don’t often reflect on what life was like for the deaf community. It never occurred to me that not only could the deaf community be oppressed and persecuted because of this assumed difference. This has led to the development of deaf culture in a separate, but similar fashion to the mainstream hearing community. This culture has deep, historic roots that many are not exposed to simply because they may never encounter a deaf person.
Like all other cultures, this struggle is what leads to interesting, thought-provoking ideas and insights. What I appreciate most about the documentary was the discussions that took place within the deaf community at large. One of the main plot points of the film is the different adversities that deaf individuals faced throughout American History. I am acutely aware that making conclusions that leads to a better future is a difficult task to accomplish, and the fact that there is disagreement in the deaf community shows the incredible nuance that takes place when making these types of decisions.
The most glaring example of this was the discussions that regarded Education. It would be easy to assume that most Deaf individuals would want to be brought up in a hearing world trying to maintain as much “normalcy” in their life as they could. Yet this is not the case as the individuals that took part in this film don’t see themselves as deprived or handicapped at all because they don’t focus on what they can’t do, they focus on what they can do. However, seeing parents of Deaf children struggle with how their children should be taught, be it orally in a mainstream institution, or immersed in an ASL-based education program. Watching as Deaf people were outraged at Marlee Matlin for speaking at her Oscars podium because she missed an opportunity to enlighten people to the beauty of not only their language but their culture. Demanding that they are represented by a Deaf President at Gallaudet University all provide subtle clues as to what the struggles have all been for.
After watching the film, I believe it is a much deeper conflict than education per se. It isn’t about where a child should learn, or what is the best method should we use to educate a deaf child. At the heart of it, to me, it seems the biggest issue is how to maintain the culture that people in deaf history have fought so hard to achieve. The fear of losing what it means to be deaf, or Deaf, or hard of hearing, etc. This film is about the struggle to maintain your place in the world that deaf people fought at great lengths to establish and that is what makes the film so relatable.
Every culture that has emerged from the beginning of time has fought for its place in the world. From the Irish and Chinese that immigrated here in the early 20th century, the struggles of African-Americans in America, to the early European immigrants fleeing their homes to start a life free from persecution, all the way back to the Jews in Egypt, to the beginning of time. The one thing that truly connects all of us as human beings is the struggle for our place in the world.
I will say that I thought I would be bored by the documentary, only having watched it because it was part of this assignment. Yet, within the first few minutes, I had found myself enthralled into what life was like for the deaf community in the past 200 years, and what it continues to be like today. I learned so many things in those two hours that I never would have even considered nor noticed, most notably, the strength in the deaf community as well as the struggles and oppression that was faced. From the stigma of sign language, the general lack of understanding of what it means to be deaf.
This documentary brought to light centuries of deaf history in such an informative and engaging manner, and I feel it is important for the hearing community to understand not only these prejudices and stigmas that the deaf community has faced, but also their tenacious refusal to be pitied, or belittled for what they believe is not a disability, but a strength, and a part of who they are.
There was one moment in the film that I found to be particularly enlightening because it applies to everyone, not just the deaf community. CJ Jones is giving his closing monologue and states very directly that the ability to hear or speak is not the most important thing in the world. It matters very little compared to the ability to read. The ability to take in knowledge and turn it into action is the driving force of success in our world. For me, that showed the spirit of a man who is not defined by his “disability” if that’s what the general public would call it. He defines himself as a capable person who can take the knowledge he’s gained and carve out his place in the world. Regardless of what makes him different and that is a powerful message.