Most advocates of signing would respond that lipreading--or "speechreading," as it is often called today, since the reader must watch the tongue, the throat, and the teeth as well as the lips--is simply too difficult. Because at least 60 percent of the sounds of English look like other sounds, one researcher has suggested calling it "lip-speculation." "Where's the baby?" "I put it in the dustbin": as the deaf British poet David Wright notes, "baby" and "paper" look exactly the same. So, observes deaf educator David Anthony, do bed and mad and pad and mat and bat and pat and met and bet and pet. So do "Where there's life there's hope" and "Where's the lavender soap?" Lip-readers are further stymied by mumblers, bad light, distance, mustaches. After many years of oral training, most deaf lipreaders catch between 25 and 50 percent of a rapid conversation. And as for speech, the imitation of sounds one cannot hear is so difficult that fewer than 10 percent of the people who are born profoundly deaf can easily be understood. The great majority of deaf people who have intelligible speech either have some residual hearing or became deaf after they learned to talk.
But the real turn of the screw, say the signers, is that oral skills are acquired so slowly that during the crucial early years a deaf child may be deprived of any means of communication. Every healthy hearing child, however dull or shy, learns language effortlessly because he is bombarded by it. By the time he is five, he has a vocabulary of 5,000 words. An oral deaf child may know fewer than 50. He may therefore have no way of learning, when his parents leave the house, whether they will be gone for an hour or a month; no way of knowing why presents suddenly appear on his birthday; no way, if he is scared or sick or excited, of telling anyone why. He has no effective way to communicate either with his parents or, perhaps more important, with himself.
In oral schools, argue the signers, the same dismal pattern is repeated. If a deaf child catches less than 50 percent of the spoken language and his teachers do not sign, how much will he learn of mathematics, science, history? As one deaf teacher puts it, "What good is it to be able to talk if you have nothing to say?"
But a deaf child who is surrounded by signing builds a manual vocabulary at about the same rate as a hearing child builds a spoken one, often starting even earlier because the muscles of the hands are easier to control than the muscles of the mouth.
Signers say that in order to lead emotionally satisfying lives, people need more than speech. They need a language they can master completely, one that confirms rather than conceals their identity. They agree that signing isolates the deaf from the hearing; but because the difficulties of lipreading are compounded when deaf people attempt to converse in speech, oralism isolates them from each other.
Betty Miller, a well-known deaf artist, distressed many hearing people at Gallaudet when she mounted an exhibit of drawings in which the fingers of deaf children are being chopped off as a result of the oralist teachings of heartless "hearies" (a term of derogation analogous to a black's "whiteys" or a Hispanic's "gringos"). Under a picture of two small girls, both of whom wear enormous hearing aids and have their hands in stocks, Miller wrote the following poem in the syntax of American Sign Language:GOD/MADE ME DEAF/BUT THEY/ WANT ME LEARN/ TALK TALK/ HEAR HEAR ... LIKE HEARIES./ NORMAL?/ ME TRY HARD/ EQUAL NORMAL/ UNTIL ME FREAK/. . . FAIL.../WHY... ?
It is not only Mike Rose's parents--Richard, a carpenter, and Maureen, an assembly line supervisor--who are deaf. So are Mike's older brother, Ricky; his three sisters, Sandra, Debra and Noreen; three of his uncles; two of his aunts; and two of his cousins. All of them use American Sign Language. Even the Rose family dog, a schnauzer named Smokey, knows the signs for "stay," "sit," "shake" and "roll over." When he sees the sign for "bang," Smokey plays dead.
When someone rings the doorbell of the Rose house in Glastonbury, Conn., a light flashes on and off. When the phone rings, another light flashes. The telephone is actually a teletypewriter on which the Roses type their conversations rather than speak them. They can converse only with other teletypists, but that's not a problem since virtually all of their friends are deaf and own similar devices. In the morning the Roses are awakened by light bulbs set off by their alarm clocks. In the evening they sit in their living room watching two television sets, one on top of the other, one turned to movies for the Rose women and the other to sports for the men. Without competing sound tracks, they say this is not distracting. For many years television was inaccessible to the deaf; now, by means of a special "decoding" receiver, they can tune into 40 hours of specially captioned programs each week.
MONIKA BLEW AT FEATHER TO LEARN "F" AND "V"
Strong deaf is the way Mike describes his family. When Maureen and Richard Rose recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, the children threw a surprise party with 130 guests. "There were two groups at the party, hearing and deaf," says Maureen, who has a fair amount of residual hearing and speaks in an intelligible though toneless voice. "More deaf, of course. Deaf stayed longer and had more fun. Hearing stayed only a short amount of time." On each of his legs, Richard wears a tattoo of a large open eye--his way of saying that most things that cannot be heard can be seen.
And on his arms Richard has five tattooed babies, one for each of his strong deaf children. Ricky was the first. As a baby, he paid little attention to the clatter of pots and pans, so Maureen matter-of-factly took him to the doctor and had his hearing tested. She was neither surprised nor disappointed to find that he was deaf. Mike was born the next year and turned out to be deaf as well. At that time the Roses could not afford a "baby-cry signaler," a flashing light triggered by a microphone near the crib, a standard appliance in most deaf homes. During his first year Mike slept next to his parents' bed with his mother's right hand resting on his chest to pick up the sounds of crying. (Crying and cooing are reflexes not dependent on auditory stimulation, so deaf babies sound exactly like hearing babies during their first year.) All five Rose children started to sign when they were less than a year old.
One by one they left home at the age of three to attend the American School for the Deaf in Hartford. Mrs. Rose cried at each departure, but she was confident her children would be happy. I lonely first, signs Mike, but fun soon, many deaf friends same like me, pillow fights, sports, playing cards, captioned movies every week. Kids with deaf parents all leaders because teach other kids sign. Kids with hearing parents jealous me because in my family good communication, their parents not sign so communication terrible. They say, wish have mother father deaf! They not want home on weekends. Mike and his siblings loved to go home on weekends. Every Friday night the Rose family would sit up for hours, catching up on the week's events, windmilling like crazy around the kitchen table.
Mike and his friends called the nearby Mystic Oral School the Mistake School. They hated the aspects of their own Total Communication curriculum that smacked of oralism. In speech class, he remembers, everyone sick, absent, avoid avoid. One kid got special award for best speech then goes out and hearing can't understand him, says but I best speech award! What point practice oral oral oral if it never gets you anywhere?
When Mike passed the entrance exam to Gallaudet College, the Roses were delighted. Deaf people Gallaudet very impressive. Congratulations! Good! Proud of me! He decided to major in business administration, but his greatest interest was his part-time job counseling deaf secondary school students. Once again, his family background made him a natural leader. He would have been a desirable catch for almost any girl on campus, but he chose someone raised on the other side of the War of Methods, a young blond dancer.
Monika's parents, Mare and Mardi Valgemae, are Estonians whose families fled to the United States after World War II. Mardi, her father, is an English professor at New York City's Lehman College; Mare is a financial librarian. Mardi's father was a cellist, and at one time Mardi himself considered a career as a concert pianist. "I weep over Schubert," he says. "Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik will get me to do anything." Since the birth of their two children, Monika and Sven, both of whom are deaf, he has given up the piano. "I listen," he says. "I can't bring myself to play anymore."
The Valgemaes both speak four languages, all with great rapidity and expressiveness. When Monika was born, a tow-headed infant of unusual beauty and vivacity, they decided she would start piano lessons at the age of three and, by having a Russian nanny on Monday, a French nanny on Tuesday, and so on, would learn five or six languages by the time she was six.
"When Monika was three months old," he says, "we wheeled her bassinet into the kitchen and slammed the refrigerator door by mistake. Loudly. She was right next to it and she didn't wake up. I said to Mare, 'Don't you think that's a little strange?' " Eighteen months and four doctors later--by which time Monika screamed whenever she saw a man in a white coat--they took her to the audiology lab at the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles. After a sophisticated battery of tests, they were told that Monika was profoundly deaf.
"No music. No languages." Eighteen years later, Mare's voice still cracks. "Those were the first things that struck me. No one in our families had ever been deaf. It was the most shocking thing that had ever happened to us." Mardi wipes his eyes, "We went home," he says. "It was three o'clock in the afternoon. We went to bed, pulled the covers over our heads, held each other, and wept."
The Valgemaes enrolled Monika in the John Tracy Clinic's oral preschool, the most famous in the country. Monika blew at feathers to learn the difference between "f' and "v," "p" and "b," "k" and "g." She fogged panes of glass, blew out candles, looked at her mouth in a mirror, and for an hour each night put her hand on her mother's cheek and her thumb on her lips to feel the vibrations. Mare held up a red ribbon for voiced sounds, a blue one for breath sounds, a brown one for nasal sounds. Monika tried thousands of permutations of lips, teeth and tongue, and whenever she pronounced or lip-read a word correctly, her mother placed a small red heart on her forehead.
According to the John Tracy philosophy, deaf children cannot grasp the meanings of words unless they actually experience them. It was not enough to show Monika a picture of a cow; she was driven to a farm to touch the cow. She was driven to the mountains to learn "snow," "frozen" and "mitten." She was given two goldfish to learn "fish" and "swim"; when they died she learned "death" and "sad." It worked. Monika became that rare commodity, an oral success. She loved school. She appeared in a Tracy film in which her father thanked her for a flower she had given him, and she replied, in a soft, labored, but clearly comprehensible voice, "You're weh-com!"
When Monika was three, her brother Sven was born. This time Mare was certain he was deaf before she even left the hospital. She readied herself for more years of feathers and cows, more sports and art and photography lessons to take the place of music. She and her husband, she concluded, must both carry recessive genes for sensory-neural deafness. Since the Tracy school did not permit more than one child per family to attend, the Valgemaes decided to move to New York. There Monika and Sven could go to the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, the first pure oral school in the country.
Though sign language was then forbidden in the classroom (Lexington has since changed its policy), the students used it among themselves on the playground, and at first Monika, then six, did not know what it was. Never saw that, she explains now, in rapid and elegant sign. Cried, cried, could not understand. Before I did not know deaf what it was. Now my friends said, 'you are deaf, name of school Lexington School for the Deaf.' Difference is hearing can understand even if you cover mouth, deaf must see. Oh, I understand, I am deaf. Deaf use sign.
Monika soon became fluent in sign language, but her parents did not allow her to use it at home, even with her brother. "Monika, talk to Sven," her mother told her. "Sven, put your hands down!" Sven and Monika tried but found their speech mutually indecipherable. They signed in secret. They told each other everything. Finally, when they were eight and 12, Mare said to her husband, "Look, Mardi, they have a world of their own. Let's let them sign."
Monika was a brilliant student. She did so well at Lexington that her parents decided to mainstream her at a public school. Mastering all her subjects through lipreading, with the aid of a resource room where she and a handful of other deaf students could get special help, she won several major academic awards and graduated second in her class of hearing high school students. Glad I mainstream, she signs. Good education, fun in sports. Sometimes social life not so fun. I went only one date with hearing boy. Awful! Too dark to lipread. Every day after school I went to Lexington School to see deaf friends, use sign language for enjoyment, comfortable and happy.
Four years ago, the Valgemaes bought their children a doorbell flasher and a teletypewriter. Last year, with great hesitancy, Mare Valgemae started to learn to sign in order to communicate better with her son, Sven, whose oral skills are less highly developed than Monika's. Mardi, at least for the present, has decided to stick with the spoken word.
The Valgemaes are as convincing an advertisement for oralism as one is likely to find. Mare and Mardi have avoided the trap most hearing parents fall into--what one Gallaudet psychology professor called the "I love you but I hate your deafness" syndrome. Monika, far from being a bitter and maladjusted "oral failure," is a confident and successful young woman with skills she never would have acquired had she had Mike's parents and Mike's education. Yet, says Mare Valgemae wistfully, "The only thing we don't have in our family is the kind of conversation where somebody tells a joke, and everybody laughs, and then everyone starts talking and laughing at once... and I bet Mike's family has that."
GALLAUDET IS LIKE A FOREIGN COUNTRY