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American Annals of the Deaf

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The People Who Spell: The Last Students from the Mexican National School for the Deaf
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medical slant on the then-current news about a group of Deaf Mexican vendors, called slaves in the U.S. and Mexican press, who had been discovered in New York City in summer 1997 (De Palma, 1997; Peterson, 1997). Pedro Berreucos Villalobos, MD, the director of the Instituto Mexicano de la Audición y el Lenguaje (IMAL) a prominent oral school, clinic, and teacher training center, commented that a great number of Deaf people in Mexico are “condenados al lenguaje de señas” (condemned to sign language [quoted in Ortiz Pardo, 1997, p. 40]), and as a result, they are easy to exploit. The article criticizes Mexican public health and special education for diagnosing hearing loss too late, for falsely claiming that many Deaf students cannot be oralized, and for offering substandard education with minimal periods of speech and auditory therapy when children should receive this training all day long. Although Dr. Berruecos Villalobos’s pointed critique of Mexico’s public health and education agencies is well taken, unfortunately, he repeated the myth that many U.S. proponents of oralism also believe: that a policy of permitting sign-medium instruction is “taking the easy way” (irse por el camino fácil [p. 40]). He claimed that he knew of no Deaf person who used only sign language who had a professional career, but that there are many oral Deaf people who have completed university degrees. This news article offered a clear recommendation of the way Deaf people in Mexico should be educated, and the best way for them to live, especially to avoid exploitation, enjoying their “human right to linguistic communication with all of their fellow human beings” (Berruecos Villalobos quoted in Ortiz Pardo, p. 40).

Television ads for hearing aids portrayed another version of Deaf life. Adorable children, isolated from their loved ones in lonely silence, received hearing aids, and became whole, able to tell their mothers “Te quiero mamá” (“I love you mommy”). One of the ENS signers commented that the ads were “absurd,” and marketing obviously pitched “so that the parents can be happy.” Deaf people as a social group are also portrayed in various ways. For example, in 2000, I participated in a small conference on deaf education, where I gave a summary of U.S.-based research on sign language and learning. The take-home message was that there is no evidence to support the belief that signing harms Deaf children by interfering with other kinds of learning, the learning of languages, or the development of speech. In the audience was a mid-level bureaucrat of the Secretaría de la Educación Pública (SEP), Mexico’s national education agency. She was somewhat sympathetic to the idea that change might be needed in education for Deaf children. But she commented that Mexican Deaf people were too contentious about the matter, and since they could not agree among themselves on what was best for Deaf children, SEP officials did not anticipate making policy changes that would support sign-medium schooling or special attempts to group Deaf children together in classrooms.

I witnessed a heartrendingly surreal enactment of Deaf lives in late 2007, on a morning television program broadcast live in Mexico City. During a segment on deaf education, the program’s beautiful hostess introduced a panel of experts, including several medical doctors and audiologists, and the director of a sign-medium primary school. An invited studio audience of parents of Deaf children and young adults sat on risers on a stage. Although the program’s hostess announced that her goal was to explore all points of view, the medical bent of the panel was unavoidable, and the benefits of speech training and the use of available technology for auditory stimulation became the focus of the panel. When the gracious hostess moved into the studio audience, the ironies that only live television can display splintered the panel’s story line. One mother told about her five-year-old Deaf daughter who had been attending an oral training program at a private school. The mother collapsed into sobs when she described her child’s suffering. Daily, the child came home from school angry, sullen, completely miserable, and still not speaking. Despite her daughter’s undeniably derailed development, the mother’s self-reproach over her role in her child’s anguish, the cost of the intensive private training, and the difficulties the years of waiting for her child to speak had caused in their family life, the mother remained deeply committed to speech, the only way to guarantee her daughter the happy future assured solely for those who speak and hear normally. Achieving this future was worth any price, despite the mother’s sorrow over her child’s unhappiness. Following her, the parents of an oral Deaf adult proudly told the hostess about his persistence during the costly and intense period of his speech training, his success with speech, and his current efforts to find work. He was oralized but essentially uneducated and barely literate. They passed the microphone to the son, who delivered an unintelligible spoken testimonial to oralism, leaving the hostess, other members of the studio audience, and perhaps millions of viewers like me, thoroughly confounded.

Versions of Deaf people’s lives constructed by outsiders are easy to find in most societies, and as I observed in Mexico, they have in common portrayals of Deaf people and their loving families as courageous in the face of sadness at having a disabled child and persistent in pursuing remedies for the missing abilities to speak and hear. Deaf people bravely live with the lowered expectations and poverty that come with limited opportunities for education. Meanwhile, experts fail to grasp specific adamantine realities—detecting sound is not hearing, uttering words is not acquiring language, and being trained to emit comprehensible words is not education. Exploited people sell sewing kits on the subway not because they sign LSM but because an avoidable linguistic and cognitive disability has been imposed on them by their society.

In short, I witnessed a range of familiar outsider definitions of Deaf people, people with a defect that cut them off from others, forced them to suffer, and made them easy targets for exploitation. From my work experiences in the United States, I know these superficialities to be flawed, despite the fact that I was curious about their Mexican renderings. Accordingly, I aimed to gain access to and document the meaning of Deaf lives in Mexico from the insider point of view, that of signing Deaf people. This path led me to other depictions of Deaf people, and new sets of borders drawn among groups. The general and often repeated perspective of the Deaf people that I met in Mexico was that Deaf Mexicans do not form one large community, as they perceive to be the case in the United States. As a result, I learned from Deaf signers about specific categories that they belong to, and others that they reject. Not surprisingly, people who joined or started one club contrasted themselves with those who were committed to other clubs. It was common to be told, in cautiously phrased comments explicitly couched as respectful, about those who recruited their fellow Deaf people into groups of vendors, and got them into trouble in Mexico and in the United States. Older Deaf people worried that young Deaf people had no moral compass, used drugs, joined gangs, and earned money through criminal activities. Signers who had attended ENS told about unschooled Deaf people, or los ignorantes, some of whom were their siblings or relatives.

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