Society Changes – and Some of Us Have to Catch Up

        by Jay Shepherd, July 5, 2014

I had a second “I’m getting older” incident today, and I was driven to think more about change in society.

No, my knees didn’t hurt.  No, I didn’t falter over a texting term.  No, I didn’t see the internet as a bigger challenge than I can handle.  None of these.

What happened is that I saw something that should be, and is, perfectly normal, but it seemed to me to be wonderful.  Not only that, it’s the same thing that I saw as wonderful a month or so ago, but it is still sinking in, so it’s still wonderful.

Both involved deaf people… sorry, the “hearing impaired”.  (Who today still refer to themselves as deaf, but I guess they’re allowed.)

The first time was in a Boston Pizza, in the sports bar side of the restaurant.  I was by myself, having dinner and watching a basketball playoff game on the TV.   As often happens in establishments like that, a large group of people came in, and quickly a table was set up for about fifteen of them.

They were a range of ages, from probably eight to sixty, obviously an extended family grouping of some kind.  There had been some sort of charity event nearby that day (Downsview Park is close by), and from their athletic dress (and pink powder markings), it was clear that they had participated, and were now having a family meal out.

All good, right?  There is nothing unusual about this, and we’ve all see it dozens of times in restaurants throughout the city.

I wasn’t really paying much attention, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed over the next few minutes that some of the group – in fact, it turned out, ALL of the group – were signing.  Again, not really that unusual any more.  At one time, seeing groups of people signing was uncommon in Toronto, but today signing is just another language that people speak.  No big deal.

Still, when people are talking in a public place, we can tune them out.  When people are signing, it is perhaps more obvious, and so bit by bit I was drawn into noticing what they were saying and doing.

An interesting thing about American Sign Language (which I neither speak nor understand) is that many of the signs are evocative of feelings or thoughts, rather than just ciphers that mean something.  In addition, signing necessarily melds speech and body language into a single method of communication.  Practically speaking, these things mean that an outsider can quickly, and at a distance, get a sense of the dynamics of the group, and the communications between them.

What I saw, and “heard”, was an unexpected surprise to me.

An example.  The eight year old was there with her mother, sitting across the table.  Her father was further down the table.  Like many that age, the eight year old was acting out a bit, perhaps overexcited because of the day out with family, and thus a little bit off the wall.  Her mother was trying to keep her under control, but the girl wasn’t having any of that.  When her mother tried to speak sternly to her, she covered her eyes (not ears), then peaked out a few seconds later, signing wildly with gestures that clearly included defiant body language (not part of ASL, I suspect).  This was no “deaf kid”; this was just a kid.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when someone nudged her father down the table, bringing this issue to his attention.  Nor should I have been surprised when he slammed the table six feet away, and when she looked his way (vibrations apparently still work with recalcitrant deaf kids) he gave her a look, and a quick sign, that reset her attitude.  She could have been one of my kids.  No different.  Deaf, sure, but the same nonetheless.

That was only one example.  At another part of the table, there was a twenty year old young woman, and a young man of similar age, patently not part of the family.  He was the “boyfriend”, participating in the conversations, but feeling under scrutiny by his girlfriend’s relatives.  He was also signing, and for a while my stupid side thought that he had learned signing for his girlfriend.  How sweet.  Not so at all, it turned out.  When his girlfriend wanted to get his attention, she tapped his shoulder, so he was clearly hearing impaired, and in fact when you looked closely (who does?) you could see his two tiny hearing aids behind his ears.

His girlfriend, on the other hand, was not deaf.  As the byplay continued, it was clear that she could hear things without restriction, and in fact she intervened with the server when another person at the table wasn’t able to read the server’s lips clearly enough.  She had obviously learned to sign as a hearing child of deaf parents, and spoke both languages fluently.  Not much different than a child of immigrant parents, learning English and their mother tongue, and speaking both well.

This is all very nice, but what is important is that I thought this mostly deaf family group, out in public and acting unselfconsciously normal, just like any hearing family, was just wonderful.  How great is this, I thought.

Then it struck me.  Why should this be wonderful?  Why would this family group be different than any other?  Sure, they speak a different language, and sometimes their inability to speak English is an issue.  But with that small exception, they are just a family, with all of the complex dynamics and feelings and social interactions in any such group.

I asked my server, whom I know, whether she noticed how normal this group was.  At first her twenty-something face screwed up trying to understand my question, but then she got it, and said “Oh, I see this all the time at school.  Not important.”

She’s right, of course, but in my mind I was screaming “I NEVER SAW THIS WHEN I WAS GROWING UP!”

Later, when I reflected on it, I asked my daughter, also in her twenties.  She told me that, to her, deaf people are no different from anyone else.  Maybe they speak a different language, and maybe they can’t hear, but those things are not really relevant in today’s diverse Toronto.

OK, I thought, I am out of touch with the times.  When I was growing up, and even as an adult, deaf people were not fully accepted in society.  Mostly they were isolated, going to special schools and segregated from the rest of society.  I remember a client whose biggest challenge was helping her deaf son – then in his thirties – make his way in a relatively insensitive society.  Times have changed.

Today I was having dinner with a friend in a restaurant, and at the bar across the room was a young couple, probably in their early thirties.  Both were good-looking, fit, hip-looking individuals, casually dressed and out watching a World Cup game together.  Their conversation, however, was signing.

Fresh from my recent learning experience, I tried to focus on my conversation with my friend, and ignore my feeling that this was also something wonderful.  Out of the corner of my eye, though, I watched two young people go through the emotional ups and downs of a soccer game in which they were obviously quite invested.  I saw their attention go back and forth between their team, and each other, and I saw the shared joy on their faces when their team scored.  I also couldn’t fail to translate his signing when the other team scored, and he expressed his opinion that couldn’t be anything other than a “choke” message.

I can’t help it.  I think this is wonderful.  I think a young deaf couple watching a World Cup game together in a sports bar, oblivious of those around them, only into the game and each other, should be cause for joy.

The generation that has followed mine doesn’t see these things as unusual.  This is the way the world should be.  An inclusive society doesn’t see this as a success.  This is normal.  Anything else is a failure.

Sometime in the last forty years, society ceased to consider deaf people to be too different to be part of the mainstream, just as we did with many other minorities that were marginalized then.  Many people fought for those changes, to be sure, but I’m not certain anyone really made this happen.  We all did.  Society changed.  It became more inclusive, and now there is room for more people under the tent.

Perhaps younger people today don’t realize how big this change has been.  Things like this don’t seem special to them, but to those who went from one reality to another, it is spectacular.

And the point of all this?

There is no point.  Some things are just wonderful.

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About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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