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Signed: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao 0:00
In January 2023, I had one of those reading experiences that reminded me of my childhood bookworm days. When I'd get so immersed in a novel that I'd take it everywhere and talk about it with everyone. The book was "True Biz," a novel about a residential school for the deaf, where the lives of three characters with diverse experiences with deaf culture converge.

Before starting the book, I had a minimal understanding of sign language, but a deep curiosity about experiences of deafness. My partner has moderately severe hearing loss in one of his ears, and I have a young family member who had just gotten a cochlear implant. When I finished the novel, I realized just how much more I had to learn. Specifically about the distinction between deaf with a lowercase d, and Deaf with an uppercase one. Deafness as a physical condition of hearing loss, and Deafness as a cultural identity.

This is Embodied, our show tackling sex relationships and your health. I'm Anita Rao.

A big part of Deaf culture is the language. And despite a popular myth, there is not one universal sign language, but hundreds of sign languages that have emerged throughout history when deaf people have come together in community. Deaf folks in the U.S. primarily use American Sign Language, or ASL.

Sara Nović 1:39
I started to learn American Sign Language. And I realized that I wasn't broken, I was just different. And I needed language to access education, and to the world around me, and for my identity, and to better understand myself as well.

Anita Rao 1:54
That's Sara Nović, as voiced by interpreter Joshua Steckel. She's the author of that novel I mentioned earlier, "True Biz." She's also an instructor of Deaf Studies and Creative Writing, and a fierce champion of sign language. Before we dive in deep with her, I want to pause and take y'all behind the scenes of this episode. We used Zoom to connect with everyone for this conversation so that we could use sign language. And it was amazing to see interpreters translating live — and a very different way to be in conversation with folks. Throughout this episode, you're going to hear the sounds of signing. But I also recommend you check out the video version of this conversation. We recorded the whole thing, and we'll put a link to it in the show notes of this episode.

Okay, so sign language. Many folks agree that it's likely been around as long as spoken language. But the first person credited with creating a formal sign language for Deaf folks was a Spanish Benedictine monk named Pedro Ponce de León in the 16th century. Many people built and expanded upon his work. And in the mid 1700s, a French Catholic priest named Charles-Michel de l'Épée founded the first public school for deaf children. A little more than a half century later, there was a minister in the U.S. named Thomas Gallaudet, who was determined to help his young Deaf neighbor. There was no formal deaf education in the U.S. at the time, so he traveled to Europe to learn about the Deaf schools there.

Sara Nović 3:20
And he happened upon a guy in France by the name of Laurent Clerc, and this is his sign name. Laurent was a Deaf educator, he was deaf himself. And they used French sign language to communicate and to educate the deaf children. Gallaudet convinced Clerc to join him on the voyage back to America. And together over the ship ride, they exposed one another to their languages. They got here to America and they established not the first deaf school, because there were already smaller programs that people had established for small circles. But it was the first school that was recognized as the American School for the Deaf. From there, they had deaf children from a variety of backgrounds that enrolled. Some of them used home signs mixed with French Sign Language. And it also had a mixture with Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, which was a language that developed on Martha's Vineyard because there were many Deaf people that lived on that island at the time. And all these different signing modalities came together here at the American School for the Deaf. And that was the formulation of the beginning of what we call American Sign Language today.

Anita Rao 4:38
So yeah, that really rich history and the formalization of the coming together in 1817 when Thomas Gallaudet established that school in Hartford, Connecticut. And he was a really strong proponent for American Sign and really wanted that to be a foundational part of the education of deaf children. But there was some pushback to his educational approach in the latter half of the 19th century, in large part from someone who many of us first learned about as the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. But there's a lot more to Alexander Graham Bell's story. Can you tell us more about him and how and why he became such a strong opponent of sign based education?

Sara Nović 5:26
Well, Alexander Graham Bell is a complicated figure. Many people assume that his involvement with the deaf community was because his mom and spouse were also deaf. So people kind of trusted his opinion and ideas about deafness at the time. But his goal, his leading goal was that he preferred oral education. He wanted all American children to be speaking spoken English. And he wanted public schools and America at large to just use spoken English as the primary focus. And that would be arrived at through speech therapy, many people assumed that it would be best for deaf children at the time. But actually, it turned into something completely different.

Anita Rao 6:13
What were some of the ramifications of his approach on deaf students in schools in that period? What did it look like to go to school?

Sara Nović 6:26
Those deaf students would still attend schools for the deaf. But in the schools themselves, they were compelled to use spoken language. Some of the students were punished physically, if they did try to sign to communicate. They were hit. They had their hands shut in drawers, they would have to wear mittens. But in the dorms, the kids still passed on sign language to one another. And that is really how ASL survived through that dark period. For the longest time, ASL was banned at schools for the deaf, basically. Deaf people who were former teachers at those schools for the deaf were eliminated. And that created a cycle of language deprivation.

Anita Rao 7:28
A pivotal moment in ASL history happened in 1960, when a linguist named William Stokoe published a book that formally recognized ASL as a complete language. Soon after, there was a Congressional report acknowledging the failings of oralism and those forces helped to re-center ASL in Deaf education. But that doesn't mean that oralism went away entirely. In the 1980s some schools were still educating with an oral philosophy, including the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, New York. That's where Douglas Ridloff went to school. He's the only child of two hearing parents. Today, he's a renowned ASL poet and an ASL master. But it took time for him to achieve fluency. I talked to him about it with Phlip Wilson interpreting.

Douglas Ridloff 8:15
The teachers were not permitted to sign, starting kindergarten through almost all middle school, I believe. So we had to attend speech therapy three times a week, everything was focused on speech and your ability to talk, there was no instruction in American Sign Language. But then, fortunately, we as students would sign with each other to communicate in our off time. So when we weren't in class, we would — that's how we would chat and talk to each other. And fortunately, there were people who had sign language at home and brought it to the school and spread it. Right? So I'm really a self-taught signer in a way, but I did learn to official ASL through my peers. And I would say I was language deprived. That was one of the impacts. My mother tongue was taken from me. And I struggled with writing and English. But I didn't get foundational initial access to American Sign Language until I started to learn it in school. And that set that foundation for me and allowed me to thrive as I went forward. Times have changed. Now the teachers do sign at Lexington. And for middle school, through high school, all the teachers signed with us and we had deaf teachers as well as our educators. And so I was able to pick up a lot more fluency throughout those years.

Anita Rao 9:32
So it was in some of those later years, I think you were 16, in high school the first time you experienced ASL poetry. There was a well known ASL poet who came to your school. Can you take us back to that moment? And what you remember from that day in the effect that poetry exposure had on you?

Douglas Ridloff 9:53
Yes, I had never known that ASL was more than just a language to communicate, to chat, right? I've never visualized it being utilized for anything else until Peter Cook, who was the poet who came and performed and showed us his sign language poetry, and my mind was blown. I was like, "Wow." I was just sucked into it. It was so immersive. And I said "That's what that looks like?" You know, I found it incredibly inspiring. And immediately, I jumped into that world. And as a flower, I just blossomed and bloomed.

Anita Rao 10:30
So there is no one to one translation between ASL signs and English words. There are some signs that are straightforward — nouns. But facial expression, body movement, speed and handshape are all part of the grammatical structure of the language. How do you like to describe the differences in structure of ASL to English speakers?

Douglas Ridloff 10:52
Sure thing, well, they're totally different. Let's start with that. At the same time, they both have their own foundational rules. And some of those you could apply as examples to ASL. Let's say there's rhythm, rhyme. Of course, they are sound-based in English. Also, alliteration is another version of that, where it's a bunch of words start with the same sound. There are similar things that you could do in American Sign Language poetry. So you could base it on handshape, for example. In English, if you started with the sound of "S," you're going to repeat the sound of "S" as alliteration for a bunch of "S" sounds and a poem or in writing. You could do that in American Sign Language, with say, as an example, with the three handshape. So this three handshape could be used a bunch of different ways. I could return to it as a rhyme, or I'll show you here: as a car that's bouncing on a road, that transforms into a person running, that person jumps, they transform into a bird or a butterfly flying, turns into a person running and then turns back into a car driving. So with one handshape, we can show that. And not — handshape isn't just the only way that you could do it. You could repeat certain types of movements. So let's say I have the "S" handshape. But I'm using it to swing a bat or some other object. And then you could repeat that sort of swinging motion in a poem. And also orientations of my — I could sign a whole poem with my palm oriented upward to give it its own effect.

Anita Rao 12:35
Douglas and writer Sara Nović both think a lot about the intersection of their identities as parents and artists. Douglas is a father of two deaf kids, and says that his work as an artist is fueled by a desire to make sure that future generations know that ASL is more than just a mode of communication. One big part of that is leading the nonprofit ASL Slam that showcases ASL through performance and storytelling. And Sara is currently working on a memoir hybrid of letters to her sons — one who is hearing but grew up with ASL as his first language, and another who is deaf and adopted from Thailand. That kid spent the first four years of his life without access to sign language. These personal experiences also inform how both of them create art with multiple audiences in mind: those who primarily use ASL and those who primarily use English. It's not easy to navigate that tension. Here's Sara talking about her novel, "True Biz."

Sara Nović 13:38
That was a big obsession of mine when I was writing the book, because when I started, I decided that I wanted to write this book about Deaf people. And that was it. I didn't want to have to do any explanation. I didn't want to be preaching at all. And then I wrote the book. And I handed it off to my editor. And the editor is a very smart, capable person who knows me. And she's a hearing person, right? And so she gave it back to me with a lot of different questions. Just basic questions about the deaf community and American Sign Language. And at first, I felt a little frustrated about it. I'm thinking, "Why do I need to explain myself?" And then I later realized that if I wanted hearing people to read the book and really connect with the characters and have empathy for the deaf experience, that they needed background. They needed that information to understand our experience, and that that was okay. That was challenging for me to accept because I felt like it wasn't fair. And other writers don't necessarily have to do that. But there was a big challenge for me to try to depict ASL on the written page. And obviously American Sign Language is a three dimensional language. And you can't just put it on a flat 2-D surface. But I wanted to really emphasize to hearing people that American Sign Language is not broken English. That in many ways for deaf people, ASL is far and above what English can do. And how to show that on the paper, that was experimenting. And there is a huge challenge in terms of writing that into the book.

Anita Rao 15:21
Douglas, you prefer to not have your work translated into English. But there is one poem, or a series of poems that you wrote, kind of with the intention of building a bridge toward a primarily English-speaking audience. Those literary journals and publications that really emphasize the importance of written texts. So I want to play a clip of you performing two poems for a poetry reading at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, and then talk with you about them. The body of work is referred to as "The Heart Series." The first poem is titled "First Glance Romance." And the second is "Heart of Glass." Let's listen.

Douglas Ridloff 16:00
First glance, lub dub, lub dub. A chance lub dub, lub dub. Romance lub dub. Let's dance lub dub, lub dub, lub dub. Forever.

The next poem that I will perform is called "Heart of Glass." Ah at last, I may open up to share this h-eart with you. A — slam. Oh. I sweep up these shattered shards and ball them, like burger meat, and put this raw heart back where it goes.

Anita Rao 16:43
So could you talk about those poems and how you walk that line between having an art form that you don't want translated most of the time and wanting to build a bridge to hearing audience?

Douglas Ridloff 16:57
Yeah, well, first of all, I'd rather just leave the poem there as an example of my self-expression, let it stand on its own. You know, different people might, in absorbing that or taking it in, interpret it in different ways. They might not get it word-for-word, but they might find their own way to sync with it. But if people read the English, there might not be a satisfactory way to do it. But I had to decide that I was willing to build that bridge, to meet that audience, to sort of bring their understanding closer to the ASL poem and ASL poetry. And there are different ways that we can do that, you can have the English version, you can have the musical version, you can have the version of it that is images. And with "Heart Series," specifically, we experimented with different ways to reach out to the audience. There's a lot of ways that you can translate poetry, right? It's hard to go word-for-word, there are things that can be interpreted a lot of different ways. And also, the use of space is nonlinear. Whereas English it's written as a linear language. So it's a lot, it's challenging.

Anita Rao 18:16
Sara, we talked earlier about that difference between little d deaf and big D deaf, can you talk about that distinction for you and the role that learning and becoming fluent in ASL played in your immersion into Deaf Culture?

Sara Nović 18:33
Yeah, I mean, now in the deaf community, we talk a lot about that separation between little d and capital D deaf. And whether that's really necessary. We've had a lot of discourse around that. And I think that many deaf people do not have a choice necessarily, to learn ASL or not. Their family, their parents, their doctors oftentimes make those choices for them. But I can say, that most definitely, I needed ASL in my life, to better understand myself. And I needed other deaf people in my life, to also understand myself. And I think that's a common experience. Not just for deaf people, but for any marginalized group.

Anita Rao 19:37
American Sign Language is the third most commonly-used language in the U.S. And as we've been saying, for much of its history, it's been a language of resistance. That's also true for the many different dialects that have popped up throughout history. One of those is Black American Sign Language or BASL. BASL emerged as a result of school segregation after the Civil War. The first Black Deaf school opened in 1869. And the last Black Deaf school wasn't desegregated until 1978. Carolyn McCaskill is a recently retired professor in the Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University. As a little girl, she attended one of those segregated schools for the deaf. Here she is talking about her experience, with Candas Ifama Barnes interpreting.

Carolyn McCaskill 20:25
I actually went to the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf back in 1964. And I know that I don't look like I went to school that long ago, yes, snaps up for me. But I did. I went to a Black deaf school that was segregated from 64. And then it was integrated with the white deaf school in 1968. And for a little time, I often thought about not really sharing my experience with a lot of different people, because I thought that — well, I was embarrassed about what happened at the time.

Anita Rao 21:05
Tell me a bit about that transition for you. From going from an environment where you were with just other Black deaf students, to going to this integrated school where folks were not speaking BASL.

Carolyn McCaskill 21:20
Right, that period of transition for me really was a blessing in disguise, because of the ability to receive a quality education. Whereas in the Black Deaf school, we didn't receive the best education in terms of college preparatory material. It was more vocational training, training us to have future work as hair stylists, working in wood shops or cleaning, and that kind of work. Additionally, in the Black deaf schools, we were allowed to sign. While in some of the white deaf programs switched to an oral program. And so Black deaf students were not required to learn speech where many of the residential schools for the deaf were required to do so. So that was one of the things that was fortunate for us. In a way we talk about Deaf Gain. And the Deaf Gain that happened was that our language was valued.

Now, when I transitioned to the white deaf school, I had an opportunity to learn more. And I realized the differences in the white deaf school versus the Black deaf school. And that's where I became kind of shocked my signing was so different, and their signing was so different. And that was because we weren't even far from each other, maybe 15 or 20 minutes away. But we were so segregated, it was interesting to see how the language emerged in those segregated schools. And we learned, and I picked up the way that white folks signed. And I learned how to code switch. And I didn't even know the meaning of this word code switching back then. But in order to survive in the environment with the white deaf students, I acquired the language that they were using and their style of signing. And my good friend one day said, "Carolyn, you're signing different." And I was thinking to myself, "Really am I signing different?" And I realized that I had assimilated to a white deaf's way of signing, and I began to code switch. We do what we have to do to survive in the environment that we're in. And I think that that was important.

Anita Rao 23:47
When Carolyn was working on her PhD, she told one of her professors at Gallaudet University about her early school experiences. And even at an institution focused on educating the deaf, that professor had never heard about that history. She was shocked. That gave Carolyn the idea to study BASL. So what exactly makes this language distinct?

"Signing Black in America" Clip 24:13
Black ASL paints pictures and expresses messages in ways that just bring another layer and another flavor to the whole notion of what Black language is.

It's more flexible. It really draws people in. And, and it includes us, relating to each other, soul to soul. I don't know how to explain it. But when people really want to connect with one another, when you leave a conversation where you've been in Black ASL, you have energy. You feel inspired.

Sometimes you can't even translate it to words you just, you get it. It's not saying you have to be Black to understand. Maybe some of it, yeah. But, it's you.

Anita Rao 25:09
That's a clip from the documentary "Signing Black in America," based on the scholarship of Carolyn and three of her colleagues. They worked together on a long-term project interviewing 100 people from around the South to better understand BASL. That group of scholars includes Joseph Hill. Here's Joseph with JaRon Gilchrist interpreting.

Joseph Hill 25:29
What's interesting is looking at Black deaf people, they typically use two hands often compared to white deaf people. Another example could be the location of the signs related to the area near the head. Some signs like "no," you have the hand shaped in a certain way, touching the temple of the head. We've noticed that the location, it was moved down to the cheek or chin, and sometimes even below the chin. So that was another finding that we noticed with Black deaf people, they tend to sign with their signs further up on the head in location compared to white deaf individuals who tend to drop those signs. Also the framework of signing notice sometimes, Black deaf people sign bigger outside of the box, where white signers typically sign in a smaller space. There are variations with that when it comes to age. So we noticed that white younger signers sign bigger compared to older white signers. Also another thing that we've noticed is the vocabulary use within sign language, especially within different states. In those that attended Black deaf residential schools, it's different, it's not part of the ASL variation, it's quite different. Like for example, the sign for "chicken," or "bathroom," we noticed these distinctive different signs in these different states. And that had a huge influence based on segregation. Another type of vocabulary that we noticed that was emerging was the use of African American Vernacular English. And that's typically with the younger generation, which makes sense, because a lot of them attended mainstream schools. And they were a part of the Black hearing community where AAVE was used, in which they included that within their sign language.

Anita Rao 27:22
For their research, Joseph, Carolyn and their colleagues went to six different places in the South. They interviewed folks who use BASL and documented their use of language. That work resulted in the documentary we just talked about, a book and some resources that teachers are using in the classroom to educate the next generation of Black deaf students.

Joseph Hill 27:42
A lot of Black deaf students in the classroom feel like they have something that they can connect to, something that they belong to. And before, it wasn't a lot of available resources pertaining to this work. So we've noticed a change in that. And I can tell you based on my experience working in the university, where we have Black deaf students, I can see a lot of them coming with more awareness of Black ASL. They seem to be more knowledgeable about it. And also, it's a sense of pride to have that language as well.

Anita Rao 28:16
The impact of this research has also made its mark far beyond the classroom.

Carolyn McCaskill 28:21
When we completed our interviews and published the book, and we came back and shared our findings, many of the Black deaf people, they begin to cry. They wept, because they were so moved and happy that they thought, "Who am I?" And they realized that this is my language, and it's beautiful. And there's a history behind it. And there's a culture behind it. And when we explained that it validated it for people. That you are somebody. That you have something that's special and unique, and a history that's worth sharing with the world. And the world needs to know about our history, our language and our culture.

Anita Rao 29:08
Joseph, I'd love to talk about moving forward, how young folks are opening up about BASL on TikTok, on Instagram. How they are still continuing to create new signs and really making BASL their own. At the same time that there is an ongoing conversation about emerging technology and how that is shaping the experiences of deaf folks. Just earlier this year, there was a report about the first use of gene therapy for kids born deaf. I'm curious what your hopes are for the linguistic future of Black deaf folks and BASL in light of some of the emerging technologies and conversations about language that are being had at the same time.

Joseph Hill 29:59
I think social media in particularly is coming right on time for people to start sharing their languages, their thoughts about culture, something that hasn't really been shown before. And oftentimes, we tend to have these in smaller settings, one-on-one conversations. But this really changes the game. It really validates themselves as a Black deaf person to have their own linguistic experiences. With the gene therapy, that's something that's not new. That's been ongoing for a while. It's that kind of interference or something that says, "Hey, we need to fix you." Technology, for example, we had the cochlear implant. That's another thing where a lot of views on that was, "We have to fix this person." A lot of doctors and medical expertise felt like they had to interfere and fix a deaf person. And it did impact Deaf culture in a lot of ways, as it relates to identity and language production and education practices. A lot of those things have changed. And still, I'm 44 years old now. And what I've seen in my lifetime is a change. At the same time, a lot of things are the status quo. Culture is still here, language is still here. Then what the future looks like with gene therapy really depends on how us as people really preserve and protect our language.

Anita Rao 31:40
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast, consider a contribution at now.

Special thanks to interpreters Joshua Steckel, Phlip Wilson, Candas Ifama Barnes and JaRon Gilchrist for their work in this conversation. And I want to nudge y'all again to check out the video version of this episode. You can find the link to it in our show notes.

Today's show was produced by Paige Miranda and edited by Amanda Magnus. Gabriela Glueck and Kaia Findlay also produce for our show. Skylar Chadwick is our intern and Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Quilla wrote our theme music.

If you have thoughts after listening to this episode or any other we would love to hear them! Leave us a voice note in our virtual mailbox SpeakPipe. Write a review and let us know why you listen or text your favorite episode to a friend. Word of mouth recommendations are the best way to support our podcast.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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