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'I needed ASL to better understand myself': Episode 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.

Folks who identify as Deaf with a capital D often use and prefer sign language. It's a mode of communication that's likely been around in some form for the entirety of human history. 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. Someone who is a fierce champion of sign language and deaf culture is Sara Nović, the author behind the book I was telling you about earlier, "True Biz." Sara is also an instructor of Deaf Studies and Creative Writing and the author of the novel "Girl at War."

We're also joined today by Joshua Steckel, who will be interpreting for Sara in this conversation, and you'll hear the sounds of his signing in the audio. We're recording a video version of the show too, which will be available on our show page, where you can also find a full transcript of this conversation. Sara, welcome to Embodied.

Sara Nović 2:25
Thanks, Anita. Thanks for having me.

Anita Rao 2:27
So an estimated half million people in the U.S. use American Sign Language or ASL as their preferred means of communication. Can you tell us a bit more about the particular origin story of ASL?

Sara Nović 2:41
Well, we are still trying to fully understand how ASL developed. But basically, there was a gentleman by the name of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. And what happened is he went to Europe looking for a way to educate deaf children here in America, because America at that point had no deaf schools and no deaf education. And most people, if they had enough money, they would send their deaf children over to Europe to be educated. So he decided he wanted a way to educate deaf children here in our country. He went to various places in Europe. 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 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 4:40
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 5:27
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 6:15
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 6:28
Those deaf students would still attend schools for the death. 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 7:19
So there was an evolution of the thinking around deaf education, we've marked a couple of important moments in that history. Starting in the 1960s, there was kind of a recentering of ASL and education through the publication of a book of a linguistic scholar that more formally recognized it as a complete language. This is a big question, but how would you describe how the state of ASL education has evolved in the past 50 or so years?

Sara Nović 7:54
Well, that's a really loaded question. In some ways, we do see more and more recognition of American Sign Language as a bonafide language. And at schools for the deaf today, we typically do see the use of a bilingual approach to education. Where the children learn both American Sign Language and English. But the problem arises is that it's very hard for these families to send their students to schools for the deaf because the school districts would prefer to mainstream them and use that approach. And schools for the deaf, we're seeing, are shrinking in numbers. Because of these decisions by the district and educational attorneys and their approach to deaf education, it's still very problematic.

Anita Rao 8:45
I want to pivot a little bit to talk about your own personal experience of learning and being immersed in Deaf culture. Your own hearing loss started in your tween years, you failed your first hearing test when you were 12. Tell me the story of that day and what was going on in your mind about your hearing loss at that time?

Sara Nović 9:12
It's funny you asked because I was just writing about this very thing. And I was thinking about that day, and how I didn't fully realize exactly what was happening. How do you know you miss something if you miss it, right? But then the thing I remember most from that experience at that time, I was feeling scared. I was also a huge nerd. So when somebody says I failed a test, it got me really upset because that never happened. But really, I didn't quite understand the Deaf community. I didn't interact with other deaf people and I felt very solitary. I remained in the mainstream setting. And I tried to hide and disappear, and I thought of myself as broken. And later, I started to meet other deaf people. And I started to learn American Sign Language. And I realized that I wasn't broken, I was just different. And so that was a big deal, obviously. A huge mindset change for me to learn through a different language. 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 10:28
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 10:47
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. 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 11:32
I've been talking with author, educator and advocate Sara Nović. She'll be back with us later in the show. But first, I'll meet an ASL poet who was also the executive director of a nonprofit that showcases ASL through performance and storytelling. You're listening to Embodied from North Carolina Public Radio, a broadcast service of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can also listen to Embodied as a podcast, follow and subscribe on your platform of choice. We're gonna be right back after this break.

This is Embodied, broadcasting from the American Tobacco Historic District. I'm Anita Rao. Storytelling is an integral part of Deaf culture. There are many myths that have been passed down from generation to generation. Like one about a planet called Eyeth, where everyone uses a visual language regardless of hearing ability.

For decades, Deaf artists have adapted those stories for the stage in the form of ASL poetry. Poets express nuance visually using emotion, rhyme and rhythm to convey meaning with each movement of their body. Douglas Ridloff first saw an ASL poet performed when he was a young man, and he was inspired to start composing his own works. Fast forward to today, and Douglas has become an ASL poet known around the world. He's also a performance artist, filmmaker, ASL Master and the executive director of ASL Slam.

We're also joined today by Phlip Wilson, who will be interpreting for Douglas in this conversation. And another reminder that you're going to hear the sounds of sign language in the audio throughout this show. Hey, Douglas, welcome to Embodied.

Douglas Ridloff 13:17
Yeah, hi, thank you for having me here.

Anita Rao 13:20
And a note, we're recording a video version of the show, which will be available on our show page and You can also find a full transcript of this conversation. So Douglas, we've been talking with Sara about the history of ASL and the threads of oralism. You went to a deaf school growing up, but it was one with an oral philosophy. What did that mean for how you learned and how you were exposed to ASL?

Douglas Ridloff 13:46
Yeah, I grew up attending the Lexington School for the Deaf. And 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 15:11
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 15:32
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 16:08
You slowly started experimenting with your own poetry as a teen, but it wasn't until you were in your late 20s that you first got on stage. What did it take for you to feel ready to perform?

Douglas Ridloff 16:24
Well, first I was playing with it almost like it was a sport. We'd show those sort of sporting events happening through sign language. And we use it to describe volumes and describe things in a more visually experimental way. And then college, I sort of stopped playing with language in that way, I would say. Then I went back home after I graduated from college. And I recall one day was with a friend named Jason Norman who asked me to come out and do some signing. We had gone to grad school together and he had seen me sign, right? And I was a little shy at first, right? Initially, I only signed with these little groups, I didn't have the bravery to just burst out on stage. He brought me to ASL Slam to get me up on stage. And he kept dragging me on to stage and calling me every month at ASL Slam to come up. You know, at first it was like baby steps. I came up once, and then another time. And each time I got on there he had me longer and on the stage for longer and longer periods of time, until that became my home on the stage the whole time.

Anita Rao 17:28
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 17:49
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, or orientation. There are five parameters, including the non manual markers that you — would be the facial movements. Let's say 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. So I guess I'll leave it at that.

Anita Rao 19:31
Yeah, no, that's a great explanation. We'll also share some videos of your poetry online so folks can watch it and have more context for what we're talking about. But I want to talk more about ASL Slam, which you mentioned. A place that was foundational to your own exposure and development of your artistry. You are the executive director of ASL Slam. It's a nonprofit that hosts open slam events for artists and performers. And you've said before that one of the goals of ASL Slam is to show the world that ASL is not just used for communication. Can you talk a bit more about how the diversity of ASL is explored through these slams?

Douglas Ridloff 20:12
Well, the goal is really to have this place where deaf people and signers could come and play with their language. A lot of people in the deaf community don't have the opportunity or the place to do that. To socialize, you know? Or a place to look up to new role models, just as I looked up and saw Peter Cook when I was 16 years old. So that stage is a place to plant the seeds of the next generation and to the audience, for people to come and to see something. And also where we can bring in our other artists and performers, poets, storytellers, musicians, rappers, whatever it is. Any form of performance in American Sign Language can be brought to that stage so that people can see it. And maybe when they're at home, start playing with their own language and creating their own content. You know, I've got these two deaf sons of mine. And that caused me to invest in slam more, and to want it to expand more, because I would think of them and I know that they have friends who need that exposure, right? They need ASL to be more than just a modality of regular daily communication. We need that whole message to spread.

Anita Rao 21:40
I've been talking with Douglas Ridloff, a visual vernacular artist in the form of poetry, performing and filmmaking. He's also an ASL Master and the executive director of ASL Slam. And I'd like to bring Sara Nović back into the conversation. Sara is an advocate and instructor of Deaf Studies and Creative Writing, and the author of two novels, "True Biz" and "Girl at War." Joshua Steckel is interpreting for Sara in this conversation.

So Sara, Douglas was talking about the experience of being a parent. And I know that that is also something, an important part of your identity. And I want to talk a little bit about how some of your thinking around parenting and some of your thinking about Deaf culture have kind of come together. One of your sons is hearing the other is adopted and deaf. How do you think about the transmission of Deaf culture within your family unit?

Sara Nović 22:39
Well, it's quite interesting to see both of my sons and how they're developing. I have a hearing son, who his first language is still ASL. He's a CODA, right? But then my deaf son, he was adopted at the age of four. So he experienced language deprivation, it was very stark. But now his ASL is really taking off, and we can see this happening. But it's been interesting to see how the mind works. And the way that minds change when you have access to language, as opposed to not. And now ASL is a huge part of our family. And the way that we communicate together, I think CODAs, or Children of Deaf Adults are quite interesting. And they're an interesting part of the community. Because they're in that liminal space between, where their first language is ASL, but at the same time, if they walk out the door then the whole world out there is hearing, and they're seen as hearing, and they understand everything that's happening. And so there, they navigate between both worlds. And I think it shows the hearing world that value of ASL to everybody.

Anita Rao 23:55
I want to talk with you both about being artists who sit at the intersection of creating for multiple audiences: creating for audiences who primarily use ASL, creating for audiences who primarily use English. Sara, you really navigated that tension in the process of writing your book, "True Biz." What were some of the biggest obstacles for you in creating a book that spoke to and connected with both audiences?

Sara Nović 24:24
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 26:06
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 Poem 26:44
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 27:28
Those are two poems by Douglas Ridloff, interpreted in that clip by Phlip Wilson. Douglas is with me today, and Phlip is also interpreting for him in this conversation. 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 27:54
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 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 29:09
I want to end talking with you both about this WHO report that was published in March 2021, that predicted that unless some specific measures are enacted related to increased health care and mitigating noise pollution, one in four people will have some degree of hearing loss by 2050. And, Sara, I'd like to start with you. Given that and given what we know about current understandings and conceptions of deafness. What would you like to see change in the conversation around deafness and around ASL as we look to that future?

Sara Nović 29:52
Okay, listen to deaf people. Right? It sounds simple, but I think today, there's so much focus on trying to fix deaf people. And so much energy is expended in that effort. For example, if you have an event that you're hosting, and then later you think about it, and think about how to make it accessible. So you have to go back to the drawing board and add in different accommodations. But if you had thought about making the event accessible from the get go, it's much easier. So encouraging people to really start thinking from the deaf perspective, and interact with deaf people to better understand our lens, and then integrate that into the process, instead of trying to compel something that's not going to work.

Anita Rao 30:46
Douglas, I'd love to pose that same question to you.

Douglas Ridloff 30:54
Yeah, the best way to get through to hearing people who have no idea about the deaf world — or people who do know something about the deaf world, but for one reason or another are audist, or have an oppressive view in some way — is through art. Not by preaching at them or being didactic. By storytelling. I think that's the best chance we have of penetrating into that audience and changing their perspectives.

Anita Rao 31:22
I've been talking with Douglas Ridloff, who's a visual vernacular artist in the form of poetry, performance, and filmmaking. He's also an ASL Master and the executive director of ASL Slam. And Sara Nović. Sara is an advocate and instructor of Deaf Studies and Creative Writing and the author of the two novels "True Biz" and "Girl at War." Joshua Steckel and Phlip Wilson have also been with us interpreting in this conversation. Thank you all so much.

Douglas Ridloff 31:49
Thank You.

Sara Nović 31:49
Thank so much for having us.

Anita Rao 31:51
Ahead, we are going to explore the rich history of one ASL dialect: Black ASL, which was developed by students in segregated deaf schools. Stay with us after the break on Embodied.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao. ASL is not a monolith. In fact, many distinct dialects have emerged due to geographical separation. Black American Sign Language, or BASL, is one of them. It diverged from American Sign Language in the late 19th century due to school segregation.

While the two languages share many similarities, BASL has some distinct features — many of which have been documented by scholars Carolyn McCaskill and Joseph Hill. They, alongside to other researchers, have been exploring the rich history of Black ASL since 2007. Carolyn is the director of the Center for Black Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University and a professor of Deaf Studies. And Joseph is an associate professor of ASL and Interpreting Education at Rochester Institute of Technology.

We're also joined today by interpreters Candas Ifama Barnes and JaRon Gilchrist, who will be interpreting for Carolyn and Joseph respectively. Carolyn and Joseph, welcome to Embodied.

Carolyn McCaskill 33:13
Thank you.

Joseph Hill 33:14
Thank you.

Anita Rao 33:15
And as a reminder, we are recording a video version of the show which will be available on our show page, where you can also find a full transcript of this conversation. So Carolyn, we spoke earlier in the show about the deep history of ASL throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, but I'd love to go back to the mid-1800s and talk about what happened after the Civil War. When the first schools started to emerge for Black deaf people. What did sign education for Black deaf students look like in that period?

Carolyn McCaskill 33:52
Around 1869, there was the first Black deaf school. And there were many more that were added after that. America really had a total of 18 Black deaf schools that were segregated. And some of those schools that was segregated had what we called Negro and colored departments on the same campuses. Some of those Black deaf school students were on campuses with white deaf students. They may have even slept together in the dorms, but they actually was segregated for their education. Louisiana School for the Deaf was not desegregated until 1978. It was the last one. 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. And it wasn't until I started working on my PhD. And I shared with one of my professors about my experience, and she was absolutely shocked, because she had never heard about the stories of these segregated institutions. And that helped me think about possible topics to write about. And that's how we came up with the research study on Black American Sign Language.

Anita Rao 35:47
So, Joseph, I want to talk with you about BASL and some of the findings that emerged for you all from doing this research project. But first, can you talk a bit about what some of the primary linguistic differences are between BASL and ASL?

Joseph Hill 36:05
Sure, sure. Carolyn just mentioned, there were about 18 Black institutions for deaf students. And for this study, we only selected six. And for that group that we observed, a lot of them were older deaf speakers that actually went to those segregated schools. And we've noticed the commonalities with those people in our studies. For example, the phonological features, with one handed signs versus two handed signs. And 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 38:27
I want to talk about the moment in history when BASL and ASL came back together more formally in education settings. This was when schools were integrated. And Carolyn, you were part of the first integrated class at the Alabama School for the Deaf in 1968. Tell me a bit about that transition for you from going from an environment where you're with just other Black deaf students to going to this integrated school where folks we're not speaking BASL.

Carolyn McCaskill 39:01
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 41:28
Joseph, I know that you heard that theme of code switching a lot in your conversations with folks around the South about their experiences of BASL. Can you talk a bit about how those threads come through to today? What messages do students get in academic settings about their use of BASL, how recognized and affirmed is it for them?

Joseph Hill 41:57
I feel really fortunate to be a part of this team. Also to create the documentary, where people get a visual. Those resources that we created, plus the resources others have created now, are available in schools where teachers and professors are happy to have that sort of material. 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.

Carolyn McCaskill 42:49
Let me weigh in.

Anita Rao 42:50
Yeah, Carolyn, sure.

Carolyn McCaskill 42:52
Our work actually validated the existence of a culture and a language. And 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 43:43
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, I'll start with you.

Joseph Hill 44:37
Like you talked about emerging technology. 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. So it's hard to predict the future and the impact of the Black Deaf community as it relates to language and culture. But that's how I feel about it.

Anita Rao 46:40
Carolyn, I'd love to end with any closing reflections from you about your hopes for the linguistic future of the ASL.

Carolyn McCaskill 46:52
I'm hoping that more, and more people will do more stories and more documentaries about our community, our culture and our language. In the past few years, there's one young Black deaf woman who has been posting on TikTok...

Anita Rao 47:16
Yes, I've seen this.

Carolyn McCaskill 47:17
...with stories. And I was very happy to see that. Sadie Smith was doing that. And it's been wonderful to see her talk about her grandmother and those kinds of things. And as I said, we focused on the South. We didn't focus on the North at all or the East, but I'm sure that they were Black ASL features and norms there as well. But I'm hoping that people will continue to do the research, to do videos, to do more interviews and to continue the work. The more we share what's going on, the more excited people get. And there's more passion and more support of the work.

Anita Rao 48:03
I've been talking with doctors Carolyn McCaskill and Joseph Hill. Carolyn is the director of the Center for Black Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University and a professor of Deaf Studies. Joseph is an associate professor of ASL and Interpreting Education at Rochester Institute of Technology. Thank you both so much for the conversation.

Carolyn McCaskill 48:24
Thank you for having us.

Joseph Hill 48:27
I really appreciate it. You've given us an opportunity to share our experiences. Thank you.

Anita Rao 48:32
Thank you also to Candas Ifama Barnes and JaRon Gilchrist for their interpretation.

You can find out more about everyone we talked to today at our website You can find all episodes of the radio show there. And make sure you subscribe to our weekly podcast. It's a great way to catch up on anything you missed. Also, remember that we have recorded a video version of the show which will be available on our show page You can also find a full transcript there of this conversation.

Today's episode was produced by Paige Miranda and edited by Amanda Magnus. Kaia Finlday and Gabriela Glueck also produce for our show. Skylar Chadwick is our intern and Jenni Lawson is our technical director.

North Carolina Public Radio is a broadcast service of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I'm Anita Rao.

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