I was recently asked why I did not speak. I thought long and hard about this answer because the question threw me off guard. It was something I never really thought about even while blogging about Deaf issues. Not speaking just came naturally to me, and I figured it came naturally to others as well. I knew that many hearing people made an assumption that Deaf people did not speak. Therefore, this was where the idea of Deaf and Dumb came from. Dumb as in being mute, not dumb as in stupidity dumb.
By the way, Deaf and Dumb concept is way outdated, and flawed. Not only it is outdated, it is also stereotypical because it encourages the idea that Deaf people are not intelligent since not many people understand the true meaning of dumb as in silent, mute, and soundless. So please do not use this in any context ever.
The assumption that Deaf people do not speak is also flawed. There are many Deaf people that does speak. Some can speak pretty well. Some do not speak well even though they try. Then there is a category that I fall in; choosing not to learn how to speak, forfeiting speech therapy, and using strictly ASL to communicate.
For as long as I can remember, I never really expressed much interest in using my voice to make sounds, and to speak. Signing came to me very naturally. My whole family signed. It was normal and acceptable in my house to sign. It was not perceived as strange or wrong that everybody signed with me. My siblings grew up signing, and it was their second language.There was no pressure from my parents to encourage me speak. The only memory I have of my parents getting excited over me speaking was when I learned how to speak I love you. Even so, my parents still did not put a huge instance on me saying I love you, and never asked me to say it unless if I wanted to.
However, with my siblings it was a different story. I felt comfortable to be completely myself. To be unrestrained. To not feel conscious. I knew they were not going to judge me. There was no pressure. I screamed 'Ah' or 'hey' when I wanted attention from my brothers or sister (I refer my cousins as my brother/sister since I am very close to them). They did the same when they wanted my attention (and they still do sometime!). They viewed this as a part of who I was and saw no differently about me. I was still Ashley. I was still their big sister. In no way, my voice or making sounds made me any less than who I was to them.
Aside from my siblings, I never felt right to use my voice and to speak. I felt put on the spot and pressured to say a single word. I never understood why speaking was put on a high pedestal for Deaf people. I got rewarded for saying one or two words in my speech therapy sessions yet I was not rewarded for knowing hundreds and hundreds signs? I hated the fact that I had to get pronunciations and inflections right especially if I was unable to hear them. I hated having my hand plastered on my throat, practicing letter shapes on my lips, and putting my tongue in a right spot to say a single sound. My throat often got sore after attempting to make a weak single sound. I disliked bribery that my speech teacher gave to me in order to speak. I hated the most not being able to use my hands. More often than not, I've had my hands slapped or restrained. Signing was not allowed. Only speaking was. Mind you, that was back in early nineties. The laws have changed since.
Along with my brief stint with speech therapy, I was teased by my peers for not sounding normal, and not understanding what was coming out of my mouth. I was reprimanded by my mom if I squealed, or made any sounds especially in the public. Now, don't blame my mom; she wanted me to be less of a target, and tried to teach me to avoid from being picked on. She only tried with what she knew. Nonetheless, I grew self-conscious of my own voice and any sounds I was making.
As I grew older, I cringed when I heard Deaf people scream, squeal, squeak, or snort. I bit my tongue and resisted from telling them that they should not make sounds. After all, they often did that without any restraint or self-consciousness. In a way, I envied them for being confident and not caring if they sounded strange. They were okay with that. Only I was not okay with this.
My hearing friends often became surprised when they heard me laugh. It was often the only sound that they heard coming out of my mouth. I often got compliments for having a cute laughter. Later I learned that it was because my laughter was genuine. If it was worth laughing about, then I laughed. If it was not worth laughing about then I did not laugh. I never developed a fake laugh or forced laugh because even that felt unnatural to me. My hearing friends liked the authenticity in my laughter. I was always very careful not to let any other sound slip.
It was not until I met Stu when he started asking me why I felt so unsure about using my voice. For the first three years of our relationship, I did not utter a single sound besides from laughing, and making an exclaim of surprise when Stu startled me or an exclaim of pain when I stubbed my toe on the ground. He assured me that I had no reason to be uncomfortable around him to use my voice even though I did not speak. Still so, I still did not use my voice.
It was not until I went to Gallaudet for graduate school and gained confidence about my Deaf identity. I realized that I had no reason to really care about what others thought of me. If I made someone feel uncomfortable then it was that person's problem not mine. I came back and Stu noticed that I was less conscious if a sound or two slipped out of my mouth. It was just no longer a big deal to me.
Still to this day, I still feel no need to learn how to speak. Signing is my language. It is what feels natural to me. Speaking does not. I don't need to learn how to talk in order to be me. I do find ways to communicate such as writing on a piece of a paper or having a sign language interpreter to facilitate communication or use instant messenger to talk with my hearing friends. I don't need to talk to establish and maintain relationships. I am perfectly okay with not ever wanting to learn how to speak and use sign language instead. Along with this, I am also comfortable with supplying my signs with sounds, and no longer feel self-conscious about it.
My hearing friends shrug it off and find this to be no big deal. They like it when I respond with using sounds to accompany my signs. They do not view me any differently and never have. So why start now? I wish I had known this all along. Some lessons are meant to be learned late when time is right, I suppose.
I scream at my dog and cats when they drive me crazy. I grunt when I shrug my shoulders. I say hmmmm to prompt while my friend is venting about a bad situation. I clear my throat when someone is in my way at a store. I laugh loudly at a funny commercial. I smack my lips when I am eating something delicious. I gasp when there is something dramatic going on.
I am okay with making noises. I do not care what others think. I like eliciting a smile from my son when I blubber, blow raspberry, grunt or gasp. My son coos and widens his eyes while shaking his fists. He certainly does not care what I sound like.
Stu jokingly once said to my family, "Geez, I used to want Ashley to feel comfortable to use her voice around me. Now she will never shut up." He winked at me with a smile on his face.