Have you ever wondered what it was like to be truly deaf? Or wanted a way for your family to understand the experience of deafness, if only for a short time. I had the chance to confront these questions recently at an interesting exhibit entitled “Invitation to Silence” running at The Israeli Children’s Museum.
More than an exhibit, it was an interactive experience led by a deaf guide that served to help visitors get a better understanding of what it would be like to communicate as a deaf person. While some sign language was introduced, communication was primarily achieved through facial expressions and body language rather than formal signing. It was a fun experience and provided much food for thought about living with deafness.
To begin, our group of 16 donned thick headphones to block out all background noise. We were instructed not to speak, make other noises, or mouth words silently. We then followed our deaf guide through a series of rooms learning to communicate with him and each other in a variety of ways.
First, we learned to speak with our fingers through simple counting games (holding up the right number of fingers as we went around the circle) and shadow play (using our hands to make shapes on the table). It was fun to see how quickly everyone caught on to the games and how effectively we could communicate simple things to one another without words.
Second, we focused on conveying emotions. The guide displayed pictures of various items such as puppies, sushi, and garbage and we had to use facial expressions and hand gestures to indicate how we felt about the object. I found myself overly emoting to get my point across and noticed others doing the same. We may have felt a little silly at first, but it worked.
Next we learned about the visual nature of sign language — that signs often look like what they are referencing. For example, the sign for nose, looks like a nose. The sign for walking looks like walking. This was the pattern for many things.
We also experimented with names. I was asked to create a sign for my name — not finger spelling Shari, but a hand gesture that would be my name in sign language. Given my obsession with yoga, I chose Namaste hands. It seemed to work.
In the end, we put everything together, using our new skills and pantomime to have simple conversations within the group and to order beverages and snacks at the cafe. This was followed by a talk-back with our guide. We were joined by a sign language interpreter so we could ask our guide questions and understand his responses.
We learned that he had been deaf since he was a young child but attended a combination of deaf and hearing schools, sometimes with an interpreter for help. His family never learned to sign, and encouraged him to consider a cochlear implant. He was implanted in his 20s and while he is happy he has it for ambient noise and safety, he prefers sign language to communicating orally. This made sense to me given his life experience.
It was a fun and stimulating encounter, but focused exclusively on the Deaf experience, not the experience of someone like me, who is augmenting her residual hearing with hearing aids or other devices. It reinforced how much simpler it is to demonstrate the concept of deafness versus the more fractured experience of hearing loss.
With deafness, silence is presumed. Communication with sign language is expected. But with hearing loss, the lines are less clear. People assume that you won’t hear well, but when you do understand some of the things they say, it is hard for them to understand why you don’t understand other things too. It is a more complicated and nuanced affair.
Readers, have you had a similar opportunity to experience deafness?