As a musician, imagining a silent world is unfathomably sad. As one who enjoys other people’s company and conversation, the idea of being isolated within my own community epitomizes despair. And as a teacher, thinking about children trapped alone in silence without a way to communicate yanks on all my emotional nerves. But for deaf children in developing countries, this bleak picture isn’t just imagined.
Communication is a basic human need. We need to communicate for very practical, life-sustaining reasons; and as we communicate well, we can ascend to the higher echelons of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs approaching self-actualization.
Education serves as a vehicle for refining and expanding our communication skills. What we learn, both in and out of school, gives us things to talk about and teaches us how to talk about them. Since I resonate more with a constructivist perspective, I think people inherently have things to talk about. We’re born with ideas. As we interact with our environments, we generate new ideas. There is no lack of conversational material within the young human mind.
But what if that mind is limited by what the body can express? Imagine having all these ideas in your head without any way to articulate or share them—the quintessence of frustration, right? I happened upon a few poignant videos (included below) about deaf children and their first exposures to sign language. Seeing the grins stretch across their faces has had me thinking about the joy it is to be able to communicate. As a teacher, I think I’d do just about anything to see that look on one of my student’s faces.
A discussion of the elucidating role of education in the deaf community would be incomplete with a mention of Helen Keller. Deaf and blind, young Helen lived rather alone and reckless in a dark, silent world until her teacher, Anne Sullivan, helped her learn to communicate. Helen describes her breakthrough moment thus, “Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.” Anne Sullivan’s summarized her perspective on that moment with these words, “A new light came into her face.”
As teachers of any and all students with any and all learning abnormalities, (what’s normal, really?) we have a priceless opportunity to invite that “new light” into their faces.