By: Allan Wallace
The popular 1960s Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence” was a somewhat cryptic commentary about the cause of the world’s problems, the lack of communications. Think of the times in which Paul Simon wrote the song: The Cold War with Russia was still going on, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assignation of President Kennedy, the beginning of the Viet Nam war, demonstrations against the war, and the Civil Rights movement was approaching its peak.
Simon & Garfunkel first released the song when I was nine years old, but I grew up believing that it was about deafness. I was not far wrong. The deaf and hearing worlds have problems communicating that can be overcome with some effort, as can the lack of communications that threatens chaos in the world.
Deafness has several causes. Among them is a genetic variation that parents pass from generation to generation, and pre-natal accident or illness. These causes can result in a child being born deaf, never experiencing a world full of sound.
The following story may help us to understand the well of silence into which our deaf children are born:
Once, a small child became aware of himself as an individual and as part of a family. In due course, he saw his family making face motions while moving their heads and bodies. He didn’t understand what was happening but wasn’t worried about it until his family started making the face motions at him. Then they made a particular face (a frown) and that is when he began to associate this face with their displeasure about him.
Suddenly he started getting a lot of attention, and a lot of frowns. They took him to a cold, hard place where strangers clothed in white poked and prodded him, and his family let this happen. And everyone frowned at
him, even the white strangers. Then there were more cold places and white
strangers, some of them put things on the sides of his head that they connected to strange boxes, and again everyone frowned.
At home, everyone still frowned, and the frowns sometimes became wet. Then they took him to a place where strange people smiled and tried to play with him. But then, his family waved their hands at him, wiped water from their faces and made face motions at him… then they turned to leave him there… alone… they were leaving without him. He reached out for them in every way he could, but they still left.
The strangers were nice enough, they fed him, cared for him and spent a lot of time with him, but they weren’t his family. And they did something weird. Every time they took him anywhere or did anything with him, they would point and make hand motions. Slowly, he realized that they made
specific hand motions every time they pointed at the same things. And he began to associate the hand motions with the things where they pointed. Food, drink, hot, cold, good, bad, table, chair, bed, hard, soft, sleep, wake up, stand, sit, bathe, run, play, toy, you, me, yours, mine. He started using the hands motions to tell them when he was hungry, cold, or sleepy and could do it without pointing and crying.
Suddenly, one day his parents showed up with lots of hugs and kisses, and they were using the hands motions, but he already knew more of the hands motions than they did. They took him back to the loving place that he learned a motion for – home. But, a couple of days later they brought him back to the learning place – school. He was sad again, but he quickly learned the pattern, five days at school and two days at home.
School became a busy place where he could tell people what he wanted or needed, and where they could teach him strange and wonderful things about the world outside himself. But home was a “quiet” place where only his Mom used the hands motions called sign language. And Mom couldn’t do it as well as the teachers or even himself. He often had to go slow and sign things two or three times. His older sisters acted silly and his Father mostly just stayed away. When other people were there, he just sat there watching them move their faces at each other. When he would ask what they were saying, his Mom would tell him in a few words that couldn’t be all they said to each other, OR she would say that she would explain it later. How frustrating, how boring.
Later, after learning to finger spell, one of his sisters would sit with him at gatherings and through simple gestures and finger-spelling let him know what was happening. These gatherings were best because he could not only keep up with what was happening, but he and his sister could also talk about other people without them knowing what was said. It was only fair after all, that’s what they did to him all the time.
Deafness has many challenges in life and society; this is just one of them. Problems occur because most deaf people cannot learn to speak and most “speaking people” (that is what they call us) never learn any sign language or even the manual alphabet.
According to data collected by The National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, part of the National Institutes of Health, as many as 3 out of every 1,000 children in the US are born with a level of hearing loss in one or both ears. Approximately 15% of American adults aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing. By the age of 75 hearing loss increases to 1 in 2. And, more than 90% of functionally deaf children are born to hearing parents.
From Verse 4 of The Sound of Silence: “But my words, like silent raindrops fell, and echoed, in the wells of silence.” Our arrogant insistence that others must learn our language falls on deaf ears so to speak. For the deaf, our spoken words are like those raindrops that echo in a well of silence.
Note: I entered this essay into the 2019 Grace Writers Contest in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and it won Honorable Mention in The Cleva Marrow Memorial Non-Fiction Prize.