The Silent Child

The Silent Child

I wouldn’t claim to be particularly knowledgeable about the subject, but I have done some reading here and there about deaf people and deaf culture, most notably Oliver Sacks’s Seeing Voices, and so I have at least some familiarity with some of the social and political controversies and such surrounding the deaf.

Perhaps the most notable point as I understand it—and this is not something I or the typical lay person would likely pick up on if it were not pointed out to us—is that there’s a sense in which deafness can be the foundation for a culture. Not in the weak sense that blind people, people missing a leg, people with cancer, people with diabetes, whatever, might bond together in support groups, make common cause over certain things to lobby for to improve their lives, etc., but in a stronger sense more akin to what we normally think of as a culture, like the Navajo, the Jews, the French, or what have you.

The difference has to do with how central hearing—even more so than, say, sight—is to the way most people develop and use language, and therefore to the way their brains develop and the way they think. Deaf people differ in this hugely important respect. They can most naturally communicate through other means, other senses, most notably through signing. For them to fully develop neurally, psychologically, socially, they ideally need to be in a community of fellow deaf people (and people who aren’t deaf but who choose to interact with them in a deaf manner, by signing).

A lot of the issues of concern to the deaf have to do with the general matter of whether deaf people should adjust to the world of the majority of people, or the world should adjust to make room for the deaf in effect.

For instance, if your goal is to make deaf people best able to function in the world as it is, or maybe we could better say that if your goal is to make deaf people function in a way that is most convenient for the majority of people, i.e., of non-deaf people, then you might well emphasize their learning lip reading, and their learning to speak orally as best they can, even if it’s still not all that well.

The downside of this, for the deaf people themselves, is that you are requiring them to function in a way that does not fit them and their capacities, and does not enable them to fully develop and flourish the way they are capable of. To require a deaf person to live as an imitation hearing person like this is more radically limiting than requiring a hearing person to change languages, like, say, requiring a person who grew up speaking Spanish to conduct their life fully in English when they come to the United States. There’s a bigger gap between signing and a conventional language than between English and Spanish, or you could say it’s not just a bigger gap but different categories of communication entirely. Someone whose brain and senses are wired such that they can be proficient in Spanish could in principle also be proficient in English, but a deaf person can’t be expected to take to spoken English the natural way they can to signing.

So the alternative is for deaf people to communicate through signing, and for society to accommodate this, for instance by having a significant number of hearing people learn sign, having spoken language more commonly translated into sign and vice versa, etc.

Nothing is more essential to a culture than language, and sign is the language of the deaf.

Even within sign, though, there are distinctions to be made. There are sign languages that have been created to mirror spoken languages, like a sign version of English, a sign version of German, etc. The signs in such a language correspond to the alphabet and sounds of the spoken language. But while these might be better for deaf people than lip reading and trying to speak, they still include an unnecessary middle step in effect. Sounds have no meaning for deaf people, so in that sense it’s pointless for a deaf language to represent sounds. These languages are criticized by many as just another way to try to make deaf people lesser versions of hearing people rather than allowing them to be the best versions of deaf people.

Generally considered superior within sign languages, then, are sign languages that go directly from signs to meaning, rather than from signs to sounds to meaning. An example is American Sign Language. Languages like these are actual natural languages, not artificial versions of corresponding spoken languages. They have their own grammar and sentence structure and such, just like any other legitimate language.

So it is “pro-deaf” to favor sign language for the deaf over spoken language, and further to favor natural sign languages over sign versions of spoken languages.

Now I may have gotten some of that wrong; I’m just summarizing the limited amount I recall from past reading (and a documentary or two, and other sources). Again, I’m not all that well-versed in this stuff.

But I say all that as background to The Silent Child, because this twenty minute British short film is about these very issues of how a deaf child can best be raised to be able to fully develop his or her capacities and successfully integrate into the larger society.

A family hires a specialist tutor—an eager, dedicated young woman—to help them with their young deaf daughter.

They are a super busy family, with the mother especially being a type A personality. The parents and siblings have over time worked out whatever ways of dealing with the deaf little girl work best for them. Certainly they manifest no hostility toward the child, but clearly she has had to adapt to their world and family structure much more than they have compromised to fit her very different characteristics and capacities. She has picked up some lip reading, and has naturally developed at least some rudimentary ability to read body language and such so that she has some sense of what’s going on in the household, what people are communicating, etc.

The tutor bonds with the child fairly quickly. Partly this is because she is a friendly person who is willing to give the child attention and such—more attention than her family members typically give her—but a lot of it is because she starts teaching the child to sign.

This is a revelation to the little girl, really her first opportunity to use a genuine language that is suited to her, which is something she didn’t know enough to miss because she didn’t know she lacked it. But it really is like a whole new world is opening up to her, like there’s an alternative to the isolation she has become used to as normal.

Speaking of that isolation, there’s a dramatic moment in the film where the filmmakers have everything go dead silent for just a few seconds. In that brief time you get a hint at least of how this little girl has lived her whole life.

The girl makes impressive progress with her tutor, but the parents do not see this as the positive development that you would hope they would. The mother informs the tutor that signing is to be de-emphasized from this point forward in favor of lip reading. The tutor, as politely as she can, seeks to advocate for the child, trying to explain to the mother why this is a poor decision for her child, how it will stunt her development. The mother, who as always is rushing around from one commitment to another and thus has no time to talk about it at any length, sticks to her guns: We’re her parents; if you’re going to be her tutor at all, you’re going to do things our way, not your way.

The tutor is crushed, because she knows how devastating this will be to the girl’s prospects to live a full life and to thrive. But the family assumes that as a deaf person her prospects are quite limited regardless. In one scene, the tutor is excitedly telling one of the grandparents how terrifically the little girl is coming along, and the woman says, “Oh, do you think she’ll actually be able to have a job when she grows up?” The tutor is momentarily taken aback by the ignorance of the question before responding encouragingly, “I think she’ll be able to be whatever she wants.” “Oh that’s wonderful,” the woman replies, no doubt pardoning the tutor in her mind for her unrealistic optimism.

The conflict between the mother and the tutor highlights a related issue about deafness. I noted that the deaf can potentially be a culture of their own. But an important way that this differs from most cultures is that it’s not by birth.

I mean, with rare partial exceptions of adoptions and mixed marriages and such, the norm is for black children to be born into and raised by black families as their culture, Italian-speaking children to be born into and raised by Italian-speaking families as their culture, Muslim children to be born into and raised by Muslim families as their culture, etc. But the overwhelming majority of deaf children are born into families and communities with few if any other deaf people. Their potential deaf peers come from elsewhere, from outside.

It’s as if Eskimos sometimes gave birth to a child that needed to be raised as an Orthodox Jew to fully reach his or her potential, or an English-speaking family in South Dakota gave birth to a child that would best develop if surrounded by as many Japanese speakers as possible.

In such a situation you can imagine that a family would balk at the notion that their child is more suited to an Orthodox Jewish culture or a Japanese culture than to theirs. It’s like they’re being asked to give their child up to some other community, or at least to become more Orthodox Jewish or Japanese-speaking themselves to provide the best environment for their child.

People, at least people who haven’t educated themselves and become sensitive to these issues, don’t want to hear that. Like this mother. As far as she’s concerned, she knows what’s best for her daughter, and that’s to be the best version of her parents and the people in her family as she can be, even if that’s a quite limited version. She needs to function in spoken English, not to bond with outsiders like this tutor or ultimately a whole culture of other deaf and pro-deaf people.

It’s a moving and sad tale, because the obvious takeaway is that this family is seriously harming their child. Not maliciously, but through a form of unintentional selfishness.

The Silent Child won the Academy Award for the best live action short film. It’s an emotionally powerful film with an important message. If I were to criticize it at all, I’d maybe say it comes across as a bit didactic in places, but I would rate it high to very high. I wouldn’t have given it the Oscar, but that’s because the competition this year was extraordinary, not because of anything I disliked about this film. It’s just that DeKalb Elementary is the most amazing short film I’ve seen in years, so I’d have to give that film the Oscar if it was up to me. But The Silent Child, Watu Wote, and possibly My Nephew Emmett are almost at that level. Most years any of those would be good enough to deserve an Oscar. For that matter the other nominee, The Eleven O’Clock, is not all that far behind these others. This was just a dynamite year for live action short films.