Shawn Nelson Schmitt on Deafness: A Conversation about Language and Communication
Believed to be deaf, Shawn Nelson Schmitt didn’t speak until he was nine years old, an experience that has fueled his study of Deaf culture (capitalized to distinguish between people who identify with a Deaf culture and people who have a hearing difference but who do not identify with a Deaf culture) through sociological and psychological lenses. He is a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Gallaudet University.
THE BELIEVER: What was your first language?
SHAWN NELSON SCHMITT: I began acquiring Signing Exact English (SEE) at birth and started formal instruction in spoken and written English at age nine.
BLVR: How did you manage to avoid speaking for so long even though you had the ability to hear? Were you homeschooled before then?
SNS: This occurred because I was misidentified as deaf from birth. My parents were both born with total bilateral hearing loss as a result of a genetic mutation in the connexin 26 gene; while I do not know much about my paternal lineage, I know that my mother was the only deaf child of twelve. I went to a deaf program at a public school until age nine.
BLVR: How were you diagnosed as deaf, and what prompted your teachers to realize you had been misdiagnosed?
SNS: The hearing test was less rigorous for me than it was for my siblings. When I did not respond to auditory stimuli, my mother and the doctor reached that conclusion.
BLVR: Was there any point before the age of nine that you realized you were not actually deaf?
SNS: Not that I can recall. While I could hear, I assumed that my mother and her deaf friends experienced those same auditory stimuli but that they did not respond to them.
BLVR: Though you weren’t verbal, you could still make noises, right? Did you ever mimic what you heard around you before the age of nine?
SNS: To clarify, the archaic terminology of “deaf and dumb” and “deaf-mute” referred to the audiological component of a hearing difference as well as the tendency for deaf and hard-of-hearing people not to speak or otherwise use their voices. On the contrary, I know of very few deaf and hard-of-hearing people who have physiological constraints that prevent sound production; such issues do not seem to relate to audiological deafness per se. I may have babbled in or mimicked spoken English before age nine, but it was not the primary language in my family.
BLVR: What was your first spoken word? Your first signed?
SNS: My first sign was Mom, and my first spoken word was doughnut. The hand-shape for the sign of mother is often one of the first that children acquire, at least in part because it does not involve as much fine-motor dexterity as do other signs.
BLVR: How does Signing Exact English differ from standard American Sign Language, and which do you use?
SNS: My mother was my primary language model, so I learned from her to sign in SEE. During the course of her education at the Washington School for the Deaf (WSD), the contemporary approach to signed communication was one that hewed closely to the grammar and syntax of English. SEE (as it is now known) was designed ostensibly to improve the acquisition and comprehension of English grammar in deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. In the 1960s, Dr. William Stokoe and colleagues researched the linguistic properties of American Sign Language (ASL); their findings indicated that ASL has its own complex linguistic structure akin to but distinct from that of spoken languages. This realization marked a sea change in deaf education, which occurred after my mother graduated from WSD, so I learned the SEE that she had been taught. I began to acquire ASL informally growing up in the Deaf community, but I have refined my expressive skills in ASL considerably since I enrolled in graduate school at Gallaudet University, the premier national university that focuses on educating deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.
BLVR: Are brevity and clarity built into signing?
SNS: Like spoken languages, American Sign Language changes to reflect the needs and preferences of the people who use it to communicate. For example, ASL is rich in non-manual markers, which are similar to nonverbal forms of communication in spoken English (e.g., stress, intonation, and other elements of prosody), that inform how one should understand the sign. Many signs share hand-shapes, palm orientation, locations on the body, movement, and facial expressions, and a difference in one of those parameters can change the meaning of a sign.
BLVR: Do you prefer spoken or signed language?
SNS: I prefer signing. Though it is something of a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, I am visually oriented and appreciate the opportunity to utilize space and movement to communicate.
BLVR: Can you communicate faster in spoken English than signed?
SNS: Most likely I communicate faster in ASL, but my vocabulary is richer in English.
BLVR: Is that because there are just more words in spoken English than in ASL?
SNS: Not exactly; a single sign can play multiple roles for English synonyms. For example, the sign for control is also the sign used for manage and manipulate.
BLVR: What was your home like when you were growing up?
SNS: As a child of deaf adults, I was raised with a form of signed communication as my first mode of communication. In our household, every element was designed and oriented to appeal to the visual and spatial modalities: instead of a doorbell or the telephone ringing, we had a device that would cause a lamp to flash; the television always had closed captioning along the bottom, which is how I began learning to read.
BLVR: Was the volume always off, therefore preventing you from putting those words to voices?
SNS: Yes, the television was usually on very low volume or mute except when Mom’s hearing friends came over. Still, those friends used signed communication or handwritten notes to communicate with her, so I did not have many opportunities to make that connection between text and speech.
BLVR: Can you tell me a little about your studies now?
SNS: Presently I am a fourth-year PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Gallaudet. My dissertation research focuses on the intersections of Deaf cultural identity and ethnic and racial minority identity. That is, I seek to understand how Black Deaf individuals construct and define their identities as people with multiple minority statuses in contemporary American society.
BLVR: What are the stereotypes you find yourself working against as a person who is culturally Deaf? Do people outside the Deaf culture even understand it?
SNS: Most often, I find that people are surprised to learn of the existence of Deaf cultures: that there are groups of people unified not only by their language and communication preferences but also by traditions, beliefs, and forms of expression that differ from those of mainstream society.
Moreover, despite my usage of Deaf culture in the singular, it is not monolithic; my dissertation research focuses on Black Deaf identity, which incorporates elements of Black cultural identity and Deaf cultural identity, as well as phenomena and perspectives that are unique to Black Deaf people. Lastly, because I can hear, people seem confused by my identifying as culturally Deaf, but it was the environment in which I was raised and the one with which I most closely align myself.
BLVR: Is there a different cultural canon in the Deaf community? Are different books, films, etc., valued that the hearing culture wouldn’t know about or value?
SNS: I grew up watching Deaf poets and performers, such as Ella Mae Lentz and Patrick Graybill, occasionally in person, but more frequently on VHS. Before my siblings and I were born, my mother was a multi-sport athlete; she played basketball, volleyball, and softball in school, and participated in a deaf bowling league for many years when I was a kid. Since I began my studies at Gallaudet, I have seen the popularization of the videophone, the proliferation of ASL vloggers (video bloggers) on YouTube, and the founding of the Deaf Studies Digital Journal. I wouldn’t propose that these things describe a singular Deaf cultural canon, but they represent some parts that I have found personally relevant and valuable.
BLVR: What do you think the Deaf culture and the hearing mainstream can learn from each other?
SNS: Patience, kindness, and honesty. I don’t know that either cultural group possesses these attributes in greater quantity or quality.