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Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Bridge of Signs: The Vision of Deaf Writer Albert Ballin

When I read an excerpt from The Deaf Mute Howls in the anthology Angels and Outcasts, I decided that I wanted to read the entire book. (For my review of Angels and Outcasts see my December 2012 blog post  "Angels and Outcasts: Portrayals of the Deaf in Literature".) The deaf author Albert Ballin (1867-1933) sounded so inventive.  Apparently, he never thought of himself that way.  According to Douglas Baynton, who wrote the introduction, Ballin was disappointed with his life and its limitations.

Albert Ballin was a man who pursued a career as an artist and later as an actor in Hollywood.  He believed that deaf sign language could be the mode of communication between directors and actors while in the process of making the movie during the silent film era. He even thought it possible that signing could become the universal language that would be understood throughout the world.  This would involve a major paradigm shift.  A population on the margins of society would move into the center. I feel that Ballin was a true visionary.   Baynton says that Ballin had outsized aspirations.  Most people do have smaller dreams. It seems to me that expectations tend to be shaped by background.  If you are always surrounded by people who think you will accomplish nothing, you are delighted if you are able to prove them even slightly wrong with a small accomplishment that may only feel significant to you.  If on the other hand, you come from a background of wealth and privilege as Albert Ballin did, you might think that you have the power to accomplish absolutely anything. Yet when it came to the promotion of signing for use by hearing individuals, Ballin was a movement of one.

The oralist movement that  brought about the complete banning of sign language in deaf instruction arose in the late 19th century, and was in direct conflict with Ballin's efforts.  When I read the excerpt in Angels and Outcasts I was baffled by Ballin's friendly relationship with Alexander Graham Bell who was a key figure in the oralist movement.  Baynton solved the mystery.  Ballin and Bell were both in favor of mainstreaming the deaf.  They both thought that there should not be separate instruction of the deaf or a separate deaf culture.  That was the basis of their positive interaction. Yet Ballin wanted to mainstream signing.  He thought that sign language should be taught to all students.

A recent dystopian fantasy novel involved a scenario in which Ballin's vision could have been realized.  Unfortunately, this never occurred to its author.   The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus posits that children's spoken language becomes toxic to adults.  Parents become physically ill by listening to the speech of their children.  Signing would seem to me to be the obvious solution to this dilemma.  It would have re-united families, and turned the dystopian scenario into a utopian one.  I skimmed through Marcus' book and discovered that he didn't consider the universal adoption of sign language. I then abandoned the novel disappointed by this failure of imagination.

Could universal sign language have been achieved in real local communities?  Douglas Baynton mentions an anthropological study by Nora Groce called Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language which deals with Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts.   Due to a heavy concentration of a genetic tendency toward deafness in Martha's Vineyard, the island developed Martha's Vineyard Sign Language. (See  Martha's Vineyard Sign Language on Wikipedia. ) Yet Baynton questions whether everyone really did know sign language on Martha's Vineyard.  If this was really the case, then why were sign language interpreters necessary at town meetings, and why were deaf children sent to boarding schools on the mainland to learn how to sign?  When I did a search on the deaf in Martha's Vineyard, I came across a very intriguing article on other similar communities worldwide.  Since this article is freely available online,  I am providing a link to it here: Deaf Utopias?   This article by Annelies Kusters appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education.  Kusters said that none of these communities communicate solely in sign language.  They are all multi-lingual.  What is different about them is the prevalence of hearing people who can sign, but hearing residents tend to know more languages than deaf residents.  Yet I was struck by an exception to this generalization that Kusters mentions.  A deaf El Sayed Bedouin in Israel learned Hebrew at a school for the deaf, and translated Hebrew documents into sign language for a hearing El Sayed Bedouin who couldn't read Hebrew.  This is the sort of scenario that is in accordance with Albert Ballin's vision.  It seems to me that  he wanted to see a future in which deaf sign language is a lingua franca that facilitates communication between people who don't have any spoken language in common.  Ballin calls hearing people learning how to sign in order to communicate with the deaf "the Bridge of Signs" which is really a marvelous image.

Baynton points out that Ballin's idea of deaf signing being a single language is erroneous.  It puzzles me that Ballin wasn't aware of this fact when he was well-traveled in Europe.  Although local shared signing communities described in Kusters' article are possible, one universal sign language for the entire world is not possible. Not only does each nation have its own signing languages, but signed communication between deaf individuals is far more complex than that. I read about "idiolects" in Deaf in Japan by Karen Nakamura which I reviewed on this blog in August of 2012.   Judging from what I have seen and read, signing is a less likely candidate for universal language than any spoken form of communication because it's so individualized. 

Even though Ballin's dream isn't practical, it is definitely an interesting idea.  Perhaps one day there will be a Bridge of Signs organization for deaf and non-deaf people to communicate by signing with a chapter in every city.  That sounds like a piece of Ballin's dream that could be achievable.  

Postscript 6/11/13

I just saw a video with a transcript provided beneath it from hearing actor/medical student Peter Wingfield in which he tells his fan club about teaching ASL to his hearing son, Edan, as a baby.  The theory was to give Edan a way to communicate before he learned to speak.  See Hearing Baby Taught Sign Language .  I think that Albert Ballin would have been delighted.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating man and I can sympathize with him. He had big dreams and disappointed himself, it sounds like.