Sunday, 23 November 2014

A letter to my teachers

Dear Sir/Ma’am
This is a letter that I should have written after I finished school, but I realised that one is never really finished school. There are lingering undercurrents of influence that continue to ripple over one’s life long after matric. Some of these are positive waves of fresh water over a desert of one’s soul and mind while and some are more like tsunamis that devastate everything in its path by the coast from a far-off deep water seismic event.
Teachers, you need to know:
Firstly, I am deaf.  Not ‘hearing-impaired’, not ‘deaf and dumb’, not ‘hearing loss’, not ‘hardly hearing’, not ‘hard-of-hearing’. Deaf is fine, I am fine with this word, are you? I really do not have a problem with this word in class, and you can use it when talking to me, or talking about me in staffroom, or in the class. Time to change the words. Deaf is cool now.
If you say the other words, then you can never really get to know me. I am not hard-of hearing, or hearing impaired, as these imply that I am somewhat in the hearing world, and ‘ag shame, we need to help me get back in’, I really do not like that patronising tone and false sympathy and pity. I need your empathy instead. Do you know what it is like to be deaf? No, I am sure that you can imagine, but until you are deaf, you cannot understand what it is like in class with all the noise and paradoxically, all the silence and muffled sounds and missed words, sentences, dialogues, instructions, whispers, gossip, hidden meanings, announcements and general everyday cacophony of sounds and noises that are almost impossible to distinguish.  Coming back to the water metaphor: either I had a trickle of information, or drips, or suddenly, a tidal wave of overwhelming amount of water (sound) with its accompanying confusing detritus of information, it was confusing as I struggled to wade through the information of sounds for useful lifebelts of knowledge, like when the test and what we must actually do. You see, hearing-aids amplify everything, which is the problem, as I cannot often work out what is being said clearly, when others are talking at the same time or the general noise of the classroom impedes on my attention as everything is important to me. I do not have the same tuning-out ability that hearing children naturally have, so I am all at sea, cast-adrift, in the noise. And it is exhausting trying to keep up and decipher the messages. That is why I used a few close friends to help me understand what is required, they were my anchors of stability and understanding, sorry to say, teachers were not the best way of understanding. When the class was quiet, I could listen to you provided that you did not mumble, drop your words, not finish words at the end of sentences, or look away from me, at the board, or at someone else, or at the overhead, book etc. that is when I was pulled away from understanding by the rip-tide current of confusion and misunderstanding. Look at me, make sure that I see you, make sure that I follow, make sure that it is calm in class so I can follow you, make sure that I follow the points raised in class, make sure that you aware of my needs.  I was neither deaf nor hearing enough, and this caused much identity confusion, although I to take on the default hearing identity and try my best to pass, with both meanings of the word. There was much unresolved emotional baggage about my identity to be addressed. It is ironic that I found much support in the advice and counsel of a blind guidance teacher. It was our shared experience of being disabled that really helped me.   
For example, and this links up with the next point, it is easy to get totally overwhelmed by the noise that I need to zone out for a few moments to recover. Let the wave recede and I will be ready for the next one. I did not feel that I was surfing, just swimming, was all I could manage. Although in some classes, I did better than others. Such as Std 2 (Grade 4) second time (I had to repeat this year, I was not emotionally ready or learning to read and follow with the class, that was the right thing to do), and Biology in Grade 9 (Std 7), Geography, sometimes, and English, Grade 11. Maths, Afrikaans, and science, and History were horrible, a real struggle to keep afloat. And in all of these subjects, it was about the amount of information I understood, communication was key. So I took refuge in the safe harbour of the library, and in reading to try to be ahead of the class or at least catch up. This meant that I came to love reading, even though it was a struggle to understand, once I understood something then I could ask questions, or if I did not then I could ask questions about this too. I hated this feeling of being left out and left behind. I was always feeling alone in the mainstream, jus surviving was an achievement, and I tried really hard. I wanted to pass, I hate the feeling of failing, it meant that I was not good enough to be there. In the recess of my mind, I always feared failing and going backwards to a school for the deaf because I could not cut it in this school. And that time, that school for the deaf was strongly oral, although the learners signed among themselves. Although I never met another deaf person during my school years, I always felt inferior in this school, a ‘disabled’ person, like some I saw with back problems, or weak eyes.  To say that this school was inclusive at the time would be inaccurate. To be fair, this is how things were done then. I had to adapt, it was always about me fitting in, and not being good enough. Many times I came home in tears, and I recall the feeling of loneliness and not coping and not being included, or fully accepted.  How could I tell you, you did not ask, or did not want to ask, I must be strong, and many teachers told me that I am doing so well with my handicap. I wanted to scream! And rage against this sympathy. Listen to me. You are not listening to me because you do not understand. 
Now that I am older, and writing this letter, I am more skillful and aware of the bigger picture and see things better. And do not blame you for this unintentional oppression of me and deaf people, you did not know better. I see how ignorance of deaf learners is a problem, and the lack of knowledge that teachers had at the time of deafness and in the classroom, and that teachers did what they felt was the best they could do under the circumstances without actually upsetting the status quo of deaf people, the wave of the social model of disability had not yet broken over us here. But that wave of change was coming, I remember the play at the Market Theatre: ‘Children of a Lesser God, This was a moment of epiphany in my life. Inside, it washed over me, I was filled with the idea that deaf people do struggle and need to say something, being oppressed as a deaf person is wrong. Society needs to treat us fairly. And that sign language is a language too. Up till then I had no exposure to sign language, although I would have loved to have learned it earlier, but it was not an option. The focus of my education was to achieve a matric exemption so that I could go to university. And I achieved this, maths and Afrikaans were the two subjects that terrified me. I cannot lipread Afrikaans, plus all my speech training work focused on English and this paid off, but Afrikaans was a serious obstacle. And maths was a problem as I was so dependent on the teacher explaining how things work, but I battled to follow in class for the above reasons.  In any case, I passed by the skin of my teeth in these subjects to get the much needed matric. I wanted to study further, but I studied hard and only managed these results, nothing to be delighted about, compared to the other boys there who were expected to excel either in academics, or on the sports field. I did neither, I was nothing special, and at a top private school, that is a damning review of the reality. But, I was me and I wanted to be me, not the person that the school wanted me to be, a dux scholar, an A-team player, or a prefect. None of these were ever attainable for me at that time.  I was a small fish in a big pond, to quote Malcolm Gladwell. His point in David and Goliath is that often it is better to be a big fish in a small pond ha nth other way around, if I were at St Vincent, I would have been in a position to excel there, rather than struggling to swim in this huge ocean, against the tide, I was always chosen last, nobody wanted to have me in their group, sigh. Although, it has to be said, that I may not have achieved the much desired matric and university entrance by going that route. There I would have been much happier, but less educated because the standards were lower, not a tough for my parents, and I do not fault them for that. Just that so much more could have been done at the school to accommodate me, more dignity and better communication would really gone a long way.  For example, there was a teacher who later had to have small hearing-aids, and he had not accepted himself and was teased by the classes, and felt so ashamed for him, as this was the same kind of bullying I experienced, and he did nothing to make me feel better as he was wrapped up in his own pain. I could not get through, and he intentionally distanced himself from me probably for fear of more rejection from learners by being associated with me. So I did not have a positive role model, his attitude made me hide my deafness more, to come out of the closet, metaphorically here was not possible as there was no support. So I kept my undeveloped deaf identity below deck. Have you read Gina Olivia’s book ‘Alone in the Mainstream’? Her experiences mirrored mine. I am giving you some homework!
With hindsight, I would love to be back there and said all of this to all of the teachers and demanded more from teachers to service me and nurture me the right way. Only a handful of teachers did that for me.  So much more could have been achieved, but the school did not have in place the kind of approach or structures or support or awareness of deaf learners, like me. The school had to change, and I can see that with the inclusion movement, the school has become far more accommodating and respectful of the diversity of learners and their needs. Well, that ship has sailed, so there is no use complaining to the school about what the school did wrong. That is over. The real issue is about the transformation of the school and creating opportunities and awareness of diversity of learners. And in improving teacher’s awareness of deaf learners to avoid making the same mistakes again. Yes, there is an undercurrent of anger here, and especially of frustration of being left out and not understood in class. You need to hear that, as much as I need to say it to you. I do not want to hear your excuses for what you did and did not do, that is over. The point is, by talking about this bitterness openly, there can be an awareness of the bitter memories from my side and the bitter knowledge of teachers to allow us to begin to find our common humanity and begin to heal.                          
Let me end this point with a quote:
“If a child cannot learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way he/they learn” Ignacio Estrada  
Second, I am an introvert. I need time alone to think and recover from the noise and bustle of classroom life. Not all deaf people are the same, and this part of me was misread and ignored, I was cast as a loner, a social outcast. Only later did I appreciate my strengths as an introvert, from Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. I am at peace in my world of silence, except I could not find and enjoy this at school. What I mean is that I had to be ‘hearing’ 24/7, by keeping my hearing-aids on. This was the cost of a hearing identity, of course I could not see my own hearing-aids, but I could see the way that teachers and pupils responded to me, usually it was different to their peers or others, or indifference or hardly or badly disguised disdain or superiority, because I did not hear what he or they said. So it was a painful time of social isolation and neglect. I always consoled myself that they do not know any better, and that the rewards of a better education here will pay off later. I love deep one-to one conversations, in a quiet place. Crowds are my problem, even more so because even with hearing –aids I cannot follow the overtalking and look at the different speakers’ faces, and watch the other person’s reactions and process a reply. I am easily over-stimulated in noisy classrooms, it is exhausting for me to decipher what is going on which means that I need a time-out of silence to recover. And I have learned to escape from these times into place of quiet and solitude. I really love my inner world of silence, I think quietly these, and read and reflect and write in this space. For me, it is not a zone of doldrums, but a place in the ocean of life that is sacred to me and I need to retreat to this place often. Teachers need to know that and teach within and around this and not focus so much on the extroverts in class. Listen to the silent ones on class, like me. Ask me what I think in a way and place that is conducive to me giving a well-thought-through answer so we can dialogue on this.  
I found a harbour of safety in books. Once my reading improved, because comprehension was a problem for me, then whatever books, magazines, journals, I could get my hands was pirates gold of information to me. In books, I could understand without relying on incomplete sounds and mumbled/muffled dialogues. Remember, this was the time before subtitles, and DVDs, and internet and smartboards; we had overheads, VHS, with awful sound quality, microfiche slides and tape recorders. I found that reading gave me a portal into a new world of knowledge. I am still a book-lover, this is a lifelong hobby and habit that started at school as a survival mechanism which really help me cope and explore new worlds.   
Third, I am dyslexic, when I read, I frequently mix up B,D,P. and 5, E, S as well as keeping numbers in the correct order. That simply makes it harder for me. It is not a big problem, compared to my hearing loss, this is minor, but it does have an impact on my reading speed and proficiency. It was a struggle to read. Now I read really well, but have to watch out for these literacy whirlpools.
Fourth, I am a lefty. This is another thing that makes me different. For teachers, this is not a big deal, just that I need space so elbows are not bumped with a righty. Lefties think a little differently, and live life as a minority in a right-handed world. So discrimination is part of their life. But most lefties are well adapted to doing things with both hands.  But there are things that irritate and frustrate us: books and folders and pens and scissors are made for right-handed people.  I always wore my watch on my right arm, not left, so I was a closet lefty! Much later, after my school years, I had the courage to change and wear it on my right, which is natural for lefties, as well as making the statement that I am different in this way. Just so you know.  This mist of invisibility was pervasive, so much so that in the middle years of school I had small hearing aids that fitted in the ear to make it less visible. Even though these were less powerful, I wore these. I did not know that until I tried new over the ear hearing-aids and realised how much sound I was missing. I remember this conversation with my parents that I wanted to hear more even if it everyone at school saw me with big hearing-aids on. I won that and it was the right way to go. I was learning to stand up for myself. And people at school did not any worse than before, or better for that matter, but this part of me was now visible to them. 
Fifth, I am a teacher. On the surface, it seems that this is an ironic choice after all the struggles and complaints that I have raised here.  When you look deeper, being a teacher is both a lifestyle choice and a career move. As you can see, I have much that I want teachers to know and do with learners, especially diverse learners. I strongly believe that the inclusion of learners happens because of what teachers know and do, their attitude towards deaf and hard-of-hearing learners makes a huge difference. I was always told to be the same as everyone, to fit in, go with the flow, when this was not helpful advice. I am me, and teachers need to know learners are diverse and have unique needs. Get to know each person well, this connection is essential and the effort is worth it.  Teaching is about communicating, and I know how important this is as I have struggled with this. I love it when someone understands what I am saying, and lately, what I am signing. And this is where the earlier quote is so meaningful to me, we as teachers need to adapt our teaching to match the learners. We need to engage in the dialogue of understanding them. And this dialogue of learning is at the core of my teaching. I have first-hand experience of the frustration, confusion and loneliness of not understanding what is being said, in class, as well as when I do understand, which is why I have had to focus intensely on being clear. I am an ‘in-my-head’ kind of person, and being ‘out-of-my-head’ and fully explicit is a skill of communication and way of thinking that I have had to develop, as a teacher, and as an academic. Thus, teaching is a vital part of being an academic, along with the focus on becoming an established researcher. It amazes me now that the tide has dumped me back on the same beach that I started my sea-faring journey; teaching. I am nourished by teaching and on reflection I have discovered that if I am nourished, then the students or learners are also beneficiaries of what my experiences and what I have learned.
 I entered the teaching profession as a hearing person and left 11 years later as an identity-confused person. Who I was supposed to be was not working for me, and I realised that I had reached the end of my hearing identity chain, this anchor did not hold cargo on this identity ship. And I had to have a honest look at myself. By pretending to be a teacher, albeit one with a hearing problem or as a hard-of-hearing teacher, was a false identity that did not float anymore. It was a traumatic period of my life of sinking, drowning and ultimately releasing that identity which was not mine anymore.  It was time to board a different ship, and this was called ‘SASL Bilingual’. But there was much identity work to be undone. The flotsam of the old identity had to be disposed of, and for a long while, I hang onto the lifejacket of my hearing-aids, and citizenship with the hearing world. But this identity was lost at sea and I really struggled to let go of the wreckage. There was a very real sense of being dragged down to the depths and drowning. Until I was confronted by others and circumstances that this old identity was pulling me down. It was so hard to let it go. This is what I knew. I did not know enough about the deaf identity, despite being born deaf, and without hearing-aids, I am deaf. So I preferred to stay with the life I knew, even if I did not fit in there. I was rejected, and eventually I faced up the reality that this is not where I belong.  In my heart, there was a small place that reminded me that I am not alone, this is the lie that I was told over and over again, I was alone in the school the only deaf/hearing-impaired, brave one, etc. This is also the lie of apartheid:  that our identity cannot change. If you are white, you cannot be black, and vice versa. And so to was this lie extended into my life: I cannot change my identity, I was hearing impaired /deaf (small d)/ hard-of-hearing etc. I cannot change my identity to become a deaf person.  I was never seen as a deaf person when I was at school, I was anything but that, and I believed it. And so much has been invested in making me ‘hearing’ that those ropes of selfhood cannot be untied. If I had met another person like myself at school, then this fallacy could have been disrupted and challenged. But it was not the case. So I was constrained by this system of auditory apartheid. I was forced, with much encouragement on how well I was doing (for a hard-of-hearing/person with such a severe hearing loss’) to become someone that I was not. It was easy to believe that lie because it sounded (sic) so sweet. But it was a lie, and did not see it that way. Hence, I lived a bracketed identity, and these heavy brass brackets were drowning me. I do not blame teachers, but later when I understood the mechanisms of this system of exclusion and oppression, I had the tools to untie these ropes that had for so long anchored me to the hearing world. I cut these ropes and was cast free, and for 5 years, I was a castaway. During this time, I learned that I love silence and found my deaf self. I was free from the tyranny of my hearing-aids, I was free to learn sign language, which became an option when I moved, literally and symbolically into the deaf world and made new deaf friends and acquaintances. I learned to be deaf. And to use an interpreter, which was never an option in school. To marry a hard-of-hearing wife, who introduced me to this world. It is ironic that she wanted to be in the hearing world more, as she had lived in the deaf world more, from going to a school for the deaf, which she despised for its educational neglect and low standards. But she could sign. And I switched ships from the hearing world to the Deaf world by learning sign language and became far more involved in this world. Becoming a deaf lecturer in Deaf Education at Wits was the catalyst to this identity shift. But I also had to find my own way in the waters, I am bilingual, and have become better at signing. I have not lost my home language for the sake of being deaf. I am more of a multi-purpose international vessel, I use both languages. Now I am a signer, a second language signer, but I am proud that I use SASL and an interpreter more proficiently. It has taken 10 years to reach this destination.  I am a proud deaf bilingual person. That is my new identity. I like the new me.            
I am becoming a writer and my proofreading small business has made me proud of this successful business enterprise. This is not something that I would ever have envisaged doing when I was at school. The real joy of this is that I am an independent business person where I run this business solely through emails. Contact with my clients is done through emails of their documents. Being deaf does not matter here. What matters is the service that I provide and having a really good command of English as a high school English teacher, and as a (academic) writer myself has borne much fruit in this home industry that I have established.  This achievement has banished the fallacy and expectation of private schools of super-achievement. As learners, at xxx, we could hardly fail, we were the elite. But I did not feel that way, I was trying to stay afloat, I was no more than a mediocre student there. I am proud of where I am now. I am not a chairman of a board of a multinational company, but I have found myself and giving back to the next generation of teachers and learners. Teaching, is the greatest profession, even if it is not seen this way in South Africa, we change lives. No technology can replace a teacher. Who you are as a teacher determines the learning and development in your learners; be that person who leads them into their future as confident and independent thinkers.
For me, writing, academic (for PhD, poetry, my own blog site) is an essential outlet for me, a way of putting my thoughts down and reflectively engaging with words and experiences and ideas.
Lastly, I am almost 50, so this is a good moment to reflect on the 30-plus years of life after school, on what is important and what could have been different, what I could have changed. I think that I learned a lot at this school, but I could have been more confident within myself, less tentative, which was borne out of not knowing and following conversations, being lost and trying to fit in. For me, this fearfulness of not knowing has receded with the increasing knowledge and skills and involvement with other deaf people, I found that I am strong, and that I am not alone. I am not angry anymore with some of the teachers that I had for putting me down, I have learned to forgive you for what you did not know or understand about me.  And that statement has released me. My request and prayer is that teachers take the time to learn about deaf learners and understand us. You can ask me anything so we can talk about it.
Your former deaf learner

Guy Mcilroy    

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Being Bilingual: Wie Met Vuur Speel? Deon Meyer [an exercise in tweetaligheid]

"Weens populere aanvraag, die heruitgawe van Deon Meyer se heel eerste spanningsroman! By n boekeveiling sien Ragel Bergh vir Dirk Buchner raak. Oornag verander haar bestaan, en ná n naweek op Houwhoek weet sy sy is nog nooit so volledig bemin nie. Dan gebeur daar iets so ingrypend dat haar en Dirk se pad móét kruis met dié van Ivan Malan, die man met die sagte stem en emosielose oë, opgelei deur die agente van die semi-militêre Firma om mense te manipuleer of te elimineer. Sy opleiding as misdadiger kom handig te pas hy het geslaag in vakke soos toneelspel, vermomming, vervalsing, seksuele uitbuiting, omkopery, afpersing, inbraak en swendelary. As dié kennis nie help nie, bly die wapens onder sy huis langs die Weskus nog oor. Daar sal hy die “liasseerkabinet van die dood” ooptrek.

Finished this book. In Afrikaans ook! This is the first full Afrikaans book that I have read since matric. I never thought that I would ever willingly read an Afrikaans book again. I am really proud of the fact that this has been done.  It took me from 29 November 2013 to 12 January 2014, to read the 277 pages. This is really slow going for a book, but the triumph comes from having read it in Afrikaans. I struggled at the beginning, and could only manage 2-4 pages at a sitting, once I got into it, and the story started to flow, then this increased to 6 then 10 pages, and steadily the reading improved from jerky Afrikaans, to a more flowing narrative once the word order made more sense. To be honest, I needed to go back and re-read sections, or sentences to work out the meaning many times, but it was satisfying to do this and gain a grasp of the story in another taal.
Reflecting back on the experience, I found that initially I was reading and translating in my head back into English, but at some point, this is a fuzzy area where the Afrikaans and English overlapped and gradually became less English, as I just let the reading happen in Afrikaans. Trying to translate the words and sentences into English proved to be a helpful strategy when I got stuck, but it was also a hindrance as I lost the flow in Afrikaans. But gradually I began to trust myself to understand the text in Afrikaans and not rely on englishing it. This is where I began to understand what translanguaging means: it is about moving/switching from one language to another language.  It is not about, as I previously thought, about moving between languages, as this implies that there is always something in your hand. Translanguaging means letting go of one language, and the one that you are comfortable and skilled in, and grasping the other language on its own terms. The linguistic knowledge of English is of little help for making sense of Afrikaans beyond the vocabulary. Once the meaning of Afrikaans words is grasped, by using the home language as a language base, then the second language can take hold in the mind of the user. As long as the user bears in mind, as I have experienced with Afrikaans ways of saying something, that these cannot be adequately expressed in another language without something valuable being lost. This is the translator’s conundrum/dilemma, how to make it clear without losing the core vitality of the language as it is used to convey a thought, or description. And letting go of English, in my case here, was a leap in the unknown, or the unseen world. This is always a terrifying moment to let go of what you know and go into a world where you are the outsider, or where this is not your first language. There is the fear also of being unable to penetrate the words and language of the other, and not being able to connect with the text.  Sufficient knowledge of the other language is needed to make this jump. By way of a metaphor, I cannot half jump across two tall buildings. The jump has to be across the chasm of doubt over to the other side.
Each time I read started reading a few more pages in Afrikaans, this jump had to be made, but it got easier to make each time. It became less unfamiliar. I began to expect that this is necessary and the gateway into the world of the book, but also into the language of the story as it was being told.  The image of a frightening jump was replaced gradually with the image of a portal into a different but increasing familiar world.  Thus, this is useful for understanding the process of translanguaging that teachers encounter and their fears and discoveries. I want to find out more about the teachers translanguaging from Afrikaans to SASL.         
Sometimes I had to stop and go back if a paragraph did not make sense, and that was ok. Or I needed to look up the work, and there were many words that I have never encountered before, or had seen but did not know the meaning. Sometimes I read on ahead to see it made sense, but at a slower pace to absorb it, and this worked well at times but other times I still did not get it and had to resort to looking up the word and that helped break through this log-jam.    
There are a few myths about bilingualism that this exercise showed me: that I saw the beauty of Afrikaans on its own terms, when I read it in and through Afrikaans, and even though Afrikaans is my second language here, I still found the power and expressiveness of Afrikaans that transcended the English translation, in fact, I found that reading the story in its original text, Afrikaans, as constructed by the writer/author instead of relying on the English translation  meant that I lived more richly in the world of these characters, plus it allowed the reader, like me to bring to bear the knowledge of Cape Town into this narrative. This is a uniquely South African crime thriller, and in Afrikaans, which means that it is not pandering to the English genre and knowledges of this genre, crime is a part of the human condition, and more real when it is made real in the context of the place it happens, then the reader feels connected with this storyline as opposed to a sci-fi separation from reality.  The myths about Afrikaans as a progenitor and agency of oppression in south African language and political landscape sells it short as a language of a people with its own ways of seeing the world, which are not necessarily still pre-1994, or apartheid-centric. Indeed, this story showed me, as I have seen on the streets of Cape Town, and at the school, that Afrikaans is a living language and that it has changed.  It is moving away from its knowledge of guilt and memory to a new place of being a part of the South African landscape. The same applies to SASL: it needs to engage in this debate for its space in the public’s consciousness and awareness as a living language that is indispensable. It is not just about the number of users of the language, that does matter, but it about how it is used, and the discourse that it embodies, is it a discourse of bitterness, and victim-hood, and of the oppressed, which is the opposite discourse to Afrikaans, I venture that SASL is now in the place, to accept the hurt and heal from the past, and move away from the oral oppression to a place of strength. What kind of knowledge is being captured and valued? Where is SASL aiming to become and why? How will deaf people carry SASL into the future? I see that there is evidence here that deaf bilinguals are similar to hearing bilinguals, speaking English and Afrikaans, and Afrikaans and SASL are not mutually incompatible, but there are many variations or shades of being bilingual, and that is good. Culturally, I see learning and reading in Afrikaans made me more aware of the Afrikaner mindset and I felt myself becoming an ‘Afrikaner’, partially because I allowed this to happen, and because the culture and language are inseparable, including the history and the present and the future, the same applies to SASL, for me and English, and when I was at the school, with SASL and Afrikaans, which is a reason behind why I wanted to immerse myself in the Afrikaans language and life to heighten my sensitivity to the language from the inside, by being a second-language insider. Making this effort to become connected with the language is vital to getting into the mindset of the characters of the story, but also into ‘hearing’ their story, as some of the teachers are Afrikaans speaking. What about SASL, and where does it fit in and what is the future of deaf learners as signers, and as bilinguals, and what is the teacher’s role as language model and what knowledges are passed and valued, and what will be left behind, and what will happen to teachers and learners in 5- 10 year’s time?  
The acquisition and use of different languages is important in the shaping of the learner’s lives, and also of the teachers, who are on a parallel but different journey. And as a deaf teacher-researcher, I have my fingers in many pies, am familiar with both sides, but look forward to understanding how this works for both sides, with the focus on the teachers who have the interests of deaf learners at heart, although they may not all have the same vision and aims based on their perceptions and experiences and attitudes to sign bilingualism, as it is happening and where this journey is taking them.         

The next book in the series that I want to read, in Afrikaans, to consolidate this bilingual journey and growth is 'Feniks' (half way through now):

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Change and how we respond to change

On Friday, I traded in my old Honda Ballade, a faithful and reliable car of 15 years and with 275 000 kms on the clock. The time had come to change it, both financially, and practically as well as emotionally.  For me, each of these pieces are vital for change to happen.
 I had to be ready. And I was.
The old one was traded-in and the new car, also a Honda Ballade, my experiences of this brand had not scared me away from a newer model, in fact, I was being loyal, just a newer one, so the change was somewhat less stressful. At least I knew something about what I had bought and could expect: hopefully another 10-15 years of reliable motoring. Sometimes this kind of change is not possible and the change we make is bigger than expected or desired, and consequently the level of stress experienced is higher than we want to go through. But we ‘man-up’ to the task of getting on with the job and hope that this period of anxiety will subside soon.
Right now I am pleased with the new car. But it also taught me a few things about change. Firstly, everything feels new, and I am still used to how comfortable the old (insert appropriate change in here: person/job/church/home/…) felt, in fact I like the way the old car rode, and it did not demand much from me, I knew exactly how to drive it. I knew its familiar noises, creaks, odd moods and habits. Fifteen years had engrained its personality and ways on me. And I miss her. It is funny how the English language gives things a personality, and we give a female pronoun to an object, like a car, we have a strange language and culture! But the old car has had a lasting impact ( no pun intended) on me.
On the other hand, the new (car….) was different. Definitely better in many ways, ABS, airbags, electric windows… all these new goodies too. But it felt different to drive. In fact the first weekend was fraught with anxiety of the “I hope I do not hit anything/I hope nobody hits me in my new car”. This phase has to be survived. It is a necessary part of the change process, just like the glory of ‘the new car smell’. Which incidentally only lasts short while until the kids have made it their home on wheels. I love them, and I know that they are more precious than the conglomeration of metal, plastic, glass and rubber. The first week of the daily grind/school runs/ drop-offs and shopping will take care of that soon enough. Despite the rules laid down to preserve the interior in is showroom pristine state, this is an unobtainable quest of parents for cleanliness other than stuff them in a venter trailer behind. You are right, no reasonable parent will do that, because know that it is just a car.  Still, it is hard to let go. And there are rules to live by/drive by. They need to know that it is new, and precious to me. One day they may saviour the same elation of a new (first) car ownership for themselves. But ultimately, I have found that the state of the car will subside to the state that I choose to keep it. In time, it may become like the old one. Or the driver may have the pride, discipline and strategies in place to prevent this from happening.  We all want to keep the new car like we had it on the first day, but this demands a lot of attention to maintenance of the appearance of the vehicle, inside and out, I feel sorry for those with a black car for its extra attention for looking good. In this way, the change to the new brings with it the need to apply the necessary standards of maintenance of the new. For some, the old is the benchmark. For those without children, the shock of babies and all the mess that accompanies them will be a severe shock to them. Once a car has been puked in, it is no longer the same pristine car.  But then it has a new status as a ‘real’ family car inhabited by a real, proud family, despite its scars. And the owners are no longer ashamed, as their values have shifted. We cannot turn the clock back. The only way is forward. This is probably the greatest challenge to accepting change, it is the readjustment we need to make to our values and standards.
I am hoping that this new car will bring me many miles of safe, reliable motoring and new memories. My values have changed: previously, I wanted a car that was fast, and exciting and fun to drive. Now I value safety and reliability above these younger values of my hedonistic youth. Coming back to the mental photo collection I have of my memories. There are many memories of places, and things that happened over the 15 years, and the quick look through the service history file gave me food for thought on where this car and myself, and the family have been over these years. For some people, that is not important, but for me, this proved to be a powerful tool for moving on, by looking back one last time. Before I let it go on Friday, I found it both emotional and healing to take a moment to relive some of these until I felt that I was ready to hand over the keys of the old car. It was just a car, but it was so much a part of my life that is essential that I respect the memories; the bitter and the sweet. Letting it go is the hardest part of change. Of course, I could have changed my mind and cancelled the deal and got back into the well-used, well-known car and driven off. But why? And where? Sometimes that happens, and we have to deal with it. We were not ready or the deal was not a satisfactory replacement. For some this is easy to do, while for others, letting go is really hard.  If we do not deal with our feelings, then we may feel empty, as a way of simply cutting ourselves off from this event, or feel that we have dis-honoured our experiences and memories. 
And it takes time and begins a whole new cycle of adjusting to the new, on its own terms. The new car has Bluetooth, and VSC, EBD, ABS, and other new developments. After 15 years, it came as quite a shock for me to see how far things have moved on. The new car really shows up how backward and antiquated the old one is now. And I found that was delighted by most of the new changes. Sometimes, things do not change for the better, but the mantra of technology is that ‘new is better’. And I decided to go along with that. Besides, my old model Honda has been dis-continued. The car factory does not make this model anymore, even if I asked/pleaded. I am the one who has to move on, to keep up with the changes, and cope with the jumps in technology that occur from time to time.
 Right now, when I see the new car, I am caught off-guard mentally: I was expecting to see the old white car there. And it is not there. I am still in that phase of seeing the old car but it is gone. The new has come, and it is a silver car. It takes a moment for my mind to get around the idea that this is the replacement. If it was not there at all, then the shock would be devastating. Do you remember that feeling when you came back to your car but it is not there. Only to find out that it has not been stolen but that you parked it somewhere else instead. That has happened to me. This was a shock to me. In the same way as when going through a change that you do not choose, but are fearful of happening one day, an empty parking bay means that my car has been stolen. What do I do now, what am I going to do/Why me? And many questions of despair and confusion paralyse us. We need to be the change-partner to people when they are going through these traumatic changes. Our support, not judgement, is needed. 
Coming back to the point about seeing my new car in the place where the old one was parked. Either I can learn to accept that the old is gone and that the new is here, or this becomes a ‘groundhog‘ day for me as I remain stuck/fixated on the old, to the extent that I disregard the new. When I welcome the change, then the process of adapting to seeing the new becomes easier each day until it has become second nature and it is no longer new anymore. This is all part of fun of making a new collection of memories from the new experiences of: ‘my first time under…/over…/with…/without…’ This means that another change is inevitable, as we humans thrive on the new-ness of things that change brings. It is not the change that matters so much as how we are changed by the changes.                                     
This is what I have learned about change: (and this is subject to change!)
            So many things change, it happens.
Some changes are good, some bad, keep going. Do not freeze.
            That change is a part of life.
            I need time to deal with each change, some more than others, then I am changed.
When I look back, it is exciting to see the change that change has brought, even when the initial change (event) was not good.
Real change happens on the outside but it is experienced and dealt with on the inside.
Everyone deals with change on their own and in their own way.
Letting go happens when you are ready.
Sometimes you do not have the luxury of time, be courageous in the face of the change.
Remember that you are not alone in the change you are going through.
You will be different.
Try it. And learn from it.
Change makes you stronger.
Do not be afraid, (anxious is ok).
Tell someone about what you went through, listen to them, and be with them.

Add your own here….

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Microphone

This topic is a reflection on what happened and tends to happen when listening to a person using a microphone, in this case it was a really senior speaker. On top of that, I was prompted to write about this because at this staff meeting, our sign language interpreter was not available which meant that I had a limited range of options: either I boycott the meeting citing the lack of access. I decided that this route would be political suicide as most of the staff, except the speaker, know that I can hear a bit, and can manage fairly well with many people in face-to-face conversations, although there are some people who are not possible for me to follow even with lipreading.
Even when sitting in the front row, or second row, there are problems for an oral deaf person. I am an ‘oral deaf’ person because I am deaf but with the aid of hearing-aids I can hear fairly well, but not naturally. I will come back to the kind of sound that hearing-aids reproduce later. The oral part of this identity refers to the use of spoken language, as I have said, I can hear a fair amount and I speak well. But for oral deaf people in the audience, there are still difficulties in following in meetings especially when a microphone is used by the speaker. This may seems paradoxical, surely a microphone would be fantastic for me. Let me go through what a microphone can do and cannot do for me as an oral deaf person.
Although it would be a reasonable assumption to make that this is the best seat in the house for a deaf person with hearing-aids, or a deaf person with deaf-aids (an interpreter) there are still challenges. For example, I found that in this meeting, that the microphone was just the right place. Being able to see the speaker’s lips is to me more important that hearing the person through the sound system because they are standing close to the microphone. It is a misconception that I can hear better through a sound system, and I have plenty of experience in meetings, at church, at functions, award events, weddings, funerals of microphones. In actual fact, the proximity to the speaker is more important to me than the microphone, and its often excessive distorted volume since I can hear their words better when this is supplemented by their clear type (like Microsoft ‘clear type’ font, but the default ‘clear sound’) speech and seeing their lips.  In other words, this real-time streaming of words via sound and sight without the intervention of technology is usually, and ironically the best way for me to follow.
However, the moment that the speaker shifts their body a little and the microphone obscures his/her face, and predominately in front of their mouth, I suffer from a breakup in the signal and the communication weakens. I can only compensate for this by a small amount by shifting my posture in the chair to see their mouth again. This has to be done subtly, as the people behind will have their view  interrupted, which is at best mildly annoying and impolite to squirm in front of others, or I may be inhibiting the view of another person who is reliant on seeing the speakers lips, another deaf person, or has a mild hearing loss. In which case, they will be really irritated with my movement that caused them to lose their hold on the speaker’s words. Sometimes, this can look funny when the members of the audience move along together with the speaker’s movements. At least this shows whose attention the speaker has, and who is left behind. But this can be an embarrassing for those who are left out. While on this point, the speaker who talks and talks, pacing up and down and moving around away from the podium/lectern is committing the cardinal sin of poor etiquette for the oral deaf in the audience. It is not possible to see the person’s mouth when they are moving around, and turning away, and the constant focussing on the person moving is really distracting, even though this is fine for hearing people to follow because the words follow the microphone, but I am usually lost with the person who moves excessively. Remember that the light that falls on the speaker is best at the microphone set up at the lectern, and when the speaker moves around, then the light is not optimum, and frequently I cannot see the speaker’s mouth because the light is now behind the speaker, and blots out the critical details of the face and therefore the lip movements. Lip reading is effective only to no more than 15 metres. Beyond that distance, the signal degrades so a speaker should not wander beyond this visual range.  My message here is: ‘Please stay still so I can see you speak’. And also watch out for the overuse of hand movements and gestures that can be very distracting when I am watching. As well as keeping your hand/s away from your mouth when speaking, otherwise I will miss out on the words and just hear a mumbled sound.
Now, looking at the impact of the microphone on the sound quality, it would be fair to say that this is a mixed blessing. Depending on the type of microphone, a big microphone on a stand, or a lapel microphone the positioning of the microphone does affect the quality of the sound, generally the big old-fashioned mikes are better but these tend to be used incorrectly: many speakers speak too close to the microphone and speak much too fast. This causes two problems for me. Firstly, apart from not being able to see their mouth, there is the problem that the sound is distorted by being to close. Secondly the common mistake is to speak in exactly the same volume, pitch and pace as normal for talking to a room of people. For me, the speaker’s clarity will be greatly enhanced when the microphone is not right next to their mouth, to eliminate the distortions, and to avoid the speaker either shouting into the microphone or whispering. This is caused by the speaker’s over-reliance on the technology to carry their voice to everyone, in other words, the speaker just has to speak and the technology will do the rest. But if the speaker is more aware of how they sound, and the impact of their voice through the microphone them this can be fine-tuned out. I have seen novice speakers change their voice when using a microphone, and for the worse. This is the consequence of nerves. Their fear of public speaking is heightened when a microphone is used. Everyone is looking at you. So, the voice often tightens up and is a rushed stream of higher than normal speech, the sooner this is over the better the speaker feels.  Instead, the change of voice that is more effective when using a microphone, for hearing-aid users in particular because everything gets amplified, including the bad with the good, is to slow down, enunciate each word fully, especially at the end of sentences. Mumbling words at the end of a sentence/point is so frustrating. Imagine how the hearing-aided person feels to be following until the last word is garbled out. It is not my place to keep asking the speaker to repeat. And when it is just the last part/word that is important or possibly unimportant?, how frustrating this practice becomes. For example, good news readers never mumble their words, and every word counts. Just remember to slow down to enough to say everything. And drop the pitch down an octave to allow the pacing to be slower but more measured and controlled. I have found typically a lower pitch carries better through a microphone than a higher pitch. And lapel microphones tend to pick up the deeper pitch better than the hand microphones, and I am sure that not holding a microphone also contributes to the speaker speaking in a more normal pitch of voice as it is a less intimidating. I am saying that having a ‘microphone-voice’ voice is a valuable skill for academics, to have and this comes with the awareness of one’s own microphone-ed voice and with practice until this is regular practice.
There are some other issues that apply to the members of the audience with hearing loss, and with hearing-aids for the speaker to be aware of. Since I have to focus on the speaker’s mouth for extended periods with a really focussed eye-gaze, which in itself can be intimidating to the speaker: why is this person/people staring at me so much, that is rude! No, I am really trying to follow everything you are saying. If the speaker knows who needs to lip-read deliberately, as opposed to the causal watching of most hearing people in the audience then this concern will dissipate. At the same time, this causes two problems for the ultra-attentive viewer, it is both exhausting to focus so intensely for  long periods, and often this is accompanied with repair work to the sentences that were not heard properly, mis-heard, or information was simply absent. So there is an ongoing simultaneous process in the viewer’s mind of repair the speaker’s speech so that it makes sense. On top of that, the viewer, like me, is expected to think about the words and put forward intelligent questions or comments. That is the expectation that is typical of academic and formal discourse in a meeting in various forms. The difficulty for me is that there is simply not enough time to process all the information, and correct it where there are errors, and still come up with a response that shows my comprehension of the speaker’s point/s in an articulate and intelligent way. Therefore, the slower pace of the speaker, when using a microphone is a powerful strategy for accommodating audience members like me.  It gives me time to catch up, collect my thoughts and to respond with an appropriate comment, even if I do not say this out aloud.  Before I leave this point, it needs to be added that this focused listening and watching is both physically and mentally tiring. A pause every now and again to look away and recover is useful way of extending the meeting without losing my grasp of the session. For example, as I get more tired with maintaining eye-contact to keep up, the more easily I am distracted by anything that is happening around us in the venue. This distraction has two main forms, the auditory distractions, such as someone’s cell phone ringing, or a bus driving passed. Remember that hearing aid technology amplifies everything, and everything has equal value, so I am always trying to work out if this new sound is important or not. The brain has a natural ability to tune out background noises quickly and effectively. This is a processing capability that I lack, hence, every sound is potentially a major distraction to me. And as I become more tired from focused attention, the less successful I am at ignoring these distractions. And when I avert attention to the noise, I lose out on the speaker because I looked away, and need to look again and catch up. Sometimes, and speakers need to know this, the noise drowns out the speaker, a loud plane overhead, and the speaker can usually carry on because most people with normal hearing can still follow in and through the noise. I cannot. So pausing for a moment till the noise is gone will be more effective than losing me and then repeating, if I ask the speaker to repeat because I missed out. Bear in mind that these extra noises are more than a minor distraction and irritation to me. This is often a wave of noise that hearing listeners are adept at riding, but this is alarming for me as this is a wave that I cannot surf. Instead, this wave crashes all over me and throws me around. It really is disorientating experience. And hearing-aids are not the surfboard for riding these waves.
The second kind of noise is the visual noise. During the last meeting, I was distracted by the long banners that were flapping in the wind on the left above of the speaker’s head. Again, as I get more and more tired, the visual distractions become more tempting and impede on my visual field of vision for attention. Once I know what is moving and how and why, then I can try to tune this stimulus out, provided that it does not keep interfering with alarming movements. Either a movement is annoying because it is sudden, or a repeated movement that bugs you, just like a clicking pen, or a tapping foot. When the speaker is aware of the visually distracting elements in the meeting, and restores the calm by closing windows or removing the flapping, waving, movements, then I am in my happy space of attentively listening and looking at them.     
Bringing this back to microphones, it is worth knowing that hearing aids and microphones are electronic devices and generate/process sound electronically. This means that is sounds different to natural sound, and has its place. We tend to expect too much of microphones, and forget that for some people, like me, this sound is going to be reprocessed as electronic sound and leads to the  double loss of fidelity that I experience. I discovered this phenomenon in the new lecture theatre with the sound system there. When I sat out of lip-reading range (approximately less than 10 m away from the speaker) I could not follow the speaker, even though the volume was not a problem. It was loud enough for everyone, but with at least 4 speakers (the devices, not the people) play the voice of the professor at the same time, this became a garbled blur of sound as the sound from each speaker overlaps and interferes with each other. Thus, I caught only a few words. Can you imagine how dangerous it is to process on the basis of a few words, even though you were there and heard everything. But in reality, only a few isolated words were clear to me. For people without hearing aids, this use of technology is a non-event. But for hearing-aid users, this layer of one technology (microphones) on top of another layer of technology (hearing-aids) creates a sound barrier.  Therefore, being in visual range of the speaker is imperative.
But, there is still a problem. When meeting has many speakers, such as questions or comments from the floor, it can be really difficult to follow. I know that there are people that are particularly aware of my needs, and they speak clearly, and I can see them, remember to give time for people to see you and make eye contact, I need this so I can follow. There is nothing worse than a weak voice from the back behind a pillar. If it is standard practice to come closer and use a microphone, or stand close to me, I will be at the front anyway, then I am really relieved to have been included in this discussions without making a scene. Of course, some people prefer not to use a microphone, but want to say something off-the-cuff. And I may still miss this information, it would really help me when the speaker summarises the speakers comment, for all of us, and for me. This is extra work for the speaker to do, but it ensures that the speaker has also heard the comment accurately and has understand the point. Or to make a note so I can read about the points made in the session. Not all meetings are minuted, and I understand that writing something down makes it more formal, so people tend not to say anything that could/would be written down. Perhaps if this is explained that all comments are written down on a non-prejudice basis, so that these cannot be used again them, this would help with the content of the meeting. Then I know if and what I missed, and can ask specific questions based on this information.                                    
It is hoped that this information about the limitations and good practices with microphones will be useful to building awareness of the needs of hearing-aided members in the audience. Sometimes I have a Sign Language Interpreter there, and this ameliorates many of the difficulties associated with microphones, especially if the sound quality is too poor for me to pick up, or that I cannot lip-read. But I cannot lipread and watch the interpreter at the same time as it is physically and linguistically impossible. When an interpreter is there, then I focus on the signing more than the speaker, and gain a lot of information. It needs to be said that this is still tiring. The next blog will look at how and why I use a sign language interpreter. And some ‘do’s and don’ts’ for academic staff members to bear in mind when using a sign language interpreter.   

Guy Mcilroy