Tuesday, August 28, 2012
It's About Total Communication
"Do you still use total communication?" an old friend of mine asked me this past week.
It'd been a while since I used the term, but I said (and signed), "Yes. Yes, I do." We sat down and proceeded to catch up over coffee, and it occurred to me that "total communication" is, in fact, the best way to describe the varied conversational strategies I seek and use in my daily life. It also occurred to me that I haven't blogged about it before, at least not beyond a passing remark or two.
The term total communication (it even has its own wikipedia page!) refers to an idea that tries to find a middleground between the long-fraught territories of oral versus sign language-based deaf education. It was in vogue during my stint at the New Mexico School for the Deaf in the early '90s, and I also remember it playing into the philosophy of the summer camp for the deaf I attended from ages nine through 14. (By the time I entered mainstreamed schools in elementary school and onwards, total communication had firmly ingrained itself into my family's lifestyle and there was no going back.) Many of the communication strategies I used in my younger years and continue to use today are closely tied to total communication, which seeks to offer deaf individuals with a range of communication tools and strategies, from sign language (ASL/SEE/pidgin/whatever) to oral and auditory skills, to lipreading to reading and writing, to visual aids and captioning and all the technology that's available at the moment. Even cued speech, too, which I personally don't know but have seen a few friends use. (It's wild.) Basically, any form of communication goes – when you're living with a profound hearing loss, you need to make use of all the tools you can. You need to be multidimensional!
I've been reflecting on this multidimensionality lately, as it continues to be very marked in my life. With the recent medical/treatment/education shift to cochlear implants and other advances in technology, my opinion is that total communication is no less important than it used to be. Deaf culture-based arguments aside, a cochlear implant is not a "fix." It does not completely "cure" a child of his or her deafness, or an adult for that matter. I'm still as deaf as ever once the device switches off. When it's on, it has placed a massive amount of sound waves in my possession, but the sound quality still doesn't equal natural hearing. I still reach for my bag of tricks. As I get older and settle into my new sense of identity with the CI, I find that I'm strangely fond of my ability to switch gears at will. Listening is coming, slowly. I can lipread. If I'm with another deaf person or with a close hearing friend who signs, I sign. I see it, understand it, use it, and find it useful. Otherwise, I speak and that works perfectly well. I watch for nonverbal cues. I dodge any complications with making phone calls by texting and emailing constantly. Depending on the situation and the person, I may find myself communicating in many different ways. Being flexible with communication has empowered me in many different ways, and I find that I'm fondest of the people who can be perceptive and flexible in their communication strategies as well. It's a useful skill.
I keep dwelling over the state of deaf education these days, hoping that the new focus on cochlear implants doesn't smother all the other strategies that can make a deaf individual successful. It scares me to think of dumping a deaf kid into everyday life armed with his or her CI alone. Heck, even if that deaf individual doesn't require sign language after receiving a CI, signing is still worthwhile. (Signing is worthwhile for hearing people too. If only because it's fun.) And, switching to the other hand while returning to the Deaf culture argument, a fiercely sign language-based lifestyle doesn't justify ignoring the prospects of communicating via listening, lipreading, or writing. It's not one thing or another: the more ammo you have in your arsenal, the better. I used to be ambivalent about this idea, as one might find looking back over the very first posts of this blog, but I'm not that way anymore.
I sat down with my friend this past week, as I've sat down with a few other longtime friends this summer. We both talked out loud, we signed, we probably found ourselves lipreading and watching each other closely. It made things easier for both of us. I walked out thinking of a multiple-choice exam in which the answer is "all of the above." Total communication. That's it. The best part was doing it so effortlessly.
One more scenario: this morning I went to drop off a big package at the post office. Standing in line, I grew distracted and didn't realize the clerk was calling me to the counter. Then I grew distracted again and needed to ask him to repeat what he said. These two things must have tipped him off. I saw his expression change a bit. He started speaking more clearly. Then when I was walking off, he raised his open palm to his chin, then extended it outward: clearly the sign for thank you. Once, at a different time in my life, I would have almost kicked myself. Had I been that obvious, made my disability that apparent? Had I failed to pass completely, to integrate myself seamlessly into hearing person land? (Passing is a topic I ought to blog about sometime.) This time, though, no matter. I grinned, somewhat nonsensically signed thank you back, then walked out thinking, I love it when random hearing people do things like that.