Reading with My Ears Book Review
I recently joined Book Nation for another virtual discussion about the book True Biz by Sara Novic. The conversation with the author, who is deaf, was noteworthy because she shared about her life and the writing process for the book. But reading The audiobook was such an educational and intriguing read. First, she recorded the sound of ASL dialogue to differentiate from spoken dialogue. Before this I had never read an audiobook about deafness where I could hear the sound of sign language. It made the experience more realistic.
Second, I learned so much about deaf culture and the deaf community I didn’t know . Although, I am blind, I don’t take for granted I know everything about other types of disabilities. I took this reading as an opportunity to be entertained and learn.
True Biz focuses on three main characters. Charlie, a rebellious transfer student who wears cochlear implants and has never met another deaf person before. As a result, she struggles with communication with the limited sign language she knows. Next is Austin, the school’s most popular kid because of his family lineage of deafness, but his world is rocked when his baby sister is born hearing. Last is February, the hearing headmistress, a child of deaf adults (CODA) who is struggling to keep her school open and her marriage intact, yet unsuccessful at both.
The students at the River Valley School for the Deaf are typical kids. They just want to hang out, pass their finals, and have adults stop telling them what to do with their bodies. True Biz is a story about sign language and lip-reading, disability and civil rights, isolation and injustice, first love and loss. This is an unforgettable journey into the Deaf community and a universal celebration of human connection.
Chapters were separated by the voices of the three main characters with sections on deafness inserted. These sections I found the most interesting as they educated me on deaf culture. Novic was initially resistant to adding these sections to a novel but later reasoned that the hearing community would likely have no working knowledge of deaf culture and without information would lack understanding and empathy. She was right. Here are some of the facts I learned from reading this book:
Finger Spelling Doesn’t Count
1. Use finger spelling only for proper nouns and names. You should look at the shape of the word not the individual letters. This technique is very similar to learning braille. Although my braille skills are limited when I was learning it I was encouraged to not touch letter by letter but get the feel of the whole word. This would increase my speed and reading comprehension.
Here’s a fascinating bonus fact I learned about myself. I was a sight speller before I went blind. If the word looked correct then it was correct. Over the years my visual memory has decreased impacting my spelling. As I was reading this book, I struggled a bit with Charlie. Since she was a finger speller and her sign language skills were not sharp. She spelled out everything and I would sometimes get lost in what she was trying to communicate. I would have to rewind portions to hear exactly what she said.
Meaning of True Biz
2. True Biz is an idiom in ASL. Meaning, in context it is something different than the denotation of the constructed signs and hand shapes. It means true business, seriously, literally, no kidding and real talk.
3. The variety of cures for deafness were just as broad and creative as those I have heard for blindness. One was to insert olive oil, red led, bat wings ant eggs and goat urine into the ear. Then you have faith healings like the time Jesus healed a deaf man in the Bible. Harsh chemicals like mercury were used. One particular healing technique was to fly the deaf person upside down to correct pressure on the ears. Lastly, we have hearing aids, cochlear implants and stem cells. Early models of cochlear implants actually destroyed residual hearing, and success could vary widely. When it comes to stem cells the questions of ethics and consent arise. Who gets to decide if stem cells should be used or not for deaf children?
ASL Influenced by France
4. The usage of what would be later called American Sign Language (ASL) was greatly influenced by a sign language teacher named Laurent Clerc from France. Deaf Schools there were using sign language and when Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who later founded America’s first school for the deaf, came to learn and observe he brought those techniques back to the United States. I thought this fact was interesting because braille came from France too.
Manual Verses Oral Communication
5. Late 19th Century manual language verses oral communication for deaf children was a hot button topic. The thought was if a deaf person could learn how to speak they could better assimilate into the dominant hearing society. Also, there were strong beliefs around eugenics, championed by Alexander Graham Bell, who had a deaf wife and mother. It was used to forcefully sterilize disabled people. Bell was not a proponent of sterilization. Instead, he believed if deaf people talked rather than sign they would be more likely to not marry each other and produce more deaf children.
Banning Sign Language
6. In 1880 educators gathered in Italy to determine deaf education. It was decided to ban sign language worldwide. This ban would be in place for the next 80 years. Some schools like Gallaudet, pushed back and resisted but many others stop the usage of sign language. The history of braille has some striking similarities. Initially blind children learned how to read by touching raised embossed letters. This process was painstakingly slow. When Louis Braille invented his code it was initially rejected partly because sighted people couldn’t read and understand the formation of the raised dots on the paper.
Interesting, how abled body people assume they know best when it comes to people with disabilities. This of course is ableism and can cause great harm.
Punishment for Deaf Children
7. Deaf children were forbidden to sign. If they did, there was severe punishment. Hands were tide, tapped with rulers or slammed in desk drawers. This decision resulted in fewer deaf teachers, role models or professionals for deaf children to emulate. Further stigmatizing deafness in society.
Black Deaf People Communicated Better
8. I knew that Black deaf people had their own version of sign language, called BASL. But one fact I didn’t know was during the oralist period they were better communicators. White deaf people were forbidden to use sign language and to speak only. So, sign language teachers went to segregated Black deaf schools and taught them sign. This resulted in them learning how to communicate better.
These are just a few of the facts I learned from reading True Biz. Learning something while being entertained was enjoyable. If you are curious about deaf culture and love a good story, I highly recommend this read.