Being Bilingual

Since deaf and hearing siblings grew up under the Milan Impact, they bore the consequences of the edict banning ASL. Yet, conversations among siblings about ASL are a rarity. Most of the deaf and hearing siblings admitted they have not had heart-to-heart talks about ways to resolve their differences, largely a result of the limitations and frustrations, inherent in their communication using speech and MCE systems. Our research showed an underlying attitude toward ASL that continues to obstruct opportunities for sibling bonding. Conference workshops and retreats for families with deaf members, hosted by local and national organizations, are emerging with sibling peer support groups as essential components.

Based on the interviews, we created a series of vignettes of the non-signing hearing siblings and their deaf siblings as if they were in the same room. Although the interviews were conducted separately, these siblings were specifically vocal about ASL and its significance in the DEAF- WORLD. Since the adult deaf siblings have made a conscious decision to communicate in ASL, the scenarios propelled us to reframe perspectives of both deaf and hearing siblings. These vignettes uncover the non-signing siblings’ resistance to the change their deaf siblings had embraced.

Although they are related by blood, according to his sister Kacie, her brother’s discovery of ASL and the DEAF-WORLD is perceived to be the root of their conflict:

Our relationship is so negative part of me doesn’t want to learn ASL just to spite him. He’s been trying to ram it down our throats since he learned it himself, after he was out of the house. I have a busy life, working and trying to raise a family and quite honestly, I don’t see him enough nor do I want to. One positive thing though he’s brought sign to our lives and I find it extremely interesting that I would love to learn it…. I will not learn it for him…. Why should I? … he doesn’t deserve to have us take time out of our lives to learn a language that is his. He’s never tried to do anything that’s ours. You know, he was kind of forced to and resented it and then resented us. We can talk with one another, just like we did when we were kids. So why do I need to learn it? So, why doesn’t he make peace with that?

With the communication challenges, siblings have it within their power to embrace, resist or resent changes. What if Kacie’s learning ASL isn’t such a big deal? She is stating just because he’s changed doesn’t mean she had to when they understood one another perfectly. In our interview, her deaf brother Maxel had an answer:

I feel lost. It’s not just a one-time event; it is an on-going thing escalating over the years. Everyone talks, including me! It’s impossible to lipread when we’re socializing. Sign works. She is a stay-at- home mother and she has the time to learn if she wants to.

As an adult, using spoken English was Kacie’s choice. However, it was no longer Maxel’s. Yet as soon as Kacie said, “He’s never tried doing anything that is ours,” she realized they had been using her language to communicate with each other. Suddenly, there were no words to make amends. Every time he talks with Kacie, Maxel is exhausted from time-consuming and numerous repetitions to correct misunderstandings. He is telling her: “I have a solution to our communication difficulties and you are not interested!” Having different expectations about which language to use escalated their conflict. Kacie is comfortable communicating in spoken English, whereas Maxel finds ASL more effective. Another layer was the disagreement over priorities about making time for communication. Kacie resisted Maxel’s dictating her priorities by insisting she spend time learning ASL. However, Maxel does not have the luxury of time for constant missed opportunities for interaction and intimacy with his sibling. Arising from his determination to take advantage of the communication modality he’s discovered, ASL, from his perspective Kacie ought to seize the opportunity to use it to move their relationship in a positive direction. This has backfired.