At the beginning of the semester, I came across an article titled The Deaf Body in Public Space on my Facebook news feed that was posted by one of my deaf friends. As I read through the article, I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the observations that the author, Rachel Kolb, voiced. For example, after discussing the embarrassment that a hearing friend felt while having a signed conversation with her in public, Kolb says, “To use sign language, to embrace it in non-signing public spaces, one must sometimes push against ideas of having committed a gross indiscretion. “ I often fall victim to this feeling, preferring to speak rather than sign when I have the option because it does not violate public expectations, drawing unwelcome attention. In other words, what I do with my body is policed by the expectations of those around me. Kolb likens signing in public to “putting [oneself] on display”, so by refusing to sign in public, I attempt to evade being made into a public display. These attempts are not always successful; my deaf accent often leads to a spectacle when my voice breaks what is considered neat, tidy, and normal in a public setting by being incomprehensible.
On the other hand, when I am with a deaf friend who prefers signing, I relish the chance to sign and feel pride in how we are violating what hearing people consider normal. Kolb explains this feeling in a way that feels almost as if she is speaking for me: “Hearing culture presents us with ideals of speaking with good elocution, restraint and self-control. Now, I admit, I see these ideals as visually impoverished, inaccessible and uninteresting: They produce spaces full of immobile talking heads, disembodied sound and visual inattentiveness. Those qualities become the optical equivalent of speaking in a monotone. As much as I also enjoy spoken words, allowing my body to speak for itself feels, simply, more real.” I enjoy the way in which Kolb flips what is considered normal on its head; the expressiveness and physicality that comes with sign language is praised while the ideal of being able to express oneself through perfect speech is criticized. The prominence of the body – hands, chest, posture, arms, face, etc. – in sign language is a strength, rather than a weakness or impracticality. Although I still have many complicated feelings to sort through, thinking of my choice to speak or sign in terms of how my body is displayed in a public space helps clarify my feelings and helps me better understand how my deaf body fits into a largely hearing world.