Deaf Scholar: Appreciating Sign Language and English

Since a popular talk at Stanford University, a scholar who is Deaf has continued her quest to understand the beauty of both sign language and English.

Rachel Kolb at RE:CREATE TEDx
Rachel Kolb presents at TEDx about her experiences with English and sign language.

Rhodes Scholar Rachel Kolb gave a TEDxStanford Talk: “Navigating Deafness in a Hearing World.”

Kolb was born profoundly deaf and knows sign language.

She said, “I could have chosen to use sign language today instead and that would have been a perfectly viable choice. But for me, the answer was 18 years of speech therapy.”

Kolb tells the story of a presentation she gave to her middle school history class.

Days after the presentation, she said the teacher’s feedback was: “You should never speak like that in front of a group without an interpreter. It is not fair to anyone who has to listen to you.”

This lack of awareness causes some in the d/Deaf community to shy away from speech, but not Kolb.

She has challenges though, she said, and one of those is social communication with hearing people when she relies solely upon reading lips.

Rachel Kolb says, "Never put limitations on this child."
Kolb shares about what her speech therapist told her mother when she was 18 months old–to not limit her.

“I communicate fine face-to-face, but walking into those kinds of group conversations is like watching a world championship ping pong match with ten different people and half a dozen balls,” Kolb said.

In another article, Rachel Kolb’s mother, Irene Kolb, shares about learning what to do about her daughter Rachel’s hearing loss. Irene went to the library and read about hearing loss and communication.

“I learned that the biggest window of opportunity for language acquisition is from birth to three years. We started using signs that same day and within a few months, Rachel was communicating to us with baby signs,” Irene Kolb said.

When cochlear implants were approved by the FDA and their daughter was a candidate, Irene Kolb said, “We chose not to pursue cochlear implant surgery for her because we were sensitive to the message it may send, that she was not okay being deaf. The most profound book I read was Deaf Like Me. With that book, we came to the early realization that Rachel may never learn to hear or speak, even with a cochlear implant, but we could learn to sign.”

Kolb’s father, Bill Kolb, shared a story about how he came to understand deafness through a New Mexico state-sponsored program.

He said, “Then during one visit the individual brought a record that gave me, as a hearing person, an insight to what  different levels of hearing loss sounded like. The record repeated a story over and over again, and each time the narrator would drop certain frequencies until the recording lost all frequencies – that is, let me hear what it sounded like to be profoundly deaf. This recording really hit home with me. Going forward, I decided I would learn as much as I could about how to communicate with my precious daughter.”

According the the article, her parents learned sign language over lunch where they worked and took continuing education sign language classes. Their daughter Rachel studied at Deaf, mainstream, and private schools—an environment that may have helped her develop an appreciation of diverse communication.

“Having a family that signed and that worked to provide language access for me gave me a sense of confidence in myself, even when things got challenging,” Kolb said.

Stanford News reported that Rachel Kolb had a unique perspective on communication.

Rachel Kolb says, "But I can learn how to use the abilities that I do have."
While she doesn’t have a choice over everything, Kolb says, she does have a choice over how to use her abilities, which include sign language and English.

She signed, “As someone who understands the different forms communication can take, from spoken to sign language, I understand the value of flexibility in transmitting ideas. I see well-rounded, effective communication as essential to ideas, creativity and progress.”

In an article she wrote for the New York Times, Kolb illustrated the d/Deaf communication dilemma. She said, “While talking to a hearing person at a noisy party, I inevitably reach the point when I want to stop, switch off my cumbersome voice, and let my hands fly.”

“The general advantages of sign are numerous: not only talking through overwhelming noise, but chatting to friends from various distances, or through barriers like doors or windows. Sign, too, possesses a vibrant visual-spatial orientation and a robust directness of expression that spoken languages lack,” she said.

Kolb uses a party example to illustrate how people who don’t know sign language may have a limited ability: “…when faced with a noisy party filled with signing-impaired people, I sometimes marvel, instead, at the skill my eyes and my hands possess.”

She said people who are hearing note her ability to visually navigate a loud environment where hearing people have difficulty too. They’ve commented that it would be preferable to use sign and she encourages them to learn.

When people do learn sign language, she said it helps people to grow. “It is the human desire to communicate – which always strains to break out of presupposed categories, always insists upon its own flexibility and power.”

Communication is unique to the person and situation, to their education and experiences, but it’s valuable to embrace flexibility in communication with others, regardless of ability.

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