Skip to main content
Blond-haired boy and girl smile for the camera. Faded color photo.

My uncle and mom being goofy for the camera. Portland, Oregon, c. 1972.

Photo courtesy of Caroline Cassinelli

  • The Power of Storytelling: Reflections on Deaf Culture and American Sign Language

    My uncle is a storyteller.

    It usually begins with food (as all good things do). My grandmother prepares a delicious, sustainably sourced Pacific Northwest dish, and we all gather around the kitchen table, which has already been carefully cleared of any objects which might impede our vision of each other.

    After we’ve all said what we are thankful for today, we start digging in, with the only sound for a few minutes being the clinking of forks hitting plates. Eventually, we start chatting, and some comment or another will spark something in my uncle’s memory. His eyes twinkling, he waits for a pause in the conversation before jumping in, sweeping his hands widely; he does this to make sure that he has everyone’s attention, but also to establish the space within which his tale will occur.

    He sets it up perfectly, providing just enough details to get everyone fully engaged. Carving the air with his arms, he shapes the story with broad movements of his hands and delicate turns of his fingers. His eyebrows punctuate each exclamation and his lips add depth to the words that he is speaking. With every widening or narrowing of his eyes, we are on the edge of our seats. His timing and rhythm are impeccable, and when he reaches the climax of the tale, which is almost always humorous, there is about a one- to two-second beat before the whole table erupts into full-body laughter.

    With the calmness of an orchestra conductor and the gravitas of an actor he holds, we all feel as though we could sit here and enjoy his stories for hours.

    *****

    My uncle is Deaf.

    It is important to recognize that the word “deaf” has many different meanings, including cultural and physical meanings, and an individual can identify as both deaf and Deaf. Here, I use “Deaf” with a capital D for any use that is not specifically physical; others may choose to do it differently, however.

    My uncle was born with complete and profound hearing loss. The doctors, who at the time in the late 1960s thought that his deafness was caused by rubella disease, told my grandmother that there was a one-in-a-million chance that she would have another deaf child. Two years later, my mother was born Deaf as well.

    Woman with brown beehive hairdo poses with baby girl and toddler boy. Faded color photo.
    My grandmother, mother, and uncle. Ventura, California, c. 1968.
    Photo courtesy of Caroline Cassinelli

    The doctors also told my grandmother that her children were not to be taught to use sign language, that this would impair their cognitive function and prevent them from becoming “full” members of society. Instead, they would have to be taught to read lips and to speak—advice which derived from the prevailing form of deaf education throughout much of the twentieth century, known as oralism.

    The most famous proponent of this form of deaf education was Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone whose wife and mother were both deaf. Rooted within the scientific eugenics movement of the nineteenth century were ideas about “primitivism” and language development, and Bell applied these principles to American Sign Language, the language of  deaf communities that had already existed in the United States for decades.

    Delivering speeches at conferences and presenting his research, Bell instead pushed for his system of using speech and lipreading, known as “oralism” for its emphasis on the use of the mouth for communication. By arguing that sign languages were less “civilized” than spoken ones, Bell created a legacy of oralist schools (and ideas) that impacted American deaf education for over a century after his death and impacted thousands of deaf children’s lives.

    Following the advice of her doctor and naturally wanting what was best for her children, my grandmother moved from her home in Southern California to Portland, Oregon, enrolling them in the Tucker Maxon Oral School. Opened in 1947, this was one of the schools which catered specifically to deaf children, teaching them to recognize vowels and the sounds that they make in order to create speech.

    My mother and uncle have many stories from this period in their lives. At Tucker Maxon, as was the prevailing custom at oralist schools across the country, students were not allowed to sign. My mother recalls her hands being hit with rulers when she would unconsciously try to use them to communicate. This was not the practice at every school, however, and education at schools for the deaf often differed in regard to attitudes about language development and use. The diversity of forms of deaf education reflect and contribute  to the immense diversity of the American deaf community.

    Boys smiles at mother, who is crouched down on the ground to talk to him. Young girls sit in the background. Black-and-white photo.
    My grandmother speaking with my uncle. Portland, Oregon, c. 1975.
    Photo courtesy of Caroline Cassinelli
    Six kids and one adult sit at a table set with plates and silverware. The children each wear a wired hearing aids. Black-and-white photo.
    My mom (top left), learning dinner table etiquette with her Tucker Maxon classmates. Portland, Oregon, c. 1978.
    Photo courtesy of Caroline Cassinelli

    On the playground, my uncle remembers conspiring with other students to make up their own sign language, one which they would discreetly use when the teachers weren’t looking. Tight bonds of friendships have emerged from these experiences at Tucker Maxon; my mom and uncle still have close relationships with many students they met there.

    One of the stories that has stayed with me is the time that they encountered other deaf people while riding the city bus to school. They described how they both immediately pretended not to notice, moving their mouths in imitation of speech in order to pass as hearing and avoid being recognized as Deaf. The way that my uncle explained this reaction to me was as a fear of being recognized as “abnormal,” since the goal of their education was to make them as mainstream, or “normal,” as possible. My mom has shared with me that she no longer feels self-conscious signing in public, due to a combination of changing social circumstances and mostly her own personal growth and empowerment.

    Eventually my mother and uncle were both “mainstreamed,” meaning that they entered hearing schools and had to lipread for hours on end while they tried to understand their teachers, relying only on the shapes of vowels for their comprehension. Beginning with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 and reinforced by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, specific public spaces were required to provide accomodations for peoples with disabilities. For deaf students, these accomodations can, but don’t always, include ASL interpretation. The Americans with Disabilites Act (1990) states that any “place of public accommodation” must provide an “appropriate form of communication” for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals; these public places include the legal, educational, medical, employment, and law enforcement spheres. This means that today, many deaf students in schools like my family’s would be provided with an ASL interpreter or other means of communication with their teachers and other students.

    College football player, number 34, poses holding his helmet. Black-and-white photo.
    My uncle in his football uniform. Portland, Oregon, c. 1983.
    Photo courtesy of Caroline Cassinelli

    In high school, my uncle started playing American football, an activity which placed him an equal footing with other students. It is perhaps not a coincidence that he chose the sport, as the history of football and the history of Deaf culture are interwined. The classic football huddle started with the team at Gallaudet University, the only university for the deaf in the United States. The circling served a dual purpose of facilitating communication and hiding their signs (and therefore, plays) from the other team.

    It was at college that my mother and uncle both learned American Sign Language, introducing themselves to a language from which they had long been denied. Although neither of them attended Gallaudet, they were studying during the Deaf President Now! protests in 1986 and came of age at the time that the Deaf rights movement was also growing up. They made many friends at school, embedding themselves into what could be called the “biggest little” community: the Deaf community.

    *****

    My sister and I were born into this community, attending Deaf parties and CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) events throughout our childhood. To us, there was nothing “different” about our mom, uncle, and their friends; they were simply themselves, the kind, funny and patient people that they are. Speaking to store clerks or making phone calls for our mom (which we were scared to do) were a regular feature of our daily lives.

    ASL was our first language. My parents have a story about how my preschool teacher called them, asking for help to interpret what four-year-old me wanted when I made a fist shape, shaking my hand with my thumb tucked in between my middle and pointer fingers. As it turned out, I didn’t have the words to say “I need to go to the bathroom”—only the sign for it.

    Diagram of the ASL sign for bathroom: a hand, falm facing forward, in a fist with the thumb tucked between the pointer and middle fingers. A two-way arrow above indicates a shaking motion.

    Stemming from several different factors, however, our mom stopped signing with us, and we slowly began to rely on some combination of lipreading, mouthing words, and fingerspelling. My ASL fluency stagnated basically to the level of that four-year-old self, and though I took a long break, I have returned to taking classes in order to improve my skill.

    There is a strong feeling of shame associated with this language loss for me, however, and a deep desire to meet my mom halfway in communication where she has always had to go the extra mile. There is also, tucked away somewhere, a sense of alienation with a mother tongue, a feeling that I haven’t quite unraveled yet. Along with these emotions is a pervading sense of loss: specifically, of not getting to know my uncle, and other deaf people, fully because of the language barriers between us.

    Language is such an important part of our relationships to each other as humans, as well as our relationships to ourselves. It’s hard to comprehend what we lose when we lose language, precisely because it becomes much more difficult to express. This is a familiar story for many of those who face barriers to, or the loss of, their language, and it’s one reason why language revitalization is such an important mission to support for all communities.

    It was uncovering this sense of loss that helped me to grasp at, or just scratch the surface of, the grief that people like my mother and uncle might feel when thinking about all the barriers to access they’ve experienced and the loss of opportunities that these created. As adults, they have both dedicated themselves to making positive changes in the lives of others. My uncle is a football coach and mentor for deaf high schoolers, and my mom is studying to become a certified mental health and vocational rehab counselor, specifically for deaf clients. Drawing from their deep capacities for empathy and understanding, they are both working to provide access for others.

    Woman in red glasses with long curly hair and man with blue reflective sunglasses pose together for a selfie in front of an ocean beach.
    My mother and uncle on the Oregon coast, 2018.
    Photo courtesy of Caroline Cassinelli
    Young woman in red rain jacket poses in front of a body of water, with a matching red sailboat passing by, and a city skyline in the distance.
    The author in Vancouver, Canada. April 2020.
    Photo courtesy of Caroline Cassinelli

    I had the chance to talk with both of them recently, when my uncle visited Portland after the recent passing of my grandfather. We discussed a range of topics, from the oralist legacy of Alexander Graham Bell to the amazing physiological benefits of mindfulness to the results of the NBA Playoff games. I got to know my uncle in a way that I hadn’t as a child, due to my increased fluency in ASL and the fact that we could now have an adult-to-adult relationship. I listened with new understanding as he and my mother shared their histories and respective journeys to healing from past trauma. He shared that he used to struggle with himself, trying hard to be both hearing and deaf, but that once he fully embraced his identity as a Deaf person, so much tension within him was resolved.

    He also helped me with my signing, showing me the signs for “Vancouver” and “Toronto,” city I had just left and the one to which I will be moving. Over the days, I started to pick up more on the similarities between the siblings, something that has always been readily apparent in their appearance but which also runs much deeper.

    When he was getting ready to start his long drive back to his home in Phoenix, he gave me a big hug and told me that he had enjoyed spending time with me and how we had gotten know each other more. As he drove away, I thought about how his storytelling, this natural ability which he possesses to narrate and animate life, was not suppressed or eliminated by his barriers to language, and therefore self-expression, that he and so many other deaf children faced and continue to face. He, and so many others like him, are a direct contradiction to Bell’s assertion that sign language limits creativity and imagination.

    Instead of disappearing, my uncle’s gift has endured and matured with all of his life experiences, growing to the point that when he uses it to foster community and connection between people, he is more than capable of captivating them in not just one language, but two.

    Caroline Cassinelli is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a visual and media anthropology master’s students at HMKW Berlin, where she incorporates her passions for storytelling, cultural heritage, and Deaf history into her research.


  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, sustainability projects, educational outreach, and more.

    .