SPEAKING of My Experience

Posted: November 9, 2010 in Uncategorized

Speaking of My Experience

By John Egbert

Although I now am from Minnesota, I was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. My brother Billy, older by 18 months, and I were born deaf to hearing parents; he tested as having a 110 –decibel hearing level, while I tested at 85 decibels. It was mostly my mother who learned so much about deafness and decided our destiny to grow up as oral children despite the Mississippi School for the Deaf being only a few miles away. I never had the chance to ask my mother more about what went on with how she decided, but she said “they” told her not to learn or teach sign language to us.

At about four years old, my parents sent me down to New Orleans to attend Chinchuba Institute, an oral boarding school that I attended until the third grade.  I spoke better than nearly all the children at school and was the school’s poster child, going to many places in New Orleans to demonstrate my speech.

My parents then decided that my brother and I were ready to attend public schools despite the fact that Billy could not speak very well.  I attended a regular Catholic school briefly before transferring to a public school, while my brother attended the public school, where he was in a self-contained class of five to seven deaf students ranging from 1st to 6th grade all in one classroom.  This was the first time my brother and I were separated.

Billy and I were inseparable and depended on each other to stand up against many hearing children making fun of my brother’s speech.  We were very, very fortunate to have each other, especially with the vast majority of deaf people being the only deaf person in their hearing families.  My brother, a loner by nature, was the most adventurous kid and I learned so many things from him.

Despite the fact I could speak, it was a one-way street. I felt that I was trained to learn to talk for the public but trying to understand what other people were saying to me was incredibly hard and frustrating.  I missed the majority of what was said around me. Even though I could hear voices, I still had to read lips to make out what was said.  Research has shown that even the best lipreader only catches 30% of what is actually said; the rest depends on the ability to figure out what is conveyed.  Missing out on what was going on became a norm that I came to accept.  Although I did ask people what was said, I usually let it go because too many did not like to repeat themselves.  I learned to not aggravate anyone when it came to my lack of ability to understand verbal conversations. The hardest part of being an oral person was to feel (hear) teachers’ conversational tones. The tone of the word is so important for anyone to learn, feel, and understand what the other person is trying to convey.

My mother knew that Billy and I were not doing well in public schools given the communication difficulties. She heard of Gallaudet College (now University) in Washington, D.C., and Billy went there. It was there that he learned American Sign Language (ASL) for the first time and I did the same the next year.

Although I was labeled as disabled growing up, once I learned ASL, I discovered a new world and became a normal person in terms of being able to interact with another human being without having to repeat or the strain of trying to understand.  All during my childhood, I always thought that sign language was for deaf people unable to have intelligent conversations. I was so wrong. That’s because I didn’t know sign language and was not able to “hear” what deaf people were saying in sign language and could not recognize their intelligence.

After 40 years of using ASL with my Deaf wife and two Deaf children as well as three Deaf grandchildren, I still use spoken and written English everyday. Bilingualism – with ASL/English – has made my life more normal than being monolingual in Spoken English.

I am not against teaching speech and listening to deaf babies and children. Yet a vast majority of deaf people is not able to speak clearly or hear and understand in spoken language.  Children, at the beginning of their lives, receive education via their ears and eyes for the most part. Deaf children primarily receive information via their eyes. This is why it is important to understand that the majority of deaf children acquire language via their eyes – and why it is important to provide American Sign Language, a visual language.

No matter how well I may speak, my eyes are more important than my ears to learn anything because I am proudly Deaf.

I am available to give presentations anytime, anywhere in the country.


John Egbert




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