Many asked, Who the Hell is John Egbert?

You can learn more about who John Egbert when you read my presentation that I gave verbally and yes, I said  it all in 30 minutes.

And why I promote bilingualism: ASL/English after learning sign language for the first time at the age of 19.

This was at the EHDI (Early Hearing Detection and Intervention) Conference, March 10, 2009 at Dallas, Texas. The transcript below is from his verbal presentation by John F. Egbert, founder of Deaf Bilingual Coalition, being provided in answer to requests from conference attendees, including parents and professionals.

JOHN EGBERT: Hello, everybody, my name is John Egbert, I was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi to hearing parents.  I live in Minnesota at present.  I thought this was going to be a one-hour time slot, and I didn’t realize that I only actually have thirty minutes, so I’m going to try to lecture as fast as I can.

I was born Deaf and I have about a 90-to-100 dB loss. I went to an oral school called “Chinchuba,” in New Orleans. I was a “poster child,” and they took me to downtown New Orleans every now and then. I participated in a lot of public demonstrations showing my ability to speak. They didn’t use any of my other classmates, just me.

Then my parents took me out of that particular oral school after the third grade and put me in a public school. Right away I found that I could not pick up what the teachers were saying, because in the oral school, they worked with us one-on-one, but in the public school, it was different.  And so I did alright in the public school, because I was able to do most of my learning from books, not from the teachers during class.

We only have 30 minutes today, so I’m going to have to leave a lot of things out, but the main thing that I wanted to explain to you about my experience growing up oral was that it was more of a “one way street.”  I consider myself, as a Deaf parent, to be someone who can speak well. I can talk to you, but when someone is speaking to me, I misunderstand their speech.

After I got out of high school, I enrolled in Gallaudet.  I didn’t have any deaf friends at the time.  I thought I was “a hearing person with a hearing problem.”  I thought the reason why deaf people like me don’t speak is because they don’t have the–maybe they have a limitation. There’s a stigma.  I just had the feeling that the deaf people were different.

When I went to Gallaudet, I couldn’t believe how anybody could read fast fingerspelling.  It seemed impossible.  I mean, I just couldn’t comprehend how they could do it.  Sign language–it was going to be difficult, I thought, to learn it.

I have a Deaf brother and he went to Gallaudet ahead me.  He told me, “John, when you learn sign language at Gallaudet, stay away from the oral people.  Associate with the deaf people who sign.”  So I did the best I could. Every night when I went to bed at night, I practiced fingerspelling the alphabet over and over.  I carried around my sign language book with me every day and did the best I could.  By November, the upperclassmen asked me, “Hey, what Deaf school did you go to?”  At that point I knew that I doing well.  All you need, to learn sign language, is the desire to do so.  It will come to you.  So I learned sign language at Gallaudet and at Christmastime I went home and asked my mother, “Mom, why didn’t we learn sign language when I was little?”  And she said, “Well, they told me not to teach you sign language.” She also told me that she had been told she should turn my head away whenever there were deaf people around me using sign language, and that’s what she did. I could hardly believe what she was telling me.

When I went back to Gallaudet after Christmas, I told my friends what my mother had said, and my classmates told me that their parents were telling them the same thing, that their parents were told that they shouldn’t let their children learn to sign at first.

I entered into Deaf culture.  I had a lot to learn, and I didn’t really do any research about Deaf culture at the time.

I married a Deaf woman.  I didn’t think I would ever get married because of the reality of the situation of being with hearing people. I didn’t think a hearing wife would feel comfortable with me.  But I did marry a Deaf woman.  We had two Deaf children.  When one of my Deaf children started going to school, I began to realize certain things about the system, the school system.  I said to myself: “What’s going on?”

I would go to the PTA meetings at my children’s Deaf school and I would talk with the teachers and other Deaf parents. I told them, “Hey, we’ve got five speech therapists for speech classes, but no ASL teachers for signing classes! And we’ve got 70 percent of the deaf children coming from mainstreaming schools and they don’t know sign language.” Who was teaching them to sign? The other students! The Deaf school children were the ones teaching a new language to the mainstreamed Deaf children who came into the Deaf school.  I told the PTA group that the school should be doing this.

After the PTA meeting the superintendent came up to me and said, “John, you’ve got to understand something…”

Folks, I am just like you here who are listening to me. I’m still learning.  Even though I’m 61 years old right now, I’m still learning.

The superintendent came up to me and said, “John, 95 percent of the deaf children have hearing parents. Hearing parents dominate deaf education.” And BAM!  This hit me really hard.

I couldn’t argue with that. How true it was.  The parents had the right do to what they thought was best for their children.  It’s so true.  But then I realized that many of these parents were being misled.

I said to myself, “Gosh, what am I going to do?”  I had to think.  How could I get all these hearing parents in my boat and have the same philosophy about what these children need, because I am a real Deaf person. I know what it takes to be a real Deaf person, because I’ve got two Deaf children.  And so, I began to get more involved and do something about it.  Much later I wrote a book, a novel, called MindField.  It’s about terrorist group from Iran that got a hold of a highly contagious virus from Russia, and they released it in the U.S. hoping to kill people, but the virus had already mutated during the 25 years of the Cold War.  It didn’t kill anyone and suddenly there were 3,000,000 hearing people who became deaf in two months from meningitis and the government didn’t know what to do. You can read the book, MindField if you want to know more about it.  (Laughter)

And so there I was, confronted with the situation. Something was going on as it related to the Deaf education system and its philosophy—what people thought was best for the Deaf child. I realized that a Deaf child should have two languages:  The Deaf child’s language needs to be visual, and the child should be bilingual, meaning, be fluent in ASL and English.

But there was a big organization saying: “No sign language! Oral English only.”

Well, we all, Deaf and hearing people, do use English, but Deaf people need a visual language to be able to learn how to learn.

The education I got first when I grew up was focused on the mouth and the ear, not my mind.  They didn’t educate my mind.  I had to figure that out on my own and learn how to become self-educated.

My son has three Deaf children.  The oldest one is six years old.  I remember back when I was six years old how gullible I was.  Every time someone talked to me, I just smiled.  I was just like a happy dog–a puppy, really!

And now just last week in Austin, Texas, I went up to my granddaughter, who is six years old, and I said something silly. You know how sometimes grandparents can be silly.  And my granddaughter told me, “Ha ha, you’re being silly.” Then I realized that I didn’t the kind of cognitive development that she has when I was six years old.

So from age zero to eight, educators and parents should be focusing on Deaf children’s minds. It can’t be done by focusing on the mouth or the ear.  You’ve got to “feed” the mind, educate it.  Let me put it this way, hearing people and Deaf people, you and me, our brains are like bionic computers.  We do everything by calculation, like picking things up, walking, reaching for something. Everything you do involves calculation.

Our brains, as human beings, function like computers. But to continue the analogy, the difference between you as a hearing person and me as a Deaf person, is that you are like a PC computer and I’m like a Mac computer.  Our brains are no different at the genetic, or “hardware” level, but our mental “software” is different.  Why is this, you might ask.  Deaf people receive input that fits their “eye software.”  Hearing people have “software” for their ears and get their data that way.

And you hearing people can get data from your eyes, but you don’t know how to use it in the same way, see?  So I’m a “Mac” and you’re a “PC”.

Let me expand on the illustration a little bit.  Suppose that I’m a hearing parent. I can hear, and when my Deaf baby is born, my baby’s a “Mac.” But I’m a “PC” and I’m also a “PC programmer” (parent).  I don’t know how to program a “Mac” (my Deaf baby).

So what am I going to do? An organization may come in and say: “We know what to do.”–Oh, do they?

“Yeah,” they say. “We offer options. We will bypass the visual method and go for the auditory method.”

But we need to realize that a Deaf baby needs to be programmed by a parent who knows how to “program” a Deaf child’s “computer.” But there’s this gigantic organization which has people who say: “We can do this method, this PC method.” But the question should actually be: Can we do the bilingual method?

Now there are hearing babies all over the country who are learning sign language! Hearing parents are teaching their hearing babies at the age of 4 months to 18 and 24 months visual sign language.  Why?  To stimulate their child’s cognitive, developmental skills—their mental “network.”

Using baby signs, a hearing child’s brain is developing and is acquiring language by visual methods, then the child is ready to speak at the age of 18 or 24 months. It’s easy to do this.  Also, those babies who use baby signs have fewer tantrums.  They experience better bonding with their mothers.  The key is a greater emphasis on visual communication.

Do you know why there are families all over the country who have problems?

The answer is just one word: Communication.

So now we have hearing parents teaching sign language to their hearing babies to help improve communication.

At first, I couldn’t believe what I was being told about hearing babies being taught sign language as early as 4 months of age.  And that was only two years ago when I found this out. I did a Google search to learn more about baby signs. There was an incredible amount of information on the Internet about baby signs! I didn’t realize at the time that signs could be used with hearing babies and that signing could be so important for their cognitive development at that very early age.

Why can’t deaf babies learn sign language too?

If you want to teach deaf babies speech, fine, but between 0 to about 18 or 24 months, they can’t speak, because their vocal muscles are not yet fully developed.

Should we nurture Deaf children’s minds using a visual method?  The gigantic organization says: NO! And their slogan is: “Advocating Independence Through Listening and Talking.”  That really bothers me.

“Why don’t we,” I asked them, “educate the Deaf baby’s mind using visual methods?” They said, NO!

What are they going to do for Deaf babies who are between the ages of 6 months and 24 months?  We can program the Deaf baby’s mind to be ready to learn speech if that’s what the parents want.

Back in 1880, in Milan, Italy, hearing educators of the Deaf decided to take sign language away from Deaf children and they adopted oral-aural only methods of teaching Deaf children.

Before 1880, there were Deaf people who were proofreaders and editors for newspapers. There were many Deaf people who had a good command of the English language. I was recently visiting the Deaf school in Minnesota and they have a history museum there that I visited. I looked at a book from 1875 which contained the minutes of a student body government meeting.  My God, they had better English.  They had excellent English skills.

After 1880, Deaf people’s English skills went downhill, on average.  Deaf people have had problems with English ever since.

The organization which follows the oral-aural philosophy says that the problem with Deaf people’s English is that Deaf people are not getting enough education with through speaking and listening.  Actually, no, the real problem is that we are not educating the Deaf child’s mind.  We’ve got to focus on the Deaf baby’s brain, not its ears and mouth.

What’s going on?

I think that if you parents here, all parents, want your Deaf child to be a whole person, a normal person. You need to put the focus on your Deaf child’s mind starting as early as possible.

Do you know when I became a whole human being?  When I was nineteen years old at Gallaudet.

Here’s a phrase that many use: “Being between a rock and a hard place.”  I’m sure many of you have heard that phrase being used all over the place.

Here’s the rock [pointing].  Here’s a hard place [pointing].  The “rock” is Hearing culture, Hearing reality.  The “hard place” is the Deaf reality, Deaf culture.  All my life, until I was 19, I was between a “rock” and a “hard place.”

No matter how well I speak, I will never be hearing.

When I went to Gallaudet, I learned sign language and BAM!, I immediately became a whole person.  It was the first time I ever became a normal human being!

Here I am.  I’m part of Deaf culture, the real Deaf reality.

All over the country, deaf students in oral-aural programs are between a “rock” and a “hard place.” They are in that in-between place all the time.  Even though they might say: “I’m fine,” so did I. I said that, too, before I went to Gallaudet. I thought I was a whole person.

The majority of those deaf students being raised in oral programs who say “I’m fine”, are actually like goldfish in a small bowl who don’t realize that there’s a much bigger and better aquarium out there where they aren’t being allowed to swim. In the big aquarium, Deaf culture, there’s the full experience of reality, using a fully accessible language modality. I used to be like the goldfish in a small bowl, thinking I was fine, but I wasn’t. That’s who I was. I thought I was normal.

And so you see, we all need to start thinking about educating a Deaf baby’s mind using visual language.

If you want speech as an additional skill, then good for you. But there are many cases of Deaf children who are being limited to oral-aural programs and they can’t succeed that way. When American Sign Language is used, the Deaf child will not be left out.

The organization that follows the oral-aural only philosophy tries to tell parents that sign language supposedly interferes with Deaf children’s acquisition of English language. That is simply not true.

By the time the Deaf child reaches the age of eight, when the parents realize that the child will never have normal speech, it’s almost too late to catch the child up fully by using sign language.

Look at all those mainstreamed Deaf kids that transfer to Deaf schools after failing in oral-aural programs. The teachers and the students who are already at the Deaf school have to struggle to try to communicate with them.  The children who were mainstreamed do not have anywhere close to the same level of cognitive development.  They lost out on the chance of having what they should have had, all because of the false philosophy of the oral-aural, monolingual methods.

Let’s use the bilingual method, using ASL and English.  There’s no risk of failure using the bilingual method.

Actually, everybody knows a little sign language.  Every time you watch football on TV, the referees use sign language: “touchdown”, “time out,” “holding”. What’s wrong with signing?  Shouldn’t Deaf babies learn ASL? Why not?

I’ve got five more minutes left in my allotted 30 minutes.  Are there questions?  Any questions?

AUDIENCE MEMBER #1:  I just have a comment to your story.  I have heard this thousands of times because I’m involved in the Deaf community and it doesn’t matter if it’s an older Deaf person, I’ve heard it from teenagers, so what he is saying isn’t a thing of the past, it is a thing of the present.  And so I just applaud you for telling your story because your story is what everybody needs to hear, because that is the story of a lot of people in this world.  Thank you, John.

AUDIENCE MEMBER #2:  We’re worried because you don’t have this on PowerPoint because all the presentations are going to be on PowerPoint and posted on the website, and your story isn’t there for us to all go back to.  Is it going to be?

JOHN EGBERT:  You mean my presentation? You want to see it on PowerPoint? I could write it up and give it to them to make available to you so you can get a copy. I’ll work on that.


JOHN EGBERT:  I have to see about doing this using PowerPoint. To tell you the truth, I feel a little guilty about having done this, but I have to tell you candidly.  If I had promoted this presentation as being by someone who learned sign language, would half of you have come?  I’m afraid people would say to themselves: “No, I don’t want to see that one.” Maybe I’m wrong, but really, I’d like for you to be able to come in here and get to know what my experience in life has been.  I was afraid to write out my presentation or prepare PowerPoint slides, because people would probably see that and say: “Ugh, let’s don’t listen to him,” and then I would lose my opportunity to reach out and educate you.  But I will do my best.

AUDIENCE MEMBER #2:  Okay.  Because it needs to be saved and so we can share it with other people.

JOHN EGBERT:  Yes, I will.

AUDIENCE MEMBER #3:  I have a question.  First of all, I want to thank you very much.  It was a very empowering story, and I appreciate it, and how has your experience growing up influenced the work that you do today?  Are you involved with Deaf education or anything?  What are you doing now?

JOHN EGBERT:  I founded a grassroots organization called the Deaf Bilingual Coalition (DBC).  It’s an education organization, whose purpose is to educate parents about what they can do for their Deaf children, and the main message is that the most important goal should be to focus on the Deaf child’s mind.  And I think that’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, really, set up something like the DBC.

Somebody’s got to get the word out on what’s going on. There’s been years and years, 130 years of abuse, of taking our sign language away, and telling parents, “Don’t teach him sign language” and “Don’t teach her sign language.”  That’s still going on today, even though there are those who deny it and say: “It’s not true”, but this is still going on.

On the way here to the hotel from the airport, a friend of mine was riding in a shuttle and there were two women in the seat in front of him. My friend said he heard one of the women saying negative things about sign language and she was saying how successful her agency has supposedly been, winning court cases to oppose the use of sign language in schools in California, and how Deaf people, blah, blah, blah. You know.

Do you know what that’s called?  It’s called “audism,” A – U – D – I – S – M.  It’s analogous to racism.  It’s just like when there are White people attempting to control the members of Black culture or men attempting to dominate women, or straight people attempting to dictate to gay people. In the Deaf reality, take a look here at this EHDI conference. There are about 700 hearing people and only about 30 Deaf people.  We need balance.  Almost all the decisions by legislators, in Congress and the states have been made by hearing people or medical professionals who really only have “book smarts” or “paper smarts.” In reality they have no idea what it’s like to be Deaf. We need balance here at this conference.  I mean, this is ridiculous.  It’s ridiculous to have all these people making decisions for Deaf people. Look at Black culture. How many White leaders do you see in Black culture?  None.  Now look at the corresponding situation involving Deaf people. They’re all hearing people! That’s audism. They look down on us.  They think sign language is so-so and not so good.  I did too once…I really did.  Then when I learned sign language, I found out how wrong I was.  This is now my calling, to ask: Why are you doing this?

AUDIENCE MEMBER #4:  I’m sorry. I was letting you know you have five minutes.

JOHN EGBERT: Oh, I didn’t realize what that meant. I’m learning. I’m a “tenderfoot” here.  Next year I’ll have the hang of it.  (Laughter.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER #5:  I have a question for you.  I want to thank you so much for being here with us.  I really appreciate hearing your story.  And I would like to ask you for your advice to us.  Sometimes I share with a group people who don’t really understand the Deaf person’s perspective, just like the things you mentioned.  And their reaction to me is: Oh, today is different than it used to be.  Today things are much better, we have oral education as an approach, we have auditory-verbal as an approach, and it’s different than it used to be.  Back then it wasn’t right, but now we have a different approach of teaching kids how to talk and how to hear.  How do you respond to that?  You know, they mentioned technology and cochlear implants, auditory-verbal.  And they believe that we can still make deaf children talk.  How do you respond to their comments?

JOHN EGBERT: I would say that they are engaged in attempting to improve their marketing system.  Here’s an example of what I mean:

Take hamburgers. Can you make a better hamburger than McDonald’s?  Yeah? Then why don’t you get in the business?  Well, McDonald’s, is making billions of dollars all over the world, even though you can make a better hamburger than they can. You know why?   It’s because of marketing.  It’s all about having a marketing system.  And they are good at it. They know how to use just the right words to influence people.

I’ll give you another example. That oral-aural organization says that parents have a right to make a choice.  Using that word “choice” is a very slick marketing decision on their part, because “choice” implies that one method will be chosen and the other method rejected.  Why don’t they use the word “opportunity”? That would be better.

Their marketing tactics bother me.  They have a slick way of marketing.  They work on “improving” their marketing, but they just end up using even worse tactics. They refuse to accept a bilingual philosophy.

AUDIENCE MEMBER #6:  I’d just like to add a comment to your information here.  I’ve spent my entire life perfecting my speech, perfecting my effective use of my hearing aid.  At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, my speech abilities and my abilities to use my residual hearing with my hearing aid does not allow me to fit in with my own family, my parents, my siblings at the dinner table and have an effective conversation.  And people forget that.  There is no device or training that will ever permit me to 100 percent effectively fit in with my own family.  So and I think it’s important that people remember that.  It’s not about being able to speak or being able to hear.  It’s about belonging and being a whole person.

JOHN EGBERT: I agree. See, you, the parent, do not need to learn ASL perfectly.  You can try, but what’s important simply is trying to communicate.  Do learn sign language. That would be fine.  Ma’am?

AUDIENCE MEMBER #7 (voice of interpreter): I just had a quick comment. I’m Deaf and I grew up oral, but I just wanted to add to that that I’m an adult educator. Just last week we had a student with a cochlear implant and she had some swelling, and for the first time in a long time. She was Deaf. We brought in an interpreter, to sign, because her parents didn’t know sign. I’m just saying that it doesn’t matter if you have a cochlear implant or not. They all need sign. There are many times when you have to go where those kids are. They’re Deaf.  My students are.  Can you imagine? There were just a lot of people that need to understand that. They have misapprehensions about hearing.

JOHN EGBERT: Perception… Perception.  I’m talking about people finally understanding and getting the right idea about who Deaf people are.  Knowledge? Knowledge about better ways to teach Deaf children is out there.

You know, when I grew up, like all these Deaf children being taught today under the oral-aural only philosophy, I had to develop a lot of perceptions through second guessing, and so do they. I had to always try to second guess what was going on. Some teachers use lipreading, SEE signs or sim-com, and we have to try to figure out what they are saying. I had to second guess what they were trying to say, and that’s what my self-created perception was.  I didn’t know if I was perceiving them correctly or not. When a teacher uses ASL, sign language, the teacher is able to convey the full message, so that you don’t have to do any second guessing and you can get the correct perception. When a teacher uses ASL, I get the message perfectly well, just like I’m watching a movie. The difference is quite stark.  But when I don’t understand a teacher’s oral-aural language, I have to resort to second guessing and trying to figure out what I should be perceiving. As for interpreters, some interpreters are good, some are not.  What’s important is being able to accurately perceive what is being communicated.  Hearing people are used to learning by listening, instead of how we learn, by seeing. So hearing people won’t really understand our needs.

AUDIENCE MEMBER #8: I’m new to this field.  I’m wondering where the controversy is, because I don’t hear anybody disagreeing with you, so there must be people who disagree and who are they?  I have heard audiologists say that doing both at the same time can interfere with learning oral skills.  Is that where people disagree?

JOHN EGBERT: Would someone else like to respond to the question?

AUDIENCE MEMBER #9: I’m a parent.  I have two children who have cochlear implants. They were taught sign language and speech and they use both.  They got that implant and when they’re swimming or at the beach, they need to know what’s going on, you need to be able to communicate with them. So I’m in the middle, not completely on either side.  So there’s someone else out there.

AUDIENCE MEMBER #8: But the good thing is that you are providing for your child’s sign language.  That’s what John is saying. Yeah.

JOHN EGBERT: My times is up?  One last one.  Time’s up.  They might shoot me if we go too long.  (Laughter.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER #10: There’s no reason why it should be either/or (either sign or speech).  None.  There is no research, there is no evidence that one decreases the effectiveness of the other.  It should be all.

JOHN EGBERT: Go ahead, quickly.

AUDIENCE MEMBER #11: That was my next question.  Is there research that shows using sign language at the same time as getting speech training slows down or interferes with learning speech?


JOHN EGBERT: No. It helps.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Actually, it helps. It helps with your speech.  They have research that proves that sign language will help your speech.

JOHN EGBERT: When you teach them ASL, once the Deaf child’s mind has developed normally, using ASL, you can teach them anything.  There are no limitations. But if a child is only taught speaking and listening skills, that doesn’t mean he or she can learn.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  I think it’s important, though, that you stick to the message and not try to lay blame to one group or another.  I’m an audiologist, I have never felt that it is all or another, and when you hear “audism,” it’s very degrading, when you hear those audiologists, that’s not true.  There’s a lot who don’t feel that way.  I think you just need to stick to the message that bilingualism works and it’s an option and it should be offered.  Choices, shouldn’t be one choice.  There can be many different choices along the way.  So we just say we all want what’s best for our children and that’s access to language.

JOHN EGBERT: It shouldn’t be: What can your child do for you. It should be about what you can do for your child.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Can you, when you work on the PowerPoint, can you include studies or, you said that there’s evidence, the evidence base that both are helpful.  I think that would be really helpful to share with parents.

JOHN EGBERT: Look at our website:  There’s lot of good information there.  And use the Contact Us link on to reach me, if you’re unable to reach me otherwise. I care for your children.  Not my wallet.  (Applause).

JOHN EGBERT: Thank you.


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