Entering a Visual World With ASL Professor and Poet Jason Norman
By Rachel DuShey
Bursts of color and light emanated from the stage of the dark, packed Bowery Club in downtown Manhattan. The audience was completely invested in Jason Norman's raw, emotional performance, which he would describe years later as one of his most powerful moments. His story followed that of a pre-school girl, a daughter of heroin addicts, who was pushed from home to home in foster care until finally experiencing a vibrant breakthrough. As Norman concluded the story, the audience rose to applaud him exuberantly— without making a sound. They raised their hands over their heads and showed a sign of acclaim by making quick, silent turning motions at their wrists. Most of the audience was deaf. They had been watching Norman's visual poem, expressed in American Sign Language (ASL).
"We live in a visual world," explains Norman about the deaf, through an interpreter, in his office at Boston University. The interpreter fills in as Norman's vocals, complete with tone and inflection, indicated by Norman's facial expressions and body language. The air smells strongly of tea. Norman wears a button-down shirt, having spent all day teaching class. He is articulate yet informal with a sense of humor. When I ask if his need to wear glasses inhibits his visual experience, he smiles and drops the glasses on the table. Closing his eyes, he holds out his hands in front of him and wobbles, signing, "Am I blind? No!"
As a deaf poet and professor of ASL and deaf culture, Norman is quick to reframe conceptions of the deaf. He believes deaf people should be defined in their own terms, and not solely in terms of what they can't do, meaning hear. He identifies as "Capital 'D'- Deaf", meaning part of the deaf culture. ASL poetry and storytelling are art forms characteristic of this culture.
For three years, Norman hosted the monthly ASL slam poetry show at the Bowery and is the subject of the New York Times article, "Hands that Speak, Hands that Rhyme." The article gives a glimpse into the strong deaf community in New York City and explains the means of poetic expression through ASL. Though ASL does not have a concrete written language, it is visual as written characters are. Line breaks are easily indicated through pauses and emotion is fluidly conveyed through hand, body, and facial movements, much like a theatrical performance. Though ASL uses hand signs and not words with sounds, Norman says ASL has a version of rhyme, called "signplay"-- certain signs resemble or evoke other signs.
Much of deaf poetry centers on deaf culture and happenings. The pre-school girl from Norman's poem, for example, is actually a deaf girl with whom he worked during his eight years of teaching ASL to deaf children, ranging from kindergarten through high school. During that time, Norman was pursuing his second Master's degree in Deaf Studies at Columbia University. He also helped train ASL interpreters and began teaching ASL as a foreign language to children of deaf adults (CODA).
Norman left his work and life in New York to try teaching at the university level in Pittsburg, where a friend told him they needed help. This gave Norman time to really "focus on ASL linguistics research." He also happily encountered a strong deaf club at Pittsburg. But after a year, Norman was referred to the rapidly growing deaf studies program at Boston University, where he now teaches four ASL classes per semester.
Norman has lived and taught in Boston for the past year. Some deaf-friendly features he's encountered are ASL-guided tours at the Museum of Fine Arts, and MassDeafTerp, an organization that sends emails about deaf events occurring in Massachusetts. However, Norman finds that the deaf community here is less cohesive than what he's been used to. He finds it difficult meeting and befriending "hearing" people, saying, "People are cold… the weather is cold, too." He struggles with the fact that Boston classifies deafness as a disability. This is a highly debated subject discussed in the BU Today article, "Should the Deaf be Considered an Ethnic Group?" in which Norman was featured. Norman's city-supplied T card for Boston's public subway system denotes him as a "disabled person" entitled to discounts. He believes this is "patronizing" and has a negative effect on the way society views the deaf.
But Norman thinks one of the best examples of societal misconception of deafness comes in the reaction of a hearing person after realizing someone is deaf. After the hearing person tries to initiate an oral conversation, the deaf person tugs at his ear apologetically. The deaf person is then met with a shocked gasp and a blast of sympathy: "Oh, I'm so sorry!" imitates Norman. Then he sighs regretfully: "It happens all the time." Experience has made him bitter. Hearing people, as well as deaf people, grow up to believe that deafness is a very rare and sad or shameful thing. But Norman is very proud of his identity and confident in his capabilities.
Though he pleads guilty to having conceded to social notions of deafness by tugging at his ear during such confrontations, he now recommends that deaf people "sign right back" to people who speak orally to them, just as someone who speaks a foreign language might do.
Norman explains that many deaf children raised in hearing environments grow up believing that they "personify this word 'disabled'." Norman grew up in Baltimore to hearing parents, but they fortunately encouraged his deaf identity and sent him to a deaf school. When Norman decided to try a public high school, he became "that one deaf kid in a sea of hearing people." While some deaf students choose to study in hearing environments, such as current sophomore Tory Sampson of Boston University, Norman felt "fragile and lost" in high school and realized the value of deaf culture.
Professor Norman makes education about deaf culture central to his ASL classes. He requires students to attend at least two local deaf events per semester. He also conducts his classes almost entirely in ASL without any teaching assistance. This helps submerge students into the culture of the language, as sophomore student Crystal Shah explains, "He's trained us to get the idea of what he's saying and really look at expressions." The seats in the class are arranged in a horseshoe shape so the students can see each other's faces and hands while they sign, emphasizing the visual nature of ASL. An interpreter was present during the first day of class only to explain that Norman would not use a regular interpreter. The professor also discourages any vocal speaking during class and encourages signing by explaining that exchanging auditory words with other hearing people in the presence of a deaf person is an issue of respect. "We don't even know what each other's voices sound like," Crystal explains, "but we still get their personality." This helps simulate how people are perceived from a deaf perspective.
The only other time Norman enlisted an interpreter was during the students' projects on major figures and advancements in deaf culture. The students presented their projects to the class in English so that they could have "a more in-depth discussion about deaf culture." Norman listened by way of the interpreters and was able to offer the students more detailed feedback. However, Norman reminded the students to maintain eye contact with him during the presentations because looking away from a deaf person while communicating is "considered breaking a rule in deaf culture."
Students presented on such assigned figures as Andrew Foster, AKA The Father of Deaf Education in Africa, and Amos Kendall, founder of the well-known ASL and English bi-lingual college, Gallaudet University. One of the projects was on a film called "Media, Power, and Ideology: Re-presenting D-E-A-F" featuring Ryan Comerson, a friend of Norman's. It is a film made by deaf people, for deaf people, about the history of misconceptions about the deaf and how to change these ways of thinking. The professor mentioned deaf actress Shoshannah Stern's role as a deaf detective in the TV show Lie to Me as an example that helps sustain the misconception that all deaf people are expert lip-readers.
In terms of language and communication, Norman explains that, "voice equals expression". Whether we can hear and speak or not, all human beings share the concept of thoughts. These thoughts manifest themselves through different types of expression. Norman gives his students assignments that include storytelling and vlogging (video-blogging) in order for them to learn how to express themselves visually, the way deaf people do. Norman even dedicated one class period entirely to the practice of facial expressions.
Norman's class does not know that he is an experienced poet. Though he incorporates storytelling into the class agenda, he has not kept up the art on his own time: "I don't really perform much," he admits. "I've been working." Storytelling remains his passion, however, and he aspires to eventually organize a local ASL slam poetry club like the one in New York: "One day, I'd like to set up something in Boston," he reveals. "It's a goal of mine."