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‘Far from the Tree’ author emphasizes importance of diversity at lecture series kick-off

October 7, 2013
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For some people, “I think that diversity is intimidating. I think (they) are afraid of it,” said Dr. Andrew Solomon at his September 10 presentation at Gallaudet. However, by succumbing to such narrow thinking, “you make a less rich and less vital world. … The experience of diversity is more illuminating, more transformative, more powerful, and more important.’  Solomon, a noted author, lecturer, activist, and philanthropist, was the first presenter in the University’s Sesquicentennial Lecture Series. His visit was sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Looking out over the audience in the Kellogg Conference Hotel’s Swindells Auditorium, Solomon, who is hearing, remarked, “There is something very beautiful here (in deaf culture) that I will never have access to. I can appreciate it in seeing how beautiful it is, but I remain outside of that.”

The author of the award-winning non-fiction book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children & the Search for Identity, Solomon also is a regular contributor to The New York Times. He wrote an article on deaf culture for the newspaper in 1994, that involved research taking him on visits to the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City and Gallaudet University to talk with deaf people about their lives, and to institutions that support oral education, such as the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles, Calif. “My mission in the Times article and my mission again in this book, Far From the Tree, is really to try to convey what it was like for me as a non-signing hearing person to enter the deaf world,” said Solomon.  Also, the book makes comparisons in many cultural communities where children are different from their parents–something that Solomon experienced himself as a gay son of straight parents.  Solomon brought up two types of identities–vertical and horizontal.

“Vertical identities are things passed down generationally,” Solomon said, giving examples like ethnicity, nationality, and religion. “These are things that parents have in common with their children.” On the other hand, “horizontal identities are identities that are to a peer group–being gay, being deaf, having all variety of other conditions that I looked at, these are things where the parents suddenly have a child that feels completely alien to them. If you are different from your parents, many parents will make an initial effort to make you like them. I ended up thinking that there is a very complicated dynamic that exists between love and acceptance.”

While he was at the Lexington School, Solomon observed the protest about the Board of Trustees choosing a hearing president. At the school’s graduation ceremony, he had the opportunity to meet a student leader of a similar protest at Gallaudet, Gregory Hlibok, ’90, who also attended Lexington. “I will always remember the lines (Hlibok) said: ‘From the time God made the world until today, this is probably the best time to be deaf,'” said Solomon.   

Before he began his interviews with deaf people, Solomon said he believed a person was diminished by the loss of any of the five senses. His impression changed after he saw New York Deaf Theatre’s production of The Swan, starring deaf actress Jackie Roth, ’76 & G-’83, when he realized that American Sign Language (ASL) is indeed a true language and that Deaf culture is as valid as any ethnic culture.  

Solomon addressed the complicated emotional dynamic between acceptance and love. He said that hearing parents who try to “fix” their deaf children through speech therapy, cochlear implantation, and other ways to make them more like themselves should realize that “acceptance must be the ultimate goal of love.”  Allowing deaf children to learn ASL will benefit their communication skills, he said, because research shows that at age five, deaf children who use ASL with their parents have a vocabulary of more than 5,000 words-identical to vocabulary of hearing children-while non-signing deaf five-year-old’s vocabulary is only around 200 words.

“I hope that the (deaf) culture stays as vibrant as it has been now and always,” said Solomon, in reference to a question from the audience about the potential shrinking of this culture due to cochlear implantation in deaf children, which is as high as 50 percent today. Solomon said he supports the bilingual model at Gallaudet: ASL and spoken language. “All deaf children should be exposed to ASL and be bicultural, so they can decide for themselves which culture(s) to belong in,” he said. “There are problems for deaf children to wait until they are 18 to get cochlear implants, both because they have missed the critical window for auditory learning, and because they already have developed their own identities, and new identities are hard.”

Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz said the University is inviting presenters like Solomon who have significantly contributed to the study of deaf people in various areas as part of Gallaudet’s 150th anniversary celebration.

“I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to be here, and to say how deeply meaningful it is to me,” said Solomon. He said Gallaudet’s sesquicentennial celebration “is tremendous and I am honored to be part of it.” He then signed copies of his book and visited Dr. Thomas Horejes’ sociology class to observe discussions about topics such as cochlear implants, audism, and types of identities.

7 October 2013

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