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Handreading: from the Center-and-Margin to the Complementarity

In late 2007, a hearing colleague once asked me a question in our conversation. He asked, "Can you lipread?" First, out of courtesy, I replied to his question and then asked him, "can you handread ASL?" He was taken aback.

His curiosity is understandable but I am intrigued by the underlying weave of meanings attached to this question -- the question of colonialism, the sociolinguistic majority versus the minority, phonocentrism, logocentrism, the Center and the Other or Margin which lead to the structure of social hierarchy.

His question implies a hierarchical hearing domination that expects me to fit in their world; perhaps better ask a complementary question instead, "What communication method do you prefer?" to find a common ground.

For the past years since 2005, I've been experimentally deconstructing hierarchical dichotomy to create complementarity. I have been using my own language (ASL) in response to whenever an English-speaking person talks to me. They may not understand what I say but they can sometimes handread a word or a few onomatopoeic words -- especially the onomatopoeic word "writing" in ASL. Once they realize they could not speak my language, they often go and get their paper and pen, PDA, or their own laptop to talk with me in written English. It has been amazingly working for me.

A favorite surprising result was ordering a drink on my frequent flights. In the early days, I'd put my paper and pen inside the seat pocket. Every time a flight attendant approached me for a drink, I'd show her a paper, "apple juice, no ice." In the next phase, I used my PDA (pre-smartphone). Then next, no, not smartphone. Instead, during my MFA research on deconstruction and phonocentrism in the smartphone phase, I decided to speak ASL "apple juice, no ice."

In my first ever experiment, I was nervous and anxious. When a flight attendant approached me for a drink on my flight, I replied in ASL, "apple juice". She nodded and then I quickly signed NO ICE. She nodded, poured apple juice in a cup without ice, and handed me. Accomplished! I was so thrilled. Paper-free! Pen-free! Even smartphone-free! I felt so free! She took the effort of handreading.

Then, on my next flights and next many flights, all accomplished in North America. One day in a group of Deaf people on flights, I told the stories about handreading to my Deaf seatmate. Then a flight attendant approached us. To my disappointment she didn't try. She gestured and used paper/pen. My turn, I ordered my usual in ASL and got my order right. I turned to my seatmate and smiled.

Another day in the waiting lounge at the airport, a young guy sat next to me and vocally spoke to me. I spoke ASL to him. At first he was confused and lost, but then he caught the last ASL word that he could handread "writing." He realized I was deaf and politely went back to his business. Watching him out of the corner of my eye, he pulled out his laptop and opened it. At first, I thought he didn't bother to chat with me. Then, something really familiar popped up on his laptop. A notepad. My gosh, he actually made an effort and typed something to me. We chatted on the notepad on his laptop.

In my observations, since the days I spoke ASL in a natural way, hearing people began to make an effort of getting their own paper and pen, smartphone, or any writing/typing instruments. On the other hand, there are also ignorant, clueless hearing people who think vocally speaking was the only way of communication.

Overall, the public (hearing) society in North America has changed with better education, awareness, and understanding. Still, more change needs to be made on both sides. When I change my way of thinking, behavior, and language usage, it also changes hearing people how they act and think.

Related topics: Lipreading.