‘I Passionately Wanted to Be Deaf’: The New York Newsday Interview with Leah Hager Cohen

By Lise Funderburg

New York Newsday

Leah Hager Cohen is the author of “Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World (Houghton Mifflin), which describes a year at the Lexington School for the Deaf, a federally funded school in Jackson Heights.

Q. What is unique about New York City’s deaf community?
A. The main thing is how many different populations within the deaf community there are: There’s Black Deaf Advocates, which is a national group that’s strong in New York, and Latino deaf groups and gay and lesbian deaf groups. More and more, the deaf community in this country is [composed of] immigrants and people of color.
Q. In “Train Go Sorry,” you mentioned that your paternal grandparents, who were both deaf, met in a sort of ad-hoc community out on Ocean Parkway. Are there others?
A. One example is the Roosevelt Avenue subway stop out in Queens. It’s a big hangout. That’s the subway stop the students who go to Lexington School for the Deaf use. A lot of deaf adolescents hang out on the platforms, and some are Lex students and some are not. Occasionally the cops who work that subway call Lexington with complaints about kids sitting on the steps.
The 14th Street subway stop used to be the huge deaf hangout. This is more true historically, less so now. But deaf people would come from all the different schools, JHS 47 on 23rd Street, and Lexington when it used to be in Manhattan, and the Bronx and Brooklyn. This was before a lot of people had teletypewriters (TTYs), which work over the phone lines. Even with TTYs, it’s not the same as meeting in person and deciding what to do for the weekend.
Q. Why is your book titled “Train Go Sorry”?
A. ASL [American Sign Language] has its own idioms, just like English does. The English translation of those signs is klunky and awkward — that doesn’t mean that in ASL you’re speaking in halting language. I chose “Train Go Sorry” because I liked the way that sounded. It’s comparable to the English idiom “You missed the boat,” which characterizes a lot of the content in the book: the missed connections and gaps in understanding mostly between the deaf and hearing communities.
Q. In the book, you followed two Lexington students, Sofia Normatov and James Taylor, for an entire school year. What are some of the challenges they faced?
A. A lot had to do with just being adolescents in New York City and coming from whatever ethnic or cultural backgrounds they did. [Sofia] was a recent immigrant from Russia, [James] was from a tough neighborhood in the Bronx, and there were family issues for both of them. Layered on top of that was their deafness, which was like a piece of Plexiglas between them and every single hearing person they had to deal with.
Q. In your book, you note that the interpreter’s code of ethics prevented you from writing about conversations where you acted as an interpreter, and so, by and large, you tried not to interpret. Wasn’t it painful not to help James and Sofia?
A. Yes and no. There’s something condescending about swooping in and remedying situations. I would never want them to be endangered or even terribly frustrated, but in a way I would’ve been robbing them of some of their autonomy and dignity if I were constantly clarifying things. I mean, they navigated 18 and 20 years of life, respectively, without having some reporter/interpreter/shadow at their side. The borders between interpreter and reporter and friend certainly got distorted at times, which is inevitable, but for the most part I tried to keep in mind that I was there as a reporter. And they didn’t need me; they didn’t ask me to come along and tell them what people were saying.
Q. Your paternal grandfather attended Lexington, your father is currently the school’s Supervisor, and your family lived on campus. What is it like growing up as a hearing person in a deaf community?
A. I passionately wanted to be deaf. For years after we moved, I used to have fantasies that if I became deaf I could still go to Lex. There was something so private about the deaf community. It seemed to me so special; there was so much shared that didn’t even have to be discussed. I think that’s true with any marginalized group.
Q. What is your relationship to the deaf community now?
A. Right now I’m working full-time as a sign language interpreter in a hearing high school outside Boston where there’s only one deaf student. I’m glad to have the experience of seeing this mainstreaming or inclusion; this first-hand view confirms my belief that schools for the deaf are really important.
Q. That’s a controversial issue. Should the deaf be in their own schools, where they can be taught ASL, cultural awareness and pride? Or should they be taught “oral” skills and mainstreamed to help them manage their disability in the hearing world?
A. This spring, Congress will hold public hearings on the issue. IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, comes up for reauthorization next fall, and there’s a movement to rewrite it to make inclusion mandatory. If that happens, all federal monies to schools like Lex and to resource rooms and special classrooms in public schools will stop. And those schools will close.
In a speech this fall, Judith Heumann, the U.S. assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, was quoted as saying that separate schooling is immoral. So this movement is really strong, even more so than when I wrote the book. Schools for the deaf are really threatened.
I should say that inclusion is about more than deaf people; it would be an umbrella for all disabled children. For many of these students, to be segregated in classes has been stigmatizing and discriminatory, so there are valid reasons to keep public schools from foisting these kids off in special rooms. It’s just that inclusionists want it to be mandatory for all disabled children.
Q. What will happen to the segregated schools if the people who support inclusion win?
A. It just seems so obvious that it will have been a grave mistake. Can I just say a word about segregated schools? The word “segregation” is such an emotionally charged word. It’s used by the inclusionists and evokes social policy that’s rooted in slavery. When you use it to talk about schools for the deaf, it’s difficult for anyone not to fully endorse inclusion. But the community that’s supposedly going to be set free from segregation — deaf people themselves — is the one that passionately wants its schools.
Q. But isn’t there a cost for deaf people who learn and express themselves primarily in ASL?
A. We don’t really know yet, but a lot of research supports the idea that no, if anything they would learn English better. Spoken English is not a natural language for deaf people. ASL, which is a real language with its own grammar and syntax, is. A lot of research shows that you can only go so far in a second language as you are in a first. This old way of using some English and a little speech and adding a sign in for clarification — this horrible, ungrammatical mishmash — has been doing a disservice to deaf people for all these years.
Q. Why is ASL the natural language for deaf people?
A. Imagine if you had to learn to move the muscles in your tongue and where to touch the roof of your mouth and how much breath to emit. If you were breaking it down into those components, that’s not natural. Because deaf people can see, and ASL is visual and spatial, purely in terms of physical ability, it’s natural to acquire.
Q. This June, for the first time, New York City schools will recognize ASL as fulfilling a secondary language requirement. Since there are only about 2,000 deaf kids in the system, this seems mostly geared toward hearing students. Who’s interested?
A. Tons of people. Hearing people think sign language is beautiful; that’s the reaction I get all the time. And there’s a certain functionality; right now, it’s something like the fourth most-spoken language in the country.
Q. Did writing the book change your ideas about deafness?
A. In some way, it confirmed for me how deep and personal my relationship to deafness is, and at the same time, how clearly other I am from it. And yet, if that were it, period, it would have just been sad and a sense of loss. But I also felt good; I could own how much [deafness] is a part of my experience. I have no apologies for being a hearing person writing this book.