The Best Essay I Read This Month: “Sign of the Times” by Sara Nović

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Disenfranchisement is an unpredictable thing. What the mainstream may assume isolates or weakens a person will sometimes give rise to community and strength, as in Sara Nović’s “Sign of the Times,” published this month in Guernica.

Nović, who is deaf, writes about the belief that deaf people are broken and need to be fixed, a narrative which ignores the cognitive and especially cultural benefits of American Sign Language. Recalling a former visiting professor, she tries to reconcile his narrative of her brokenness with the less-clinical counterpoint of her own experience:

He spoke mainly of my insides, the broken bits—the cochlea, its basilar membrane and tympanic canal. We learned about the function of each part and every possibility for dysfunction; we memorized terminology down to the cellular level. I tried not to be offended by the way he reduced deafness to a medical defect, how he’d produced a biological vacuum where the trait of deafness was detached from actual Deaf human experience. We never talked about how many Deaf people, myself included, liked being Deaf, liked the close-knit community, the culture and vivid three-dimensional language deafness affords us. Still I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt; it was a science class, after all.

Nović tells us the professor then went on to describe how he was researching the “cure.” Despite her resistance to the idea, she attached herself to his work and eventually asked him where Deaf culture would be once the “cure” was finalized, to which he answered that deafness in children would then amount to a parental choice. Rather than give us her response to the professor in that moment, Nović chooses instead to walk us through the upsetting reality of what it is like to give birth to a deaf baby in modern America. The stigma, the narrative of brokenness and incompleteness and insufficiency. The idea that ASL is a crutch, not a skill or entrée into a culture both rich and unique. As a stylistic choice within the essay, this is a much more effective response than any dialogue she likely could have added.

One of this essay’s myriad gifts to its readers is a look into the deeply fascinating history of ASL, contextualized by Nović in terms of everything from nationalism to geographical proliferation. (It is also a splash of cold water for anyone like me who, based on a passing academic familiarity plus the letters he wrote to his wife, always thought Alexander Graham Bell an adorable historical figure. Nović makes it pretty clear this was not the case.)

This essay is a complete one in the sense that it addresses the attacks on Deaf culture from all sides—historical, cultural, educational, familial, scientific. It demands we confront the reasons we have chosen to categorize deafness as a disability, when arguably that’s a misnomer assigned by the hearing majority, who simply believe ASL an inferior form of communication because they don’t understand it.

Almost all the negative impacts of deafness in America, then, are rooted in the cultural misunderstanding that spoken English is dominant due to its intrinsic superiority, rather than the result of the genetic lottery that makes hearing people the majority. Indeed, this mindset broaches more territory than the Deaf world; the concern over English’s dominance is a pressing one for language preservationists and language rights activists globally. Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura speaks to the phenomenon in The Fall of Language in the Age of English, saying: “the rest of the world would appreciate it if [native English speakers] would at least be aware of their privileged position—and more important, be aware that the privilege is unwarranted.” English, she says is an “accidental universal language.

Nović then directly addresses the reason I began reading her piece in the first place. For a while there on Facebook it was trendy—still is—to share around videos of various deaf and hearing-impaired persons who were hearing something for the first time. Their own voice, sometimes, or else that of a loved one. These were supposed to be heartwarming, in a trite, Upworthy sort of way, but I always wondered if they weren’t a bit upsetting to deaf people. I am not deaf and have no close friends or family members who are, so this was all just sort of conjecture. Nović calls out this appropriation of deaf people as “inspiration porn” by those who simultaneously seek to assert their own cultural dominance, and she does it without hedging or equivocation.

No one seems able to scientifically explain why ASL is detrimental to deaf children, but great for the brain development of hearing babies born to yuppies. This is because the answer lies not in scientific fact but in an insidious feat of cultural control. ASL is held up as artistic spectacle, or literally infantilized as the language of babies and primates, but Deaf schools—the cultural centers for the Deaf community—are closed, and native ASL-users are encouraged to seek treatment and abandon sign for spoken language.

You can hear the anger in Nović’s voice, and by this point in the essay you feel it, too. You share her stress as she writes about googling her old professor, tense, looking to see if he’s found his cure yet, wondering what chance she stands against what she calls as her impending “extinction.” He spoke of the choice parents will have in how to raise their children, but Nović knows that societal pressure will never allow that choice to be simple. The piece is a great example of writing from both personal experience and exhaustive factual knowledge, neither overpowering the other.

More likely, though, it will be quieter. The same misinformation leveled against Deaf people for centuries will continue to be used by educators to close Deaf schools and instill fear in hearing parents, and by scientists to pursue projects with complete detachment from their ethical implications. Unless we actively work to restore value to culture over convenience, Deaf people and American Sign Language will be but two of many casualties in the wake of an all-powerful monoculture. I only hope I won’t be around to see this kind of progress achieved.


Read a good essay this month? Tweet me @kastaliamedrano