By Joanne Greenberg
[Editor's note: This piece was originally written by Ms. Greenberg several years ago, so many of the time and date references may no longer be accurate. -- BitcoDavid]
The idea for the class came serendipitously. I was taking advanced first-aid and I mentioned to the Chief Instructor, that because there were a fair number of Deaf people in the Denver area, perhaps the class should learn some simple signs and the manual alphabet. I find Sign useful as an alternative means of communication when ordinary speech is impractical. The Instructor, being enterprising and adaptable, allowed me to do this. After the course was over, four of the instructors and one other student asked me if I would teach them basic Sign.
During those sessions we began to talk about the isolation that deafness imposes. The pre-lingual Deaf are often unable to get the simple life information that the Hearing learn informally from people around them. They are often further handicapped by reading problems and poor education. As these ideas were better understood, the instructors agreed that Deaf adults would be prime candidates for the Basic first-aid course.
I happened to know of an Adult Education class for the Deaf, and the co-leaders of this class, were delighted when I mentioned the possibility of a first-aid class to them. The class was taught in the basement of a church in downtown Denver. Its funding was partly private and partly state, and because it was both experimental and independent, we were encouraged to proceed at our own pace.
We began by having a simple social meeting with the class. The instructors’ Sign was still rudimentary, but it was important for the Deaf students to know that although there would be one or more interpreters for all classes, the instructors had taken the time and showed and interest in communicating with them directly. We have come to believe that this is a key point in the success of a first-aid program, that the instructors be well trained in all levels of first-aid instruction and also have at least fundamental command of Sign language. Sign helps break the reserve of the Deaf student and helps the instructor over any feeling of strangeness in working with all levels of Deaf people.
Formal sessions started with about 12 students, which soon dropped to 10. Their reading level ranged from about third grade to the post-graduate level and verbal skills had about the same spread. In addition we had an elderly woman who was so physically reserved the she was unwilling to sit on the floor during the first sessions and a middle-aged Black man who told us privately that he could never bring himself to have any physical contact with White people, especially women, due to the fear ingrained in him in his childhood. We also had two Hearing High School students, a boy and a girl.
The first classes were the hardest. We found we were going too slowly, teaching too much from the book. We were, in short, underestimating the intelligence of our students – confusing low language ability with low interest and competence. We soon began to feature practical demonstrations and to replace complicated explanations with role-playing. Our chief interpreter was intuitively alert to this and often gave up formal Sign for mime when the need arose. We divided the students into groups whenever we could and their competence with each other opened the way for them to demonstrate lifesaving methods on us. We faced the problems of shyness and race directly and frankly. In lifesaving situations, reticence and race have no place.
It soon became evident that more content was needed in the course and one of the instructors brought a Resusci Annie to class and gave everyone training in artificial respiration. The instructors and interpreters discussed this decision, like all others. We met at a local place for supper before each class and besides being pleasant; it was a good way of getting everyone’s views and feelings on decisions to be made and the progress of the class.
Most Deaf people depend on getting by with minimal understanding. Often they will respond to what they think we want, saying yes, yes, I understand, when they don’t understand at all. Some have grown up under the stigma, wrongly applied, of retardation, and will go to any lengths not to appear slow or stupid. Our greatest enemy in this class was phony acquiescence, and our pre-class talks allowed each of us to tell whether we had noticed any signs of misunderstanding of the body language that indicates pulling away, resentment, confusion or disapproval.
A paradox developed. We knew that we had been moving too slowly for these interested people and we began to speed up. (The class had stared on April 24 and we were halfway through May with only a fourth of the course finished.) On the other hand it was apparent that years of personal experience and a wealth of misinformation and old wives’ tales would have to be ventilated and put to rest before new learning could take place successfully. Because of the communication problem, the Deaf are keepers, storers of experience. The unexplained phenomenon, the misunderstood illness may be kept waiting for 25 years before someone comes who has the time and knowledge to listen and perhaps interpret correctly. We were slowed therefore, by the weight of the Deaf students’ pasts. (And, of course, butter on all burns – that’s what Mom did. The Deaf are nothing if not observant. In passing, it should be noted that one of the truest proofs of real learning I saw during the course was that one of the problems on the final was a 2nd and 3rd degree burn. We had butter, grease and margarine all over the place, and no one used any.)
Our strengths and weaknesses were becoming clearer to us with the passing of time. We had started speeding up the rate of instruction; we were relying almost entirely on Sign and demonstration. We were communicating without preaching, that first-aid can be done by Deaf people on other Deaf, or by Deaf people on Hearing, and that empathy and competence were the keys to success. One Deaf person described our sign as “groping, slow, clumsy and understood.” Our students understood and liked us.
The two Hearing students did not work well with the class. They seemed to feel themselves above the Deaf students and were self-conscious about role-playing. Whether this was Hearing or Adolescence we did not know, but they often made the class self-conscious and we all agreed that we would never again mix Deaf and Hearing students. Ultimately, they were the only ones to flunk the course.
Another misjudgment was our lack of a firm stand on attendance. Since the class was experimental, we started out by following the Teacher’s manual. The Basic course is supposed to be self-teaching; instead we had to resort to the lecture-discussion format. Usually, the reasons for missing class were good, but the effect on the teachers was demoralizing, since some of the students had shown very little retention of printed material that was not reinforced by discussion and practice.
On June 30th we gave our final. We had tried written tests and found that 2 of our best students were failing, not because they did not know the material, but because their reading and writing skills were being tested and not their knowledge of first-aid. We met in the middle of June to plan a rigorous series of 6 accidents. Each accident had a victim, 2 first-aid practitioners an interpreter and an evaluator – unless the evaluator’s Sign skills were good enough to allow her to combine the functions. The victims were purposely both Deaf and Hearing, and some were complete strangers who had never worked with Deaf people before. We made sure more than one of the victims was a White woman.
The problems were: heart attack, open fracture of the jaw, second and third degree burns of the arm, Annie in asphyxiation, a suicide attempt using drugs, a fall from a ladder, shock and a fractured leg. Props and moulages were used and the blood flowed like wine, but no special allowances were made for physical reticence or the problems of inability to communicate with the Hearing. The students were forced to make Hearing strangers understand their intentions by whatever means were at their command. In this, they were remarkably successful.
We had often spoken of two pars of our goal for the class. First, that we might begin to train Deaf adults in first-aid skills and safety-consciousness, second, that we might be able to find and train a small cops of Deaf instructors who would be able to train other Deaf people, with more punch, wit and relevance the new could ever bring to such a course. We have proven that the first is not only possible, but practical and pleasurable for both students and instructors. We are now looking forward to accomplishing the second goal, using the top students of our first class as potential instructors. Training will begin this fall.
Throughout this account, I have tried to give a feeling of what we learned, good and bad, in our class. There are a few other recommendations we could give to Hearing first-aid people who want to teach the Deaf of varied reading levels. The point about instructors learning Sign has been made before, but is important enough to be repeated. Instructors should be prepared for surprises, good and bad, and they need to understand some of the dynamics of Deafness. Group teaching and continuous feedback assure that automatic answers won’t be taken for real learning.
Instructors will have to train themselves not to hear the extraneous harsh sounds made by some Deaf people. Some will have very poor speech, which may be incomprehensible as well as unpleasant. Sign is a further help there. Finally, fancy-pants interpreters or instructors are not good for work with low verbal Deaf people. Esophagus sounds scientific, but throat is the word that will be understood, and while myocardial infarction may be mentioned, heart attack is the phrase that has meaning. Signing instructors will know when the interpreter is speaking simply. If and instructor needs to know where to get an interpreter, she might go to the state school for the Deaf, and ask for the name of a solid no-frills Signer.
I have talked about work and problems. I have not talked about the pleasure of communicating with people starving to death for communication, o the joy of helping to heal decades-old wounds made by isolation. In the first-aid manual, it speaks of “promotion of confidence by demonstration of competence,” For the Deaf, that confidence is a prize above rubies.
Joanne Greenberg was born in 1932, in Brooklyn, NY. She was educated at American University and received and honorary Doctorate from Gallaudet University – the world’s only college for the Deaf. She has written 2 books on the subject and has spent decades working with state mental hospitals for appropriate care for the mentally ill Deaf.
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