There’s a heartwarming story that’s been up on the Interwebs this week about President Obama giving a speech on energy policy at St. George Community College. Stephon, a deaf student had front-row seating for the event, got to shake the president’s hand after the speech and signed to him, “I am proud of you.” To Stephon’s surprise, the president signed back at him, ” Thank you.”
Since then, Stephon has posted a YouTube video in which he tells the story of what happened in American Sign Language. The video is up at several sites, along with a transcription for those of us who don’t sign.
Video of Stephon meeting Obama
Video of Stephon discussing his meeting with Obama in ASL
As I said, the story has been posted a variety of place. I saw it a link to it on Twitter that took me to the Washington D.C. blog Distriction where the story was posted under the rather clever headline “SIGN OF THE TIMES.”
But a former student of mine mentioned on Facebook that the story had also been posted on the Huffington Post under the considerably less clever headline “Deaf Student ‘Speechless’ After Obama Responds To Him In Sign Language.”
My former student, who is hearing, found the headline to be “at least mildly offensive,” and he asked me what I thought of it. I read the story and found the following quote from Stephon. (The quote was transcribed from ASL):
“Oh my gosh! I was like wow! He understood me after I said I was proud of him. It was so amazing…I was just speechless.”
So my analysis was that the headline was fine. It accurately portrayed what was in the story. But as I read through the other comments on Facebook, I got to wondering, was the “speechless” pun in bad taste, referring to someone who communicates primarily (I assume) through signing?
I did a quick search of the Web, and while I did find criticism of the headline, none of it came from people who identified themselves as being deaf. I knew from my own experience on writing about these kinds of issues that the deaf community is definitely offended by audio and video stories about the deaf community that don’t include transcripts or subtitles.
But to really answer the question, I thought I would turn to Matt Daigle, who along with his wife Kay, produces the witty and enlightening web comic That Deaf Guy. Now I don’t presume that Matt can speak for the entire deaf community, but he can give us a the point of view of someone who takes a humorous look at the issues deaf people and their families face. Here’s what he had to say in a series of e-mails today:
“I looked over the article and I was not personally offended by the title. Myself, as well, as many of my deaf friends, are aware that the term speechless means in ASL SHOCKED ASTOUNDED. We know that the English languages uses figurative language in the form of idioms and metaphors and such so we see those terms and just automatically translate them into meaning–like anyone else.
It is the same concept with the word “hear.” Deaf people often sign NEVER HEARD meaning no one told me or I didn’t know about that. Within that context the word “hear” has the meaning of KNOW. We don’t really think of the literal sense of that word just the meaning.”
On a related note, Matt had this to say about media portrayal of deaf people in general:
“The media does misrepresent deaf people often that is true. We pretty much can agree that the most hated word used in the media concerning deaf people is “Hearing Impaired.” Now I say that and yet I know some (very very few) deaf people who preferred to be called Hearing Impaired.”
Here’s one of my favorite of Matt’s cartoons from That Deaf Guy:
I think the look on the wife’s face is priceless….
- 10/18/2006 – Should streaming video about Gallaudet College be captioned?
- 10/24/2006 – How well did the Washington Post handle the Gallaudet uproar?
- 10/27/2006 – Disability, Illness and the Media
- 10/27/2007 – Dealing with diversity – Is disability the last great barrier?
The Washington Post’s Date Lab feature matched up an English teacher and a disability consultant for a blind date. He was in a wheelchair, she wasn’t. They ended up being a better than average match for the series, but what made the story great was that it has people talking about issues many of us try to ignore or pretend don’t exist.
- 11/23/2010 -Disability, Humor, and Pop Culture
I’m a big, big fan of the web comic Girls With Slingshots by the brilliant Danielle Coresetto. In her comic, Danielle has a supporting character who is deaf and a relatively minor character who is blind. Danielle’s work on this topic manages to avoid the “very special episode” humor and instead deals with disability genuinely from the point of view of the people who have to live with it. It was through Girls With Slingshots that I discovered Matt’s comic. (GWS has changed servers since I made that post so many of the links back to the strip there are broken. I will try to fix them on my post at some point, but not today.)