In episode 16, I interviewed Professor Donald Grushkin from California State University, Scaramento who is a profoundly Deaf scholar and researcher in various aspects of Deafhood such as history, community and culture.
Listen to the podcast or read the transcripts below:
- Professor Grushkin’s Facebook Page
- Professor Grushkin’s Quora Profile
- Professor Grushkin’s YouTube Channel
- What’s the Difference between small ‘d’ deaf and capital ‘D’ Deaf?
Ahmed: Even though I call myself deaf and also call myself hard of hearing, there are still so many things I don’t know about in the Deaf community.
And in this case, it’s Deaf with a capital ‘D’. It’s a bit of a difference and I’ll put a link if you want to learn more about the differences between small ‘d’ deaf and capital ‘D’ Deaf.
In the Deaf community, it has its own culture, it has its own history and obviously its own language.
And there are many people who are very proud of that; as if it’s like a country. When someone is patriotic about their own country, Deaf people are like that with their own history, culture as well.
And there are also a lot of politics as well, for example “are you part of it/are you not part?”, “should you be part of it/should you not?”…that’s a separate story.
But I did learn a lot over the past year or so and I read a lot of books, learned from other people and watching YouTube channels, just to get a better understanding of the Deaf culture, history and community.
But there are also people out there who studied it and even did a Ph.D on it as well.
So I wanted to find someone who did that and could tell me about that as well, and I managed to find someone who goes by the name of Donald Grushkin, and he is someone who has done a Ph.D in this topic of deafness.
He is Deaf himself, profoundly deaf and his main language is ASL – American Sign Language.
And he is someone who has done a lot of research and has a lot of knowledge, and also shares that knowledge like on Quora – a questions & answers platform, so it’s where people ask questions and he answers it.
And it’s his way of spreading his knowledge and sharing his knowledge so that people don’t get the wrong perception about the Deaf community.
Professor Donald Grushkin currently works in California State University in Sacramento. He is a researcher and he focuses on the aspect of Deafhood, specifically around history, community and culture.
And he also researches on hard of hearing people within the Deaf culture as well.
He’s an expert, he knows what he’s talking about and this is his topic. He has done his Ph.D in language, reading and culture in the University of Arizona.
So I reached out to him to, as you say “pick your brain”, and I just want to discuss about that, how did he get into it and just to learn about more about him.
This is where I reached out to him and we had the interview by email as he is profoundly Deaf. So I asked him questions, and he replied by email. And he has been very very kind to do that for me so (to Professor) Professor, I appreciate it and I really want to thank you for doing that.
So the first question I asked Professor Grushkin is about his background, his Deaf journey, his upbringing, the challenges that he has faced along the way in terms of any kind of challenges that he had faced growing up, in certain environments and certain situations.
And this is what he said in his response.
Donald: Wow. You want me to give my whole life story in what, an hour’s time? Ok, I’ll try.
I was born Deaf in the mid-1960s. This was during the last great rubella (German measles) epidemic.
When my mother found she was pregnant with me, she got a shot of gamma globulin (sounds like a good name for a new villain for the Incredible Hulk to battle, doesn’t it?) to prevent contracting the disease, but apparently that was too late — she’d already gotten it and I was born Deaf as a result.
Note to the anti-vaxxers out there— keep on doing what you’re doing — you’re just making more of us, propelling our grand plan to take over the world! BWAAAAHAAAHAAAAA!
My parents are Hearing and didn’t know what to do. After a lot of doctor shopping, they finally found one that would confirm I’m Deaf. Then they were referred to the John Tracy clinic, which is a famous oralism-focused program based in L.A.
The JTC convinced my parents that I would be able to learn to speak orally, and that was just fine with my parents — they were determined that I would not sign and be “Deaf”.
So, with a lot of rigorous, time-intensive, and torturous training, I did somehow learn to speak orally.
I should say that I was and am a rarity — despite what the oralists will tell you, Deaf people who successfully learn to speak orally are in a small minority — maybe 5 – 10% manage this. Most others only partially acquire this skill, and many others don’t succeed at it at all.
Being oral, not signing, and Deaf, I also had to learn to “lip read”, and again, despite what you may have been told, this is a highly unreliable, difficult skill that only works in a 1-on-1 situation — if that.
For every additional person in the conversation, the difficulty increases exponentially and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the Deaf person will end up lost in the conversation.
So, around my family, at school with Hearing kids (after my oral preschool program, I didn’t attend a school for the Deaf until I was 13) and around my neighbourhood, I was basically isolated.
Few friends, not really part of any group.
My middle school years were hell. We moved to a new school, and I was the brunt of what we would probably call bullying today — bullying that pretty much only occurred because I’m Deaf.
After 2 years of that hell, I finally had enough and told my parents I wanted to go to a school for the Deaf, where if I were to be bullied, it would be because of who I was, not because of an external factor I couldn’t control.
They still didn’t want me to become “Deaf” — were afraid I’d “lose my speech” and “enter the Deaf ghetto” and all the other oralist canards the JTC and oral programs fed them.
But they knew I wasn’t happy and let me go to the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington DC. That was the best thing that they ever did for me.
At MSSD, and later, Gallaudet, I made friends, thrived, and learned to be proud to be Deaf, instead of ashamed of it, like I had been all those years in the “Hearing world”.
And those experiences have made me the man I am today — I advocate for the right of all Deaf children to sign and have access to their Deaf heritage, because I don’t want future generations of Deaf kids to suffer like I, and so many others of us have.
Ahmed: there are a lot of things in that story that I resonate with in terms of isolation, you feel like you don’t belong somewhere. I feel like the same thing, in that “in-between” area of the deaf and hearing world. I’m an “inbetweener” as some people say, and it’s hard because nobody would get it.
And I guess Professor Donald is in the same situation, or probably even worse than me, because he is completely in that hearing world when really in hindsight, he problem should have been in the Deaf environment from the beginning.
But at the same time, you can’t really blame the parents sometimes, especially if they are not familiar with the Deaf community, the history, what goes on there and how people benefit from having access to sign language.
They just followed the advice of a doctor who is, again, maybe not the best person to advise because they just said you need to be oral to succeed in life. If you have sign language and not oral, you are going to fall behind.
And I’ve learnt that very quickly over time that this is definitely not the case and for Professor Grushkin’s situation that, in hindsight, maybe he should have been, in the beginning go to a Deaf university/college/school first.
But it has given him that experience and now he is an advocate to make sure all Deaf children have the right to have access to deaf heritage, which is pretty cool.
The next part of the question I talked to Professor Grushkin was about how I imagined that his parents were afraid and I’m guessing because they did not have a lot of experience being around Deaf people, they assumed that oral-focused is best.
So it must have been difficult for them to work out what is best for Donald when he was a child.
So I asked at what point did he start learning ASL and did his close family and friends learnt it too to communicate with him at all, or did they just depend focused oral communications, and that’s it.
And this is what he said.
Donald: Right — they’d never met a Deaf person before me — my family is all Hearing. So all the doctors and “experts” told them that oralism was possible and the way to go, and they use every trick in the book to get parents to go with what they “know” — Hearing and speech, because that is what is “easiest” for parents — make the kid do all the work of communication.
Meanwhile the parents and family members basically don’t need to change anything they do, even though in reality this is the hardest and least successful approach for a Deaf person because it forces them to rely on their weakest sense and ability — Hearing.
They don’t really tell blind kids to rely on their sight, do they? No — they’re given Braille and seeing eye dogs and the like. Yet with Deaf kids, it’s so routine to force them to be what they’re not — Hearing.
So I learned ASL starting when I was 13 — when I entered MSSD. Actually, I got a tutor to teach me sign a bit before that, but she more or less taught me signed English which is not the same as ASL, and was pretty useless for going to school at mssd where most of the kids spoke ASL.
My family never really learned to sign. I tried to get them to, but they always resisted. I think my speech was too good, so to them there was no issue — they could understand ME just fine — who cares if I’m not really understanding them?
My mom did take a Sign course or two — usually signed English classes in a community centre or something, but not much of it really stuck with her. My older brother learned finger-spelling in Boy Scouts and would sometimes use it but for the most part it’s just oral communication which puts me at the disadvantage every time.
I’ve given up at this point on trying to get them to learn to sign, but I’ve also learned to limit my exposure the soul-sucking experience that is a Hearing family that doesn’t sign.
I don’t visit with them very often, and that’s the kind of relationship many of us from hearing families that don’t sign have.
Oralism claims to help Deaf kids become a more integral part of their families, but in reality, the result is usually exactly the opposite.
Ahmed: And this is so powerful. I can understand again, but this is not something that I can resonate with.
I can hear my family and was part of it. And in that environment at home, it was easy enough for me to be part of that family (but it’s a different story outside the house when you are in a noisy environment. That’s a separate story).
But for Professor Grushkin, he tried and tried. And it’s almost as if he is fighting the system to make it aware to everyone, especially for families, him being pretend hearing is not the best for anyone. Nobody wins.
And because the parents will have to work harder for that to learn ASL, maybe they thought it was too much of an effort. And again, they didn’t know that. They just followed the advice that the doctors have said to them.
For a lot of people, they just follow the advice that they were given because they think that they are the experts.
But it’s quite clear from his experience that they don’t know what is the best for a Deaf child, because especially if that person is a hearing doctor, then it’s even more difficult for them to understand.
For me, sometime I struggle to listen to all the advices that audiologists give me, because they don’t truly know what you go through in a day to day basis.
Of course they’re important for certain things and I rely on them, but for certain things they just don’t always get it unless they are deaf or hard of hearing themselves.
So I find it really interesting from Professor Donald. Along the way, it’s obvious that he has fully embraced his Deaf identity and then predominantly use ASL.
But as I said in the beginning, he also made it part of his academic journey too. And he has a Ph.D in this topic.
So I ask him a question about his PhD and how he made it part of it academic background, the Deafhood area.
And why did you decide to do that? Why did he want to do that and what did he hope to get from that and this is his response.
Donald: First, I just want to say that I have a problem with using the word “use” in connection with signed languages. Part of the problem with the devaluation of signed languages by these “experts” (and lay people as well) is that they view signed languages as a “tool” — something to be chosen at one’s discretion.
If a tool doesn’t work, then just choose a different one. And what is it that we do with tools? We USE them. Yes, languages are a tool of the human species, but all too often, the “experts” and the oralists focus on speech which is a modality, not a language.
And what all humans need is language, which occurs in a variety of modalities. So I prefer to say we speak ASL (or BSL or whatever) because when we sign, we ARE speaking — we’re just not doing it auditorily. If we can get this to spread, I think it will go a long way towards helping resolve this problem.
And don’t give me any guff about the dictionaries defining “speak” as being vocal — remember — who writes the dictionaries? Hearing people, who are limited by their Hearing perceptions of the world.
Anyway, how I ended up getting a PhD.? That’s a whole story in itself. I graduated high school at 16 — partly because I skipped a year to go to MSSD from my middle school, and then I finished my high school program in 3 years. So I graduated from college when I was 20.
Being that young, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I majored in psychology— it was either that or English, and what can you really do with an English degree?
So one of my good friends — someone who I’m still in touch with — who was also a psych major, persuaded me to enrol in the School Psychology program at Gallaudet. So I thought I’d use that degree to help other Deaf kids who were struggling with main streaming like I had been.
Well, I never actually ended up working at any public schools — I worked at three schools for the Deaf in four years — Virginia, Boston and New York. Virginia, I worked there only one year because that school had formerly been the Black school for the Deaf in Virginia and the legacy of racism and mis-education was still very strong there, and I didn’t like what I was seeing.
So then I went to a small school near Boston that was at that time officially “total communication”, meaning they said they supported signing and speech, but in reality, it was more oralist-focused and very audist (although at that time, I didn’t know that word).
They didn’t like my support for ASL, and chose not to “renew my contract” for the following year.
So then I worked at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York in their Mental Health clinic. I liked it there, but I was feeling dissatisfied with my work as a psychologist. I really wasn’t a very good psychologist— maybe I was just too young for it.
So I started thinking about doing a doctoral degree — something my family encouraged for me — but in what? I got some college catalogs and started looking at the different programs they offered, and then I saw one that piqued my interest — in bilingual education.
This was the early ‘90s, when Bi-Bi — bilingual/bicultural education for the Deaf was a new idea (actually, a very old one, but I digress).
But all the bilingual Ed programs were focused on Hearing students. Then I went to a workshop hosted by Dr. Sam Supalla, from the university of Arizona and during a break, I asked him for advice on where I could go to study bi-bi.
He said there were no programs that did that, but at the u of A, I could enroll in their Language, Reading and Culture program (which offered a track in bilingual Ed), while also taking coursework in Sam Supalla’s Deaf studies program.
Well that was it for me — I applied to U of A, and was accepted that year.
I enrolled with the intention of getting a degree in educational administration. During my first semester, I found out that even if I got an Ed.D. degree in Ed admin, I still wouldn’t be able to get certification as an educational administrator, because you have to have been a teacher first. My four years in the schools as a school psychologist didn’t count.
Well, I didn’t want to go back and get a teaching degree and work as a teacher for several years — that was a step “backwards” to me. So I decided to shift focus and get a Ph.D. In bilingual Ed, and minored in linguistic/cultural anthropology.
And that was it for me. I’m very happy and satisfied in this field, teaching Deaf studies and in my small way, trying to influence people to understand Deaf people and what we really need and want.
But I do have to say that even though I took some missteps, it all was valuable experience for me which helped me to gain insights to the issues, which I still use today.
Even so, I try to encourage my students to do their “homework” and really check out their future careers before they start doing it, just so they know what they’re getting themselves into and understand how much work/time/money it will take for them to get to where they want to go.
Ahmed: I’ve learned a lot, like for example, he talks about it from an anthropological perspective about how sign language should be seen as a language not as a tool.
They speak sign language, not use sign language. And that’s something I find very interesting and it makes sense to me. You know, the fact that I use the word “use” was clearly the wrong way and people think that using the word “speak sign language” is wrong as well.
But then it makes sense when you hear it from his perspective, especially because it’s a primary language for many people. It’s not a tool as such in a way that people think about, it’s a language.
So I found that journey very, very interesting and he explained all the missteps as he said along the way, and you learn from that. I think we all learned from missteps along the way.
I did ask him in the next part, I asked him what did he do his PhD research in and then I also moved on to his interest in using Quora, which is where I’ve heard about him the first time, because he is quite prominent there and he answers questions and shares knowledge.
Even though I asked myself to use it more but there’s so many places that you can be and Quora at this moment in time isn’t my primary focus.
So I also asked him alongside the PhD question is why did we decide to use Quora and what has he learned from it?
And this is his reply:
Donald: I’m glad you’re receptive to saying “speak” instead of “use” in connection with signed languages.
You’d be surprised how many people are resistant to changing their perceptions and going against established ways of doing and saying things, “just because” – Deaf people too. It’s not just Hearing people.
Anyway, my doctoral dissertation was titled… ready for it?
“Academic, linguistic, social and identity development in hard of hearing adolescents educated within an ASL/English Bilingual/Bicultural educational setting for deaf and hard of hearing students”.
I know. Quite a mouthful. One of my dissertation committee members sort of joked during my defence that if a dissertation title can’t be read in one breath, it’s too long.
He was more or less right. If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably title it something like “Bi-Bi is for hard of hearing folks too!”
As for Quora, I’d actually never heard of it, and probably still wouldn’t, if it weren’t for another friend of mine from MSSD, Michele Westfall, who is also fairly active on Quora.
She had been on it for a little while, but was frustrated with the audism and resistance to her Deaf-centric views she saw on Quora, and wanted some backup.
She knows I share a lot of her Deaf-centric perspectives. I initially joined just to help upvote some answer she’d written on audism or something.
But as I looked around on Quora, I saw questions about ASL and signed language linguistics, Deaf culture, and the like that I definitely have the academic and experiential knowledge to share.
So I started answering questions and I have come to appreciate and enjoy the few Deaf-centric folks who have also joined Quora — there are more of us there now than there were in the beginning.
What have I learned from Quora? Hmmm…
I guess what I’ve learned is that the audism of Hearing people is like the Night King’s undead army attacking Winterfell in Game of Thrones. It doesn’t matter how many you kill — there are thousands more coming at you.
Quora questions are like that. I’ve already answered questions like “in what language do Deaf people think in” and “what makes sign language a language” several times over, and still, every day I get more requests to answer questions along those same themes.
It’s just so frustrating and annoying.
I don’t mind answering questions and helping people to get over their audist frameworks. But when people don’t take a little time to check if such a basic question has already been asked, it is disheartening and soul-sapping to see just how many people out there there are who just can’t even begin to conceptualize how Deaf people are just as human as they are, and how we can live and exist just like they do – which we do, just in a different language and sensory orientation, that’s all.
Ahmed: I hear you Donald, I hear what you’re saying. I do get the impression that you spend a lot of time answering very basic questions over and over again. The only argument I would have against that, I think it exists in many industry, the same problem exists, where people asks the basic questions over and over again.
But if it’s something about you as a person, if it’s your identity and it’s personal to you, then I think it’s different story compared to you know, talking about your industry, what are you working in a job and people have a perception of the industry and you want to defend that.
But once about you are the person, I can understand how it is different to feel like you are just disheartened and sometime pushed aside and not doing the basic thing like checking if the questions have been answered.
So it’s about your identity, it’s about your life and I understand that for Professor Donald, it’s a great way to spread awareness and take control of any perception that people may have.
I don’t really watch Kim the Thrones – yes, shock horror! I have not watched it. But when he says thousands more coming to you, I understand that. I can understand what he means by that. It just never-ending onslaught of questions.
And I asked him about that he said:
Donald: Yes — take control of perceptions and spread awareness — I’ve been doing this in various ways for quite a while. I had a website, Dr. Don G’s Deafhood Discourses (which unfortunately got infected with malware that I couldn’t figure how to fix and had to let it go). I’ve my YouTube Channel (under my name, which has some of the content from the website) and a Facebook page, so Quora is a continuation of that in a different format.
Ahmed: So I wanted to just round things up because I can talk to him forever but maybe that’s going to be for another podcast episode. We’ll see about that. But I asked him the questions that I tend to ask a few people on.
The first question I asked him is, what’s the worst thing people have said to you about your deaf identity?
Donald: That I’m too “Deaf” – that I’m too proud of something they view as a disability and not as a linguistic and cultural group and that I’m “militant” in my positions on Deaf issues.
Ahmed: Wow! Who would have thought that people would be criticising you for protecting your identity? Anyway, my next question was 1) what’s the worst thing about being Deaf, and 2) what’s the best thing about being Deaf?
Donald: The worst thing about being Deaf are the barriers to communication, employment, language, education that hearing people create for Deaf people. The issues faced by Deaf people are entirely preventable and all hearing-made.
The best thing about being Deaf is about being part of a linguistic and cultural minority where even if you have never met a another member of that group, you feel a bond, a connection to that person, you can recognize them as “one of us”.
Ahmed: I find that quite true actually because when I attended a few events which had d/Deaf people and they actually using sign language and I communicated with them with sign language and I do understand that you do get a connection. So that makes a lot of sense, and I like the way he said “you know what, we’re facing the same battle and we are together in this and we are almost immediately friends”, which is really quite cool.
The next question I asked Professor is what advice do you have for hearing people when they are around d/Deaf people, whether they’re a small ‘d’ deaf or capital ‘D’ Deaf.
And this is his response…
Donald: Be open to and accepting of Deaf people as they are. Don’t try to force them to be like you.
If you want to communicate with a Deaf person, do it in ways that establishes communication is on an even level, that does not force the Deaf person to take on all the burden of communicating.
Don’t force us to try to lipread you.
Take out a pen and paper instead, or use your cell phones to type/text instead. Or even better, learn to fingerspell or even to sign!
Ahmed: Yep, I’m with him in all of that. Sometimes it feels like people force to work extra hard to keep up with the conversation.
Even if I explained to them this is what I need, how I’m struggling and can we do it this way, I still get the impression that they 1) can’t be bothered, or 2) they do it, then they forget and then get into the rythm of not doing.
And I understand what the Professor is saying…it’s quite frustrating.
The last question I have is what advice do you have for anyone who is d/Deaf and wants to make the most out of their academic lives and their general lives as well?
Donald: Don’t accept limitations that Hearing people place on you, telling you you can’t. Figure out what would work for you to help you accomplish what you want and tell Hearing people this is what you need to make it happen.
Use available laws and resources to force the changes you need and make them happen. It’s not always easy, but you are human, and it is your right to seek fulfillment as a human being in all ways.
Ahmed: I think that’s beautiful. You can tell that Professor Donald Grushkin has a lot of wisdom, a lot of knowledge to share and he is someone you can learn a lot from just by looking on this Quora profile or just by connecting with him.
Speaking of which, the very last question I asked him is where is the best place that can reach or connect with you online. And he has offered to provide his email address…
Donald: People can always contact me at my work email grushkin(at)csus.edu. Facebook messenger or through my Facebook page is another possibility but unfortunately messages from contacts I don’t personally know tend to get hidden until I inadvertently stumble upon them sometimes years later.
So Professor Donald Grushkin, I just want to say thank you for your time for being detailed with your answers in the email, for sharing your knowledge and I really, really appreciate it and I hope to connect with you as well.
And for you listeners or if you’re reading the transcript, I hope you enjoyed it as well. I hope you found it useful.
Let me know what you think and I would also really appreciate it if you could leave a review on iTunes, that would be really, really awesome. It helps to kind of spread that awareness even more and I think that’s an important thing to do.
Thank you for listening or reading. And in meantime, hopefully I will speak to you another time again soon.
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