Virtually everyone who has visited a foreign country is aware of the difficulties of communicating in a foreign language.
Ironically, this is largely because most people are able to hear and talk, according to Peggy Linn Prosser, a deaf American who has been living in Japan since 1991 and working as a teacher and consultant to deaf people in a number of different organizations.
“Deaf people who are used to sign language can express themselves through body language and have a better chance of transmitting a message, whereas hearing people tend to be pressured to use words, often making themselves more difficult to be understood,” Prosser said.
In April, Prosser and colleague Mami Nomura opened Japan ASL Volution, a school that teaches American sign language, in Tokyo’s Yoyogi district.
The school has 105 students, about 80 of whom are deaf and are studying the language to increase the number of opportunities open to them.
According to Prosser, deaf people in Japan are often ostracized and consequently have lower self-esteem than those in a similar situation in the United States.
Prosser believes that by studying American sign language, which is strongly rooted in U.S. culture, deaf Japanese people can learn about deaf communities in other countries and discover new opportunities.
“Deaf people in Japan believe they cannot do certain things even though they are totally capable of doing them, largely because of discrimination and an insufficient level of acceptance in society,” Prosser said. “One of the roles (of our school) is to communicate to these people their rights and possibilities.”
In the U.S., the rights of deaf people have been gradually advanced over the years.
A breakthrough for deaf people occurred in 1988, at Washington’s Gallaudet University, which was established in 1864 for the deaf and hard of hearing. The university named its first deaf president after a protest movement that Prosser, then a student at the school, said deeply affected her.
On the legal front, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 confirmed the rights of people with disabilities to equal access to essential areas of society, including civic participation, employment opportunities and the economic mainstream.
As U.S. society has become better equipped to accommodate deaf people, the deaf community has come to see itself as a subculture and a linguistic minority.
Prosser said the multicultural nature of the U.S. enables it to accept the deaf as a new type of cultural group. It is this “new culture” that she wants people to explore.
Prosser believes that normalization for the deaf can only be accomplished when their language is recognized as a language — like English or Japanese — and business is generated from it. This will not happen as long as deaf people are perceived as being handicapped and jobs in the deaf community exist only on a voluntary basis.
“There are many people working as volunteers for the deaf, like interpreters,” she said. “Their intentions are good, but as long as it’s voluntary, the quality (of the work) cannot be controlled.”
She questions why sign language translators should remain unpaid, unlike translators of spoken languages.
“I want the level of volunteer interpretation to be elevated from welfare to business and show that American sign language, just like normal English, can be turned into big business,” she said. “This in turn will increase the social participation of deaf people and realize true equality.”
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