Deaf History Month brings attention to invisible disability

April 5, 2022

By Sarah Rose Sammarone
Staff Writer

Deaf History Month is celebrated from March 13 through April 15 every year. The purpose of this month is to recognize and celebrate the Deaf community’s accomplishments and recognize the struggles hearing impaired people face in their daily lives. 

Band director Mr. Chwalyk said Deaf History Month is important because it raises awareness about Deaf culture and Deaf history.

“Everyone should be celebrated, and I want to make sure Deaf people are included in that,” Chwalyk said. “I think there are still a lot of people who see deafness as a sickness or some malady that needs to be remedied, but I don’t think necessarily that that is the case. It is just a different way of living with adaptations that can help overcome certain challenges.”

Because Chwalyk’s parents are both Deaf, he grew up communicating with them using American Sign Language.

“ASL represents my family and my family’s culture. Some people’s culture is based on their heritage… ethnicity or nationality, but mine is based on Deaf culture,” Chwalyk said.

He said communication within the Deaf community is not as difficult as people may think.

“We find alternate means in communication. We text message a lot, although when we text, we don’t use English grammar, we use ASL grammar… so the words will be in a different order. We video chat often, or we leave video messages,” Chwalyk said.

He said having Deaf parents enhanced his fascination with music. 

“I think one of the reasons I decided to go into music is because music wasn’t present in my house. I had this idea that maybe children with hearing parents listened to music during dinner or they went to church services or other events where music is a main staple,” Chwalyk said.

He said as an adult, he embraces his family’s Deaf culture, but as a child, he was embarrassed that his family appeared different. 

“I remember pulling up at school and everybody does the parent ditch–like ‘bye mom’ and leave–but I couldn’t do that. I have to face my mom and sign ‘bye,’ so I tried to do it as quickly as possible, and I would keep my hands low so nobody would see,” Chwalyk said.

He said as a teacher, he is more empathetic because of his upbringing.

“I always look out to those students who are different, are impacted differently or who learn differently,” Chwalyk said.

He said having Deaf parents also informed his perspective when it comes to accessibility. For instance, he recognizes the importance of closed captioning, which hearing people can decide if they want to use. However, for the deaf community, it is a necessity.

For this reason, he said he was struck by the concept behind the 2021 drama/musical “CODA,” which means a Child Of a Deaf Adult. 

“That movie has burned-in captions, so when you turn on the movie, you can’t turn the captions off. I thought that was really cool because it really showed true accessibility,” Chwalyk said.

He said he uses the metaphor of a bicycle bell to explain the challenges of the Deaf community.

“Imagine yourself going down the street and someone is in your way, so you ring the bell,” Chwalyk said. “You expect people to move because the assumption is that they can hear you, but if that’s a Deaf person, then you are just going to ride into the back of them. So people don’t really think about those types of things.” 

He said hearing people use nonverbal communication more than they realize, and that can inspire them to learn ASL. 

“There is more to ASL than just a hand gesture to a word. It’s all about expression…. like a shoulder shrug or a wink or raised eyebrows during a question, so that is interesting, and I think that is a hearing person‘s first true step into ASL,” Chwalyk said.

He said his best advice for someone who is trying to learn ASL is to learn from a native user. 

“There is a certain mouth shape or an eyebrow level for certain signs,” Chwalyk said. “If that person is Deaf too, it makes it even better because then you can’t use your English to get around it, and you have to learn,” Chwalyk said.

“A long time ago, people thought that Deaf people were unintelligent, and it’s not true.”

Chwalyk’s mom, Cathy Eder, is a resident of Union Beach in Monmouth County, Born Deaf, Elder said her primary reason for celebrating Deaf History Month is because of employment. 

“Many hearing people won’t hire Deaf people, so for that fact alone, hearing people should learn more about Deaf people,” Eder said through FaceTime with Chwalyk acting as an interpreter. “We can’t really do jobs that have to do with phones or anything like that, but Deaf people can work without speaking on the phone.”

Eder said because deafness is not a visible disability like being in a wheelchair, the Deaf community does not receive the recognition it needs.

“A long time ago, people thought that Deaf people were unintelligent, and it’s not true,” Eder said.

At the age of 10, Eder learned sign language at the Marie H. Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Ewing Township, which she attended before going to high school at the Trenton School for the Deaf. She said it took her about four months to become fluent in ASL. Until then, she communicated by lip-reading.

Eder said those looking to learn sign language can work with an interpreter or Deaf person or attend ASL classes. 

“If you are motivated, yes, you will… learn ASL,” Eder said. “Patience is key.” 

Senior Genesis Cedeño is among those students who are studying ASL. She has been learning the language for two years through her enrollment in Virtual High School courses at LHS.

“I wanted to take a VHS course mainly because I had been very interested in American Sign Language, and it was a perfect opportunity to learn it. I also liked the independent aspect of VHS,” Cedeño said.  

She said people should educate themselves about Deaf culture and history because it is important for people to learn about those unlike themselves.

“Being culturally aware also prevents making offensive assumptions, and it is also interesting to talk about to people and ask questions,” Cedeño said.

She said the most surprising thing she has learned about the Deaf through her sign language studies is that they do not consider their deafness a disability. 

“Most of the members of that community do not get hearing aids and prefer using sign language instead of verbal language to speak,” Cedeño said. 

She said her ASL 2 class this year is more challenging and demanding compared to the introductory course she took last year.

“The only advice I have may sound cliche, but it is so important, and it is to practice,” Cedeño said.

She said practicing sign language often makes learning ASL easier and improves one’s memory. 

“There is nothing worse than having to relearn a sign over and over because you forgot it,” said Cedeño.

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