Back in August when I started school to work toward my American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreter for the Deaf certification, I realized that part-time classes don’t sound like a lot to do. Of course, there was the mini foray into bakery employment that didn’t last long. After I quit, I decided I could use my time to read more by and about Deaf/deaf people. Each day I have an hour on my calendar that says, “Deaf Book Project.”
Why haven’t you heard more about it? My first book, Mindfield by John Egbert, was a work of fiction about a lab-made bacteria that spread like a virus, causing meningitis. For those who survived, the permanent effect was typically deafness. Surprisingly, though published in 2006, Mindfield read much like the response to COVID-19. I kept telling my spouse, “Listen to this!!” and reading government responses in the book that mirrored reality.
Then, I moved on to Deaf World: A Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook, edited by Lois Bragg. This chunky academic book was broken into sections containing topics that pertain to D/deaf people. Each section was then organized by chronology. You may start with an essay from the late 1800s and end in the 1990s. The authors vary quite a bit, as do the length and depth of each essay. Some read like opinion pieces in a newspaper, while others had footnotes and graphs, charts, and other source material. Slowed down considerably by how dense Deaf World could be, I was fine returning it unfinished to the library when it was due, even though it was valuable.
One result of a slow read is that I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything. I turned to A Man Without Words by Susan Schaller (she/her), a memoir about a hearing woman who loved learning ASL, but was sort of pushed into becoming a registered interpreter while she looked for other work, and that’s how she ended up being assigned to a class of D/deaf adults. One student, an adult Mexican man identified as Ildefonso by his uncle, though not much else is known about him, sits with his arms crossed, observing other adults who use ASL to varying degrees.
Readers learn that Ildefonso is a languageless adult, someone who has no language. Although academics study languageless children, Schaller soon learns there are no resources on adults with no language. She attempts to work with Ildefonso each day, which is challenging. He doesn’t know his name. He doesn’t know what language is. He’s curious because at twenty-seven, he knows that all these hand gestures and lip flaps and papers with squiggles mean something important to people, but has no way to understand what.
After weeks of work together, Schaller is able to make Ildefonso understand that the ASL sign for CAT, a picture of a cat, the written letters C-A-T, and an actual cat are connected. There is the animal, and then there are different ways to symbolize cat, and that means you can communicate about the cat. It comes to him what language is. What is this, he gestures at a book. She signs BOOK. What about that, he points to the door. She signs DOOR. Realizing how much he’s missed, Ildefonso breaks down in tears.
The challenging aspects of a languageless adult is that the person has years of experience and no way to name it, frame it, or explain it. Instead of following rigorous lesson plans she designs, Ildefonso leads Schaller, setting the agenda for the day based on what he wants to know more about. When a baby learns a new sign or hears a new word, everything about it is new to them. This is not true of a man approaching thirty, who has to recontextualize everything.
Two parts stood out to me in this riveting memoir. First, how challenging it is to teach the concept of time, and what it really means to people. Schaller notes that even children struggle to understand time (I’m reminded of my niece and nephew at Thanksgiving thinking it was Christmas because there was snow on the ground). But explain “past,” “tomorrow,” “three weeks in the future” — this is all unbelievably hard for someone who has only begun to learn nouns and isn’t sure about verbs.
Eventually, Schaller is able to explain to Ildefonso that he has a birthday, something he has seen celebrated his whole life, but for which he had no clue as to the importance of or why of the food and fanfare. It will be in X number of days and they can count down to it. Once he understands, he becomes nervous that others will forget to celebrate his twenty-eight birthday. The way Schaller sees Ildefonso’s anticipation and fears and writes about them builds tension leading up to what is Ildefonso’s first celebrated (with him) birthday.
The other aspect I found fascinating in A Man Without Words is the deep divide between academia and social action. Professors and scholars at universities had no information about languageless adults; however, teachers, counselors, and organizers often sat in rooms full of languageless adults, and those adults had friends on the street with no language, who still communicated to some degree through gestures. Even the border patrol agents Schaller interviewed said that they “run across languageless persons all the time.”
Schaller, after a long, fruitless search with professors, found through social programs an entire group of people thought to be the stuff of myth. Although I am myself the product of academia, both as student and teacher, I find myself forced to ask tough questions about the chasm between academic pursuits and a general public. Whether it’s the esoteric vocabulary or the paywalls behind which academic papers live, a lot of research in higher education serves to grant PhDs, not better the community with the community.
A Man Without Words by Susan Schaller is a compassionate look at language, deafness, and friendship, including some use of outside sources, and it’s written in an enjoyable memoir format. A very brief film was made of Schaller and Ildefonso, which you can watch for free.