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Althea M March

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Deaf people are examined in light of their uniqueness in a hearing world that is now learning to understand them.

This summary paper is based on the true story, Train Go Sorry, written by Leah Hager Cohen. She witnessed firsthand, since an infant, the struggles that were experienced and still being experienced by the Deaf community when she attended Lexington School for the Deaf. “ For if by blood, I am bound to Lexington, by involuntary desire I am bound to the deaf community.” (Cohen, p. 7) Her association with the school came about as a result of her father being a school teacher at the school for many years also her mother who worked in the nursery. “We lived at the school, in Queens, New York, because our parents worked there.” (Cohen, p. 1) Leah Hager Cohen’s paternal grandparents were deaf. However, her father and his brother, Oscar and Max, were born as hearing children. “In our world, people were either deaf or hearing. We registered both with equal lack of concern: the designation was relevant but unremarkable.” (Cohen, p. 4) In this paper, I will attempt the trials and triumphs of the Deaf community as seen through the eyes of Leah Hager Cohen’s account of her intimate relationship with the Deaf.
Leah Hager Cohen goes into some detail as to her background of her initial exposure to the Deaf Community and American Sign Language. Her father, Oscar Cohen, was born to two deaf parents. Since he was hearing, he learned sign language to communicate with his parents and thus ended up with the family teaching at the Lexington School for the Deaf. Her mother was also involved in the nursery section of the school. “Lexington was our red-brick castle, our seven-acre kingdom.” (Cohen, p. 3) Leah also speaks of her siblings, one of which was African-American, so she was used to being in a blended situation with both the Deaf and people from other ethnicities. “We were already accustomed to cultural differences, even within our own family – our father was Jewish, our mother Protestant; our paternal grandparents were deaf, the rest of us hearing; Andy (who was adopted) was black, the rest of us white.” (Cohen, p. 4)

In this chapter we become familiar with who Sofia is. She and her family emigrated from Russia to become a part of the American Dream and most of all for Sofia and her younger sister Irina, who were both deaf, to lead more productive lives as deaf people. “Two years ago, when Sofia Normatov first came from Russia, she was the new girl, and she was new again last year, when she first entered the high school.” (Cohen, p. 18) We become familiar with the way Lexington School for the Deaf is operated from the perspective of a deaf person, being Sofia. She was immersed into the foreign language immersion class. “The foreign language transition class was formed in 1984 in response to the increasing number of immigrants who were applying for admission to the school.” (Cohen, p. 19)

James makes his debut here as the African-American student who makes an unusual difference in the lives of both his family and the school by his charm and charisma. “James Taylor is a success story. Everyone says so – teachers, counselors, administrators – commenting on at length on his marked change in behavior since he first arrived at Lex.” (Cohen, p. 34) As a lead character in the school play he performs outstandingly for someone who views deafness only as a way of life and is comfortable with it. Ms. Cohen describes his background from the Bronx and how he has become acclimated to the environment at the Lexington School for the Deaf. “And while hearing children were learning to read stories, deaf children were just beginning to learn how to read their own parents’ lips.” (Cohen, p. 37)

The Least Restrictive Environment may be a harsh blow to the Deaf Community. As the name implies, it refers to integrating deaf children into the hearing community and is an enormous political topic for the Deaf. “When the new State Plan for Education of Students with Disabilities comes out in seven months, it will not reflect any of the testimony that the Lexington representatives delivered. It will mandate the “education of the pupil to the maximum extent appropriate with other pupils who do not have a disability.” (Cohen, p. 65) The Deaf are adamant about emphasizing that being born deaf is not a disability but is a culture. This is very hotly debated with the administrators in education and the Deaf Community. “It will make no attempt to recognize that to many people, deafness is not a pathology but a cultural identity.” (Cohen, p. 65)

An account is given of the life and death of a Deaf champion in the author’s life, her paternal grandfather, Sam Cohen. Of great necessity is the scarcity of Deaf interpreters, especially in critical situations. Sam died in the hospital because the hospital concerned failed to contact his son Oscar who volunteered to interpret for his father as what was going on. “My father wrote to the medical center administration requesting answers to these questions.” (Cohen, p. 82) In a letter to the hospital Oscar Cohen insisted that they supply him with adequate answers as to why interpreter was ever employed to facilitate Sam’s passing to his wife, Fannie, who was also deaf. “That night my father called the CCU to inquire about Sam’s condition. The nurse on duty said the doctor was not there. My father asked for the doctor please to return his call on Sunday night at home. No one returned the call.” (Cohen, p. 80) Since that time many changes have been made in the way the Deaf are being treated in hospital settings so that other Deaf members of the family and friends may understand just what is going on with the patient in question.

Sofia’s life as a girl growing into a woman transition shows her adaptability in the hearing world. Her mother fails to learn American Sign Language, as is often the case in most families with deaf children where other family members never learn to sign. “Mrs. Normatov, awake in the dark, thinks about this daughter, about how strong-willed, even defiant, she has become in this country, and so she steals out of bed and follows Sofia into the kitchen.” (Cohen, p. 84) However, Sofia does have her bat mitzvah and her Rabbi honors her as a woman who has blossomed and bloomed into a beautiful person both inside and out. TTY’s are described and how they came to be most useful in the Deaf Community in conveying messages via a telephone mode of communication.

Hearing aids may or may not be important to people who were born Deaf. However, to people who acquired deafness, hearing aids may be significant to understand the hearing world. James usually loses his hearing aid and replacing one is an issue for his family who is poor. “hearing aids can cost between $400 and $800 apiece.” (Cohen, p 101) Replacing one can cost a family $50, but Deaf children feel it is of relative importance to be a hearing individual versus enjoying Deafness where they had come so far. The issue of cochlear implants is quite controversial to the Deaf. They fear that device may spell their demise. However, they now know that the Deaf will remain, but in fewer numbers into the future.

Lexington School for the Deaf has gone through a revolution from an aural tradition to that of having its staff proficient in American Sign Language. This was all a process that took more than a hundred years to emerge. A political history of the school is revealed. Various forms of sign language have been adapted for the school population. From Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, to the Conference of Milan, where signing was outlawed in Deaf school to a return of signing as being efficient for Deaf children to understand the world in which they lived. “In the late 1960s, whenever Lexington’s superintendent, Dr. Leo Connor, spotted groups of students signing on the sidewalk in front of the building after school, he used to dispatch Oscar, the brand-new director of child care, to send them on their way, as if they were engaging in an unseemly act.” (Cohen, p. 116)

Leah Hager Cohen talks about her amusing grandmother, Fannie Cohen. She adjusted to another life without her husband, Sam, in Florida. She volunteered in a home for the elderly and learns that life is all about giving after. She had lived most of her life devoted to her loving husband, Sam. Fannie was always an independent person who never wanted to be a bother to anyone, most of all, her family when she was growing up as a child. “She aligns herself with Hazra, this younger, hearing woman, her able and savvy kitchen partner. Sucking their teeth, they pass clinical gazes over the disabled ones in the main room. Then they shake their heads at each other and go back to work.” (Cohen p. 147)

Deaf children have the extra added tasks of learning to sign and also learning the English language. This is no easy feat for them to accomplish. Signing as a language is full of its own nuances and one sign can mean a whole sentence in English. English, being a linear language, deals with the alphabet, words, sentences, paragraphs and the whole story to be told for everyone to understand. “Educators have been failing deaf children for centuries. The history of deaf education has been marked by a single goal: to get deaf people to communicate like hearing people.” (Cohen, p. 165) So not only is finger-spelling seen as a humongous task, but also reading and writing in English. Deaf children are unduly taxed in the educational system to perform just like a hearing person and is made to pass all their Regents and additional testing done throughout the academic year to prove their worth as students.

Sofia was given the duty of procuring ads for Lexington’s Yearbook. It is a responsibility she took on seriously in spite of her deafness. She approaches store proprietors with caution and points her way to what she wants. Her nervousness is overshadowed by her determination to get what is needed for her Yearbook and she is undaunted. Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. is her lifelong dream and Sofia is doggedly positioned to get there. Her parents have their misgivings since Gallaudet is the only Deaf university in the world and caters exclusively to the needs of the Deaf in adjusting in the general society. Rev. Gallaudet’s dream was to establish an institution of higher learning that would furnish a deaf person’s requirements for becoming a mainstream citizen. “In fact, Sofia has begun to wonder how much of her parents’ objections to her going to Gallaudet actually stems from their anxiety about being left to rear Irina alone.” (Cohen, p. 179) Irina as we recall, is Sofia’s younger Deaf sister and her mother is apprehensive to take on the responsibility to communicate with her.

James’ life is challenging. However, he is triumphant in not being a victim to the general society in the way African-American men are perceived as threats. His deafness may actually be more of a blessing than a curse. He escaped harassment from law enforcement authorities. He was shielded from cruelty. James did not participate in any crime activities as a path to riches. On the other hand, his brother did walk this slippery path. James’s visit to his brother in the infamous Riker’s Island prison is a testament to how vulnerable a hearing person can become to be lured away from walking the right way. James composes a rap for his triumph, “Deaf can do it/Have no fear/Deaf can do it/Except hear!” went the chorus, whose phrasing, if slightly awkward in the English gloss, flowed beautifully in sign.” (Cohen, p. 191) This is a performance his teachers loved. James loved his black culture and his Deaf pride.

The road traveled toward American Sign Language gaining its reputation has been a long and tedious one. Oscar Cohen has long and hard to fight for that recognition to be realizable and respected. Implementation of ASL at Lexington was birthing a baby that was long overdue to be born to then grow up to be mature and significant in the world of languages. “Recently, Albany decided that ASL satisfies the foreign language requirement in high schools. There is great excitement among deaf people over the potential job opportunities this will create – even though most of them will not be eligible for those jobs, since few deaf people hold the qualifications the state requires for teacher certification.” (Cohen, p. 206)

Leah now talks about her own personal journey through the maze of learning American Sign Language and her relationship with Alec, her Deaf sign language teacher. She was most aware that even she knew mechanically how to sign already, there was still much to learn about how to fully fulfill her role as a sign language interpreter. Seeing her role through Alec revealed his innermost sensitivities in molding into an insensitive hearing world and she felt all of his yearnings to just belong. ”Something like 90 percent of marriages between deaf and hearing people end in divorce. “ Alec was previously married to a hearing woman from New Zealand. He was a renowned world traveler and traveling placed an undue strain on his marriage, which ended unsuccessfully. Leah came to love her feelings for sign language through its heart-felt expressions and subtleties of meaning through Alec. However, her short-lived career as a Deaf interpreter proved too emotionally draining in dealing with Deaf people’s personal issues, health problems and concerns and their many varied lifestyles.

The students take a much awaited trip to Gallaudet University. Sofia, no less, has realized one of her dreams so far. This is indeed an entryway for her to stake her claim to apply to this prestigious institution for the Deaf, convincing her unwary parents. They tour the capital of Washington, D.C. in amazement as their U.S. history classes come to life at last. What an enduring place Gallaudet is! A Deaf student’s dream come true . Everything seems to vibrate in response to sound, which cannot be heard. Speaking of “low functioning” students is much misunderstood in the hearing world. Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are devised to ensure that six Deaf students are placed in a classroom. This ensures a high teacher-to-student ratio where the students’ needs are met in a more individualized way so they are able to pass their standardized tests and move on the next level of their education.

Interpreting in the Deaf culture is something of a necessity, which not until recently in 1972, is a force to be reckoned with. The establishment of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) dramatically improved the lives of Deaf people in the United States to receive superior and standardized interpreters fluent in American Sign Language. Its appearance came about due to much research done on sign language to understand its validity. The conclusion arrived at was that it is in fact a valid language and is to be respected as such. That has come around full circle from the early days in the nineteenth century when a young French priest decided to come over to America and assist Rev. Thomas Gallaudet in creating a unique sign language with its roots in the French language.

A lot of questions are posed about the continuance of the Deaf community. How much longer will the survival rate be tested in the face of new technology that has had the effect of suddenly improving the lives of many Deaf people? The Deaf are viewed in a different light. No longer are they touted as being less intelligent because of their hearing loss. Deaf pride is maintained in spite of diminishing numbers in the Deaf community. The reality is that there will always be Deaf people in the world. Change is inevitable. We cannot avoid change when it comes. Closed-captioning is now something we take for granted since its inception in 1989. The Internet, text-messaging, instant messaging, emailing, TTY, iPhone, Blackberries, are all now accepted as the norm in today’s world. The cochlear implant still is the breakthrough miracle in many ways, but the Deaf community view it as an impingement on their unique identity and feel it is being threatened by its widespread use of newborn Deaf infants. Embracing Deafness is what needs to take place to fully appreciate the uniqueness of being Deaf in a hearing world.

Our hero, James, and heroine, Sofia have come a long way since first attending Lexington School for the Deaf. Both are now ready for graduation. Both have overcome extenuating circumstances in their lives. The parents are beaming. They smile back but sign to them minimally because of parents’ reluctance to sign to their Deaf children. Leah Hager Cohen has ended the story on a good note. There is still hope for the Deaf. Train Go Sorry's time has come. The Deaf have a bright future.

Work Cited
Cohen, Hager Leah. Train Go Sorry. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

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Reviewed by Karla Dorman, The StormSpinner 11/28/2007
A powerful peek into the world of the Deaf. Not as silent as you would suppose...there is more life to their Signs than people realize.

I know. I took Sign (SEE) 30 years ago. ASL has even more life! Most beautiful way of communicating.

I'd love to read this book.

(((HUGS))) and love, Karla.
Reviewed by Althea March 11/28/2007
"Train Go Sorry" by Leah Hager Cohen is one of those rare books that looks into the heart of the Deaf community and makes you come out cheering for the Deaf and understanding their humanity.

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