They were both going to the deaf schools here in Louisiana. My dad was going to the black deaf school and my mom was going to the white one. Yes, there were two deaf schools and yes there was still segregation. Silly, I know. But the year they were in 11th grade, the two schools integrated and that’s how they met each other. My dad was the dope-dealing black football star and my mom was this nerdy pious white girl. They started dating shortly after the schools merged and somewhere late in their senior year they got pregnant with me.
Is there a particularly large deaf population in Lafayette? Why?
I don’t think it’s particularly large, but when both your parents are deaf you tend to know anyone and everyone who’s deaf in this town. Most deaf people here come from generations of deaf relatives intermarrying or marrying hearing cousins – my grandparents were 5th cousins. (Thankfully my mom broke with tradition and married well outside her family allowing me and my brother to be hearing.) Because of this, Lafayette has a strong deaf community with many deaf events and several deaf organizations. Of course, this leads to more people moving to this area and more families having kids who are deaf. It’s a cycle that’s true in a lot of small cities with sizable minority communities.
Did you learn to sign or speak first?Definitely sign, as my mother reminds me all the time. All babies would learn to sign first, as they don’t have the vocal structures conducive to speech. It’s easier for them to express themselves with their hands. They’re not going to be preforming Shakespeare, but they can say “food” or “drink” or “I pooped my pants come clean this!” (Okay that last one’s a stretch it’s mostly the word for “poop”, which is making the “B” sign in the air, and waving it back and forth)
How old were you when you realized that your parents were different?
Kindergarten. Up until I went to school, the only other kids I hung out with were the kids of my parents’ deaf friends. They, like me, were hearing but their parents were deaf so we were exactly alike. But when I got to Maurice Elementary I was the only one in that situation and was quickly besieged with questions about ‘what was wrong’ with my parents. It wasn’t until I got a bit older when I realized just how different my family was and just how hard it was living with deaf parents.
How did having deaf parents effect you and your brother?For one thing, it gave us a unique skill set that looks great on a resume! It’s also made us more tolerant. But for the most part, I’d have to say it forced us to grow up a lot quicker than our peers. Being dragged everywhere your parents went so that you could interpret for them (everything from doctor’s appointments to bankruptcy court) tends to have that effect. I was learning how to spell appendectomy long before I mastered the word house. We were part of very grownup things and witnessed all those painfully boring things adults do behind closed doors that most people never see until they’re in college. It’s definitely prepared me for the paperwork that is involved with adulthood. It’s a blessing and a curse.
How did people in the community react to your family?
They had no problem with the whole deaf thing, they had more of a problem with the whole interracial-relationship thing (small town in Louisiana.) Everyone knew my dad because he worked for the city doing maintenance and water treatment. Being the very congenial guy that he is, he quickly grew on everyone. Granted, most people thought he was dumb because he was deaf. When he quickly passed all the certification and finished all his work before everyone else they stopped being quite so friendly and were a bit more envious.
People also thought we were a lot poorer than we actually were. I remember that every year around Thanksgiving the local Catholic church (which we never went to because we went to the all-deaf Catholic church) would bring us a basket of “fixin’s” never knowing that we already had a full pantry because my mother had gone shopping that very same day to get ready for the feast. We always took the basket graciously and then laughed very hard after we had closed the door. Why should we correct them on their ignorance? As long as it made them feel good that they had done a kind thing!
What are the benefits of being raised by deaf parents?I got to experience another culture than most people never see. Deaf culture is a very vibrant and dynamic entity, mostly because their language is always changing and new words are always being invented. The culture is hugely varied and very complex. From the power of deaf poetry and performance art, to the little known cult of promiscuity that exists, and to the major deaf organizations in every town and every state – it’s a many and varied thing.
Also, like I said before, I was granted privy to many adult things long before I needed to know about them. I understood how to set up a bank account and why I needed to start saving early and planning for retirement and even how to buy a house. I knew all of this at age 14 and it’s stuck with me ever since.
Any advice for those of us interacting with deaf people for the first time?When a deaf person says “I’m deaf” (as opposed to “I can’t hear you”) please do not shout at the deaf person. If you shout, two thing will happen:
1) The deaf person will look at you like you’re a complete moron
2) You will feel like a complete ass because the deaf person still doesn’t understand what you’re saying and now you’ve just revealed your ignorance.
When a deaf person says “I’m deaf” just smile hold up your index finger, indicating that you want them to wait, and pull out a piece of paper and a pen. It will be a lot easier for both of you to communicate this way.
Also? When you see people communicating in sign language, please don’t stare. It’s okay to politely glance and be intrigued, but please do not continue to gawk at them. It’s really uncomfortable to talk to someone while another person is staring at you, and 9 times out of 10 the signers will start talking about you and you wouldn’t like what they’d have to say.
Do any of you have deaf friends or family members? Any questions for Lovell?