IN JULY 2016, the Hot Springs-based photographer David Yerby reached out to the magazine with an idea: Born profoundly deaf, raised mostly in the hearing world, he wanted to capture what life was like for young people at the Arkansas School for the Deaf—to illustrate for a hearing readership the students’ day-to-day. Off and on for much of the past year, David chronicled the lives of two ASD students. As for what he found: Well, it pretty well goes without saying.
As Shannon Varner arrives at her lunch table, surrounded by classmates at the Arkansas School for the Deaf’s cafeteria, she’s immediately greeted by a chorus of waving hands.
Shannon responds with a single hand gesture, acknowledging their presence as she takes her seat. She doesn’t hear the common sounds that occur in a cafeteria—the clinking of silverware, trays being dropped, chairs scraping across the floor tiles—but she feels the presence of her fellow students, who grab one another’s attention by waving arms or tapping shoulders.
It’s so different from what I remember. Standing in the cafeteria, watching as Shannon settles down at the table and her peers converse, their young hands fluttering, I’m transported back nearly 20 years. I remember what it was like to be her age. I remember what it was like to be the only deaf student in the entire Camden Fairview School District until my senior year. I only saw lips moving, little hand interaction, absolutely no sounds other than vibrations from lockers slamming, books falling on the floor or the pounding of feet as students ran by me. I remember what it was like to live in a world where there were no interpreters, no note-taking, no cellphones—where, in effect, the main channels of communication were closed to me.
Born profoundly deaf, I was completely raised among people who were hearing. I learned how to read at an age younger than my peers. I started speech therapy when I was 2. My parents were adamant that I learn how to function in the hearing world at a young age, despite doctors and professionals telling them that I would never develop properly or even learn how to speak. I often had to add extra steps to keep apace with my hearing peers. When completing a task, I’d anticipate my next step, or guess what my classmates and teachers would say before they had a chance to open their mouths. That is to say nothing of the challenge I faced when it came to teaching others how to communicate with me in a way that made them comfortable. What I found at the Arkansas School for the Deaf, however, was different: There, there are no extra steps. There, the students experience what my hearing classmates would do on a daily basis, only with more vibrance and emotion.
In the cafeteria, I watch as a friend of Shannon’s, accepting a dare, lifts a bottle of ketchup to his lips and proceeds to chug it. The table breaks into fits of laughter. Around the same time, I see Shaq’ke Robinson enter the room after making his way back to ASD after an off-campus welding class. He’s an imposing figure, the big man on campus, and he greets his football and basketball buddies by fist-pounding the sign-language equivalent of “What’s up?” with one hand as he sits down.
While Shannon and Shaq’ke have much in common—being deaf, having the same classes, being in the same grade—their upbringings stand in stark contrast. Shannon lost her hearing at a young age, but because her parents are both deaf and on the faculty at ASD, she was already fluent in sign language and the deaf culture.
For his part, Shaq’ke—like an estimated 90 to 95 percent of deaf children—was born to hearing parents. But those differences tend to melt away when the students are on campus. And what’s more—as I saw at homecoming this past fall, when generations of students, children, parents and grandparents returned to their former stomping grounds—those relationships go well beyond the years they spend at ASD.
Although a great deal has changed over the years, with technology like text messages and FaceTime changing how people both deaf and hearing alike communicate, access to the hearing world is still largely limited to the deaf. What the hearing world doesn’t know, from my personal experience, is that deaf people are perfectly capable of accomplishing the same tasks and goals and achievements. Deaf people like Shannon, Shaq’ke and me keep fond memories of the accomplishments we make, on our own, within the hearing world. Those experiences are often the most important we have.
Off and on, over the course of the year, I spent time with Shannon and Shaq’ke, following them around the ASD cafeteria, hallways and classrooms, and went to an occasional football and basketball game. During the many hours I spent watching their interactions with friends, their hands expressing the beautiful dialogue of sign language, there were so many instances when I found myself breaking into a smile. They are just your normal, average teenagers who have a bright outlook for their future. They function like any other average person in the world, though they are far from it. They’re not special. They’re extraordinary.