Living in the Romanian Deaf Community

Living in the Romanian Deaf Community

I am a CODA. As a ‘child of deaf adults,’ I have grown up with a foot in the mainstream hearing culture of Bucharest and another in the Deaf sub-culture. A status that offers me a unique insight and access to the affairs and social developments that take place in the Romanian Deaf community, especially the one in Bucharest. In my childhood, I will frequently go with my parents on social visits to other deaf family friends – almost all our family friends are deaf – or to social or sports events.These events are organized in the community by informal groups or by the sole and most important organization: the Association of the Deaf in Romania. Thus, I have learned the sign language and have been socialized – at least partially – with the customs, values and distinct cultural identity of the Deaf sub-culture and its members.

My childhood was, generally speaking, as normal as of any other child in the neighborhood, with some important exceptions. First, as a child of deaf parents, I was immersed in a subculture that has different customs, attitudes to the wider society, and a tendency for cultural seclusion. A tendency developed as a way of protecting its members against discrimination and influences that are considered alien to the community. Second, as the single hearing member in my (nuclear) family, I was the primary mediator between my deaf parents and the hearing society. This doesn’t mean that my parents are unable to communicate in a non-verbal way or that they are not well integrated into the Romanian society, quite the opposite. What I mean is that from late childhood and adolescence, I was the main “representative” of my parents when they needed to have direct and efficient interactions with state officials or other individuals. When my mom or dad needed to go to the Tax Office, to the City Hall, or to the Police, I will almost always be with them to mediate the communication between them and the public servants. But I was not only an „unaccredited” sign language translator, I also served as a facilitator in these interactions. I would seek to defend their rights even when they did not know that they have rights. This is, in my opinion, one of the trigger factors that accelerated my maturation, that permitted me to become autonomous and independent from an early age. This, and the certainty that my parents have always trusted me. Maybe the independence that they offered me was a way of thanking me for my permanent assistance to their needs. Or maybe they just thought that I was able to manage my own affairs unsupervised. In general, this had some positive effects on my life, and now I can say that it helped me advance in life to a point that I am proud of myself, even with the inherent setbacks that are, to some degree, inevitable in life.

Being the primary facilitator of my parents in their interactions with state officials or other hearing adults made me aware of how society works from an early age. It offered me the opportunity to become more versed with legal and social norms and made me a better communicator. But, at the same time, it made me frequently anxious when I was not prepared enough for the task required by my parents or by the person whom I contacted on their behalf. This anxiety is haunting me to this day. Furthermore, my social role as facilitator and translator permitted me to observe the unspoken – but very present – discrimination that deaf and other disabled people suffer every day.

This discrimination is multi-dimensional and multi-vectorial, resulting from a number of causes that are related to the physical impairment that deaf people suffer of and the societal perception of their impairment. First, they are discriminated in the labor market by employers who don’t find them fit to do a significant number of tasks. They are completely excluded from entire industries or economic sectors that require direct contact with customers, even if the state is offering fiscal incentives for the inclusion of disabled people into the labor market. Secondly, deaf people have limited educational opportunities. There are no university-level programs for deaf high school graduates and only 9 technological or technical high schools that are not only limiting the future professional opportunities of deaf people. This lack of educational opportunities is condemning them to precarious livelihoods, long-term welfare dependency, and functional illiteracy, precluding them to become active and productive members of society. Thirdly, deaf persons tend to be marginalized in social activities by their hearing peers, creating a form of segregation that makes deaf people desire to socialize only in their own community, with deaf peers, secluding them from larger social developments. This phenomenon socially constructs an innate fear from social events that may appear to be normal in the mainstream culture but are perceived as strange in the deaf sub-culture.

The Deaf Community and Culture

The deaf community can be defined in the terms of Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community’ because even if the 30-40,000 members of the community in Romania don’t know each other and don’t see themselves every day, they perceive themselves as part of such a community. They have a “horizontal comradeship” that is based on deafness, the common sign language, and a specific sub-culture. In the Anglo-American scholarship, the most used definition is the one given by Baker and Padden (1978, p. 4) who argued that “[t]he deaf community comprises those deaf and hard of hearing individuals who share a common language, common experiences and values, and a common way of interacting with each other, and with hearing people.”

The Romanian deaf community has about 30,000 members that are dispersed in almost every county, with the largest community in Bucharest. These people suffer from widespread economic discrimination, are highly dependent on welfare assistance (60€/70$ per month + other non-financial benefits) and suffer from high levels of functional illiteracy.

The community life of the deaf people takes place around the “Club,” as it is known in the community. The Club is a physical place that is the epicenter of the cultural and social life of the deaf community in a given city. It is usually placed at the local headquarters of the National Association of the Deaf in Romania. It is the main place of gathering for the community, the place where social and cultural events like thematic parties or silent theater representations take place. It is also the location where the members of the community can ask for help from the Association on a particular problem or can request for an accreditated translator.

The Deaf culture is in many ways unique. It is centered around the Sign language as the first language of communication and is formed by shared values, norms, arts, educational institutions, social structures, and organizations. The Romanian Deaf culture is constructed and reconstructed around the “Club,” the multiple high schools, deaf theater teams, the “Vocea Tăcerii” magazine, multiple sports events like football or chess, and a new and developing online presence that takes form through Camfrog webcam services and social media platforms, especially Facebook. When an outsider starts learning more about the Deaf culture, (s)he will discover a very particular understanding of deafness. Contrary to the general understanding of hearing loss, deaf people don’t consider their deafness to be a disability and some deaf people will be very offended by any view that sees their deafness as a negative factor that should be remediated. The Deaf culture has been constructed on the assumption that deaf people are no different than hearing people. Their deafness is just a thing that differences them from hearing people, in the same way, a blue-eyed person is different from a brown-eyed person. The truth is that deaf people tend to be quickly offended if people assume otherwise and are quite open in expressing their feelings as clearly as possible, regardless if the person is deaf or not. I think that this may be a way of protecting against discrimination or ill-treatment that is not so common in the hearing culture. So, never tell a deaf person that he/she is impaired.

Another relatively new and interesting development that takes place in the Deaf community is related to the increased interest shown by various churches for offering religious services to deaf people. Historically, the community was for a very long time underserved by the majoritarian Romanian Orthodox Church. There was a lack of priests that knew the Sign language or the church had no interest to prepare such clergyman to serve the Deaf community. All changed 3-4 year ago when the Jehovah’s Witnesses started to prepare ministers to attract deaf people and this led to a swift reaction from the Romanian Orthodox Church.

The silent religious war

As a CODA, I was able from an early age to distinguish between values that are different in the mainstream hearing culture from the ones in the Deaf culture. Religion was never something that I considered to be important to my family or in the Deaf culture. I knew a few deaf people who were very religious, but they were exceptional cases that grow up and were socialized in very religious hearing families. This doesn’t mean that some deaf people don’t have a personal understanding of God and faith. The lack of clergyman that was able to use the Sign language was probably the main factor for this low religious participation in the deaf community.

This changed when the Jehovah’s Witnesses started to prepare special hearing ministers that knew the Sign language and were, more or less, socialized with the customs of the community. This started a religious revolution in the deaf community, as I was able to observe it. Especially in Bucharest and the Western part of the country. The neutral position of the National Association of the Deaf in Romania facilitated the dissemination of the newly available videos in the Sign language and literature that was written in a way that will be simple enough to be understood by the members of the community. JW deaf congregations appeared in the major cities of the country and this alerted the Romanian Orthodox Church, which started, maybe for the first time, to show some interest for the life of deaf people. From that moment, the Romanian Orthodox Church started a new program of preparing priests and deacons to serve de underserved deaf communities in the large cities that were lured by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This started a silent war between the two Christian groups over the souls of the deaf people. Today, we can find Orthodox churches that serve the deaf community in over 15 major cities in Romania. Five years ago, there was only one.  I am not able to fully assess the full significance of this religious competition, but I did observe an increase in religious-related topics of discussion at the ‘Club’ and some conflicts between those attracted by the JW and the ones that go to the Orthodox churches. It will be interesting to see how this situation develops further. 

Short conclusions

As a child of deaf parents and being raised in both the Deaf sub-culture and the mainstream culture as a hearing individual, I had the opportunity to be part of two worlds that co-exist in the same geographical space. This has had significant effects on my life that are had to assess and I will probably never be fully able to explain or even comprehend. With positive and negative consequences, as it is usual in everyone’s life. But it also offered me the opportunity to have a different ‘Self’, one that looks at the world in multiple ways. It always remembers me that nothing is black and white, that everything is in shades of grey. That there is never only one way to look at things. This alone did not open my eyes or made me understand reality with all its struggles, but I think that it helped to a significant degree. My parents and the community offered me the opportunity to see how our society works from an angle that is usually ignored by mainstream society. They offered me a life model and some principles to fight for: non-discrimination, equality, individual autonomy, social fairness, and respect for the needs of other people.

The Romanian deaf community is small and needy, but its leaders from the past and the current ones succeeded in constructing a coherent and sustainable sub-culture that promotes cohesion, emotional and social support to its members. They have created a social reality that makes deafness less relevant to social existence. As a CODA, I have been blessed to have amazing parents that succeeded in life when they were expected to fail, and the community played a significant role in this, together with my grandparents.

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