Have you read ‘BOY’ by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Shane Devries? It’s a picture book targeted at preschoolers. I was recently asked to sign it. But once I’d had a read, I declined. It’s about a young Deaf boy. I have never met Phil Cummings and I don’t know whether he is Deaf or has experience with the Deaf community, but his website doesn’t mention either. I suspect he may not have knowledge nor experience of our community, and yet has written a book about Deafness anyway.
I showed it to a few other Deaf people, without letting them know my thoughts, and asked them to give me their perspective on the book, and they each raised the same concerns that I have.
The key problem we have is that the book describes exclusion, something we Deaf people face in abundance every day, and feel intense frustration about, and yet the character in the book is unbothered by it. He is described as being ‘happy’ despite the villagers not bothering to take the time to understand him, and ‘not needing to know’. But Deaf people DO need to know and we don’t feel happy when we are excluded from communication. The book never once considers his feelings about this situation, and the implication is that it is okay to treat Deaf people like this, when it is not.
It bothered us that the author uses the euphemism ‘dancing hands’ when he means ‘sign language’. This is a bit like describing hearing people as ‘singing’ rather than speaking. Signing ‘thank you’ is not dancing hands – it is a simple gesture. We feel the author is romanticising our language inappropriately instead of recognising it as a tool for communication, just as speech is an equivalent tool. This is the same kind of attitude that we deal with every day when hearing people tell us to stop signing because it bothers them, or doesn’t want an interpreter in the room because it’s too distracting, or talk over us because spoken communication is considered more important that signed communication and so on. Sign language needs to be valued for what it is: language.
The Deaf boy in the book is excluded by the villagers, until he inadvertantly resolves a conflict between the king and the dragon. After that the villagers suddenly know how to sign and make the effort to communicate with him. The message here seems to be that as a small boy, he is not worth communicating with, until he has done some heroic act, and then he is worthy of being given access. Access is a basic human right which should be promoted as essential regardless of what acts a person has performed.
There are some inaccuracies too. A Deaf child who is able to read the fear in his parents’ eyes knows he is living in a dangerous place, a place of war. We find it hard to believe that such a child would obliviously run into a battlefield. The child might not hear the sounds of battle but battles are visual too – this is simply unrealistic.
Also, a child who attempts to communicate with the villagers using drawings would be unlikely to continue to do so if his message is not getting across. Suddenly in the book it becomes clear that he knows English, because he writes in the sand, ‘Why are you fighting?’ Most Deaf signing children of that age do not have sound English skills, unless they have been raised orally (which clearly he hasn’t), and so their English would be incorrect. Supposing he knew how to write English, he would probably write, ‘You fight, why?’ The correct English he uses is highly unrealistic. If he could use English at that level, why does he not use it to communicate with the villagers?! He is presented as stupid, as well as Deaf.
I feel the book does not promote Deaf interests but is actively damaging, by encouraging hearing people to see Deaf people as objects (‘Boy’ does not even have a name!) who lack realistic feelings, and whom it is okay to treat in an exclusionary manner. It teaches inappropriate terms to use about Deaf people and our language.
I hope that by writing about this issue, I can encourage you to be aware and sensitive if you are writing about disability or cultural groups other than your own. Best to get someone who has lived that experience to check over your work before it goes out to the world. This goes for any kind of media, films, presentations, talks and so on.
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