Anthropology of the Dutch: Being deaf in the Netherlands


Among all the nations
and people I visited… I never met a stranger breed
than the Dutch. Not just one people, but a tombola of
cultures, clubs and groups. With strange tribes
and exotic communities. Like the classical ethnologists
before me, I will visit them… measure them… dissect and scrutinize them. I’m going on safari in my own country,
in search of the jungle within us. You can call me the Pigeonhole Man. Looking for The Deaf. Where do they live? Do they have a sense of humour?
How do they get around? How do they party? How big is their solidarity, and would
they prefer to be able to hear? The deaf are scattered across the world
and have no motherland to return to. And yet, the land of the deaf exists.
Hidden away, in the hearing world. When a hearing person crosses
the imaginary border… …he enters the world
of a proud people. A world that was colonized for a long
time, and has only just been freed. In the border country of the deaf world,
it’s quite possible… …to come across
another hearing person. In many cases,
this is the sign language interpreter. The interpreter knows the other world
well. She has the key of language. D, E, F, G… So I can also form a word
with letters alone? But it’s faster…
– When you know the sign for the word. If you don’t, you can use fingerspelling.
That works too. If you know the hand alphabet,
it’s easy to communicate. She doesn’t say ‘the deaf’,
but ‘deaf people’. She knows her job is a delicate one. Are you from a deaf family? Not at all?
No deaf people? An interpreter without a deaf family was
often seen as a tool of the hearing. Who knew what was good for the deaf. Deaf people don’t see themselves
as disabled. They don’t? So if I ask them,
are you disabled, will they be offended? It’s possible. They see themselves
as people with a challenge. You shouldn’t talk to the interpreter,
but through her. That’ll take some getting used to.
They look at me, not at you. But you can do what you’re used to.
– I look at them? Yes, also when you want
to ask a question. I never look at you.
– No. I’m not there. The interpreter has a few suggestions. So I don’t go like this? No, that’s pointless.
– Pointless? Go and ask questions yourself.
We’ll meet again. But you’ll be a guest of other people. The likeliest place to meet deaf people
in in the country’s North. Just outside Groningen stands
the Kentalis Institute for the Deaf. The stately mansion shields a safe
reservation with schools and squares. At the front there’s a bust
of Henry Daniel Guyot… …a minister who felt
the deaf needed education. 220 years later, his school is still there.
The Guyot School. What is striking here? Kids going to school
with heavy suitcases. Back from a stay in another world. Noise in the schoolyard. There is shouting. But sign language dominates. The stranger is put out here. What do you mean?
Can you do it again? Order is maintained
without raising voices. No, I can’t speak it. Yes. I’m sorry. Many have an appliance
in and around the ear. There are deaf teachers. The language seems to be spoken
with the entire body. When they’re glad,
they wave their hands. There are hearing teachers too. Can you hear me, Gijs?
Bram, can you hear me? Sem? With their appliance, some can
understand the teacher’s voice. Touching seems common in contact. Self-mockery when telling a joke. How does a deaf person poo secretly
in the woods? Turning around,
as he can’t hear any passers-by. And the stranger is gladly initiated. I… …love you.
– Love you. It’s actually I love you in English.
Like this. Lion.
– Lion. And tiger.
– And tiger. Coat. And glasses. And turtle.
– Turtle. Rain.
– Rain. Snow.
– Snow. A thunderstorm.
– Thunderstorm. Playing.
– Playing. What’s this?
– Just a silly dance. A silly dance.
– Island. Raised and familiar with signs, the
children soon learn a second language. A foreign, difficult language. Dutch. With its letters
that refer to intangible sounds. And with mysterious building blocks,
like articles. Hearing children very often hear
their dad or mum or other children say: Can you get the milk or grab a book? But you, as deaf children,
always have to remember this. It’ll take long until they won’t translate
their language into Dutch anymore. Many will get practical training
at the Guyot School. Only a few will go to secondary school. For higher education than that,
they’ll have to brave a hearing school. The land of the deaf stretches further,
into the city. High school students who don’t live
nearby, are put up in boarding schools. In the middle of a hearing street
are four big houses for assisted living. They’re not in a hurry.
They tarry contentedly. The deaf sometimes say they can
forget about time once they’re talking. They even joke about their
own time zone: Deaf Standard Time. Local time in the land of the deaf. Deaf, yes. You can hear a little? What are you talking about?
– I’m telling a joke. The suitcases are packed
for staying the weekdays. Several ages are represented. But also several gradations of hearing. Mashed potatoes, but not real mash.
– Too bad. Will you be cooking in home economy? The hearing world wants to get rid
of these boarding schools. Advisors and experts want to place
the deaf in hearing schools. That call is drowned out here. It’s a common mistake to think
there’s no music in the life of the deaf. Some feel vibrations,
others can discern a melody. I’d almost ask:
Doesn’t this bother the neighbours? They’re deaf too.
– They’re deaf too. How convenient. Does the deaf community distinguish
between hard of hearing and fully deaf? You don’t?
– What matters is if you know signing. Do all deaf children in the Netherlands
learn sign language? They don’t? Not all deaf children do.
Some parents prefer not to do it. Other parents do. What’s the difference between the deaf
and hearing worlds, apart from hearing? In the hearing world,
you’re really alone. Everyone around you can hear.
You have to try hard to follow them. But in the deaf world, everyone is equal
and understands each other. To many deaf people, the hearing world
is a curious pageant. Inhabited by peculiar people.
People who can hear. The modern city deaf
deal with them every day. Take for instance
the deaf young man Gomer. How he walks among the hearing,
with their strange traits… …and remarkable expectations. Such as, hearing people are surprised
that he can drive a car. The hearing think we live in silence,
the deaf say. That must be a metaphor.
We don’t live in silence. To those born deaf, silence
is an abstract concept, like sound. The hearing could also say
we have no tail. That’s just as meaningful. Also remarkable: The hearing think
in spoken language with an inner voice. Unlike us deaf, who often think
in signs or lip movements. Compared to ours, the gaze
of the hearing is not very accurate. The hearing hardly ever
use the corners of their eyes. A relationship with a hearing person
is possible. But other hearing people often
won’t withstand the tendency… …to use the hearing partner
as an interpreter. Nevertheless, it satisfies a hearing
person when he understands a sign. Hearing people often don’t know how
fast the deaf can probe their hearts. A white lie is often recognized. A hearing person’s face is easy to read. The hearing often struggle with
the physical nature of sign language. But you can stimulate them
by teaching them… …how you can still communicate
in the dark of night. The attentive hearing will notice that
the deaf regularly visit the hearing world. Suddenly, there are more signs than
words being used around the hearing. It can surprise him when his language
is in the minority. The hearing will notice it’s not quiet,
but that whispering is also possible. Turned away from the group,
with small signs… …personal details can be shared
discreetly. Jokes are depicted by master signers. And the hearing shouldn’t be surprised
to hang on the hands of the comic. On the edge of Ede lies the showpiece
of the Dutch deaf. The Gelderhorst is Europe’s only place
where the elderly deaf can be together. This is Deaf Space,
the area for the deaf. An environment completely adapted
to visual man. Open spaces, a lot of light,
few visual obstacles… …so that every gaze gets a chance. Signs with the names of the staff,
and the gesture as well. Their forenames in sign language. Light signals. And round tables
for an optimal dialogue. A chat isn’t hindered by distances. Hello, Mr. Zwaal.
– Good morning. We’d like to visit you. Can you explain
to me how I get there? You can walk towards me
through the gangway. Then go one level down
and ring the bell. Sign language has always existed
wherever deaf people lived. The deaf didn’t have a lot,
but they had their signs. Until the year 1880. At a conference for deaf education,
the hearing teachers felt… …sign language had to be barred
from the schools. The only exclusive domain of the deaf
had to be scrapped. Were you both born deaf? And 100 percent deaf as well? Deaf as a post.
– Deaf as a post. And did you learn sign language
in school? No, all we learned was lipreading. Learning sign language wasn’t allowed.
But the deaf used it among themselves. The teachers decided sign language
wasn’t useful to anyone. And in their wisdom they focused
education on speech therapy. Learn how to talk,
and maybe you’ll end up okay. In the past, using sign language
was considered to be dumb. Do I understand that right? Mr. and Mrs. Zwaal continued to sign.
Among themselves. In school, you officially had to talk.
But outside, playing, you signed. It’s natural. In the North, where Mr. Zwaal
went to school, they weren’t very strict. But below the big rivers, in Brabant… It was a Catholic school.
– And they were strict? More strict? Those who were from there,
called it Gestel. Short for St. Michielgestel. Everyone knows the sign. This is the sign for Gestel.
– Why is that? It’s the sign of the cross. Many people here grew up there. And she’s from St. Michielsgestel? At the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb
the teachers were mainly de-dumbers. I notice you keep forming words,
and that you make few signs. Why is that?
– Almost no signs. I don’t know.
– You weren’t taught? No?
– Not signing. Talking. The children also had to guess
what the hearing were saying. This is speechreading,
better known as lipreading. It’s still almost impossible… …to find meaning in a maelstrom
of lip movements. Looking at the mouth and facial
expression, hoping for a familiar word. And then guessing what the subject is. Use of the finger alphabet
is not a true teaching method. It was, and in some schools still is,
an aid in speechreading. Learning the spoken language
was so exhausting… …there was little time
for other courses. And until the 1990’s,
sign language remained a taboo. It was seen as drawing in the air.
Childish and superficial. Shameful. The use of it was rebuked. Strict?
– Yes, very strict. Your hands had to be behind your back,
or the nuns would get mad. So you had to stand like this
in the classroom, and talk. You weren’t allowed to sign.
You had to talk. On Saturdays and Sundays,
countless reunions take place here. Many visitors are hearing children
of the deaf. But some families have been deaf
for generations. Mockingly or reverently, they’re called
the elite of the deaf community. Take Mrs. Elferink. Just like her,
her parents were deaf… …her husband was deaf… …and her son Benny was deaf. First, Benny was plain deaf.
Later, he became Deaf with a capital D. You resisted the hearing world,
didn’t you? Times were very different then,
you know. When we signed in the street,
everyone looked at us strangely. They thought we looked like monkeys.
They made silly monkey faces. When I sat in the tram with my mother,
when I was small… …and I wanted to tell her something,
she’d say: Don’t. All those people will look at us. The Deaf with a capital D
were those who rebelled… …against their status
as helpless invalids. They weren’t handicapped,
they were a language community. More and more adamantly
they proclaimed a deaf culture. And they got help
from an unexpected side. The arrival of immigrants
changed the Netherlands. The Dutch opened up to different
forms of communication. To sign language as well. My husband worked at a shipyard.
There were many foreign workers there. They communicated
with him wonderfully. They got acquainted, used the same
sign for coffee, it just worked. I’m talking about Turkish people,
and especially the Spaniards. The communication was great.
Foreigners are much more open. More willing to communicate
in a different way. Benny’s wife Ingrid
was also Deaf with a capital D. They had two daughters.
Alessa, the firstborn, was hearing. Then came Jolien, and she was deaf. Both girls grew up with sign language,
so Alessa is also Deaf with a capital D. She’s part of the culture,
and a full member of the community. We used sign language,
even when she was a baby. And we knew she could hear. Because her first communication
was a word. She didn’t use a sign.
The first word she said was Papa. That was her first word.
Not a sign, but the word Papa. That made us say: Oh, that’s too bad. That she said Papa,
instead of using the sign. How did she know that was the word?
The babysitter. Do you sometimes feel
you’re between two chairs? In the first place, it’s easy. I can say things they don’t understand,
and I have an extra language. And I make use of the fact, okay. Do you feel you have to defend the
hearing world in the world of the deaf? Yes. He often tends to say
the hearing world is very antisocial. That they think they’re superior.
They say they’re antisocial people. When you say ‘we’, do you mean
we hearing people, or we deaf people? With ‘we’ I do mean the hearing world,
the hearing people. But I can also call the hearing people
‘them’, then I’m in the deaf world. This may be a funny question… …but do you prefer being in the deaf
or in the hearing world? I’d choose to live in a deaf village. Because I am really deaf. I don’t need the hearing world,
it doesn’t offer me anything. But I think the deaf world is great. I can simply have a nice chat
using sign language. And also… …the deaf have a bigger
sense of humour. More than the hearing people.
– What do you mean? It has more to do
with facial expressions. The deaf clubhouse in Groningen’s
inner city is a household word. Everyone comes here, but this is the day
of the golden generation. The Guyot School kids, whose language
is no longer suppressed… …and is taken seriously. They’re guided by confident deaf,
like Dirk Jan… …who’s never been hearing
and wouldn’t want to be. Many pupils wear an invention
from the hearing world. The CI, the cochlear implant. It gives them access to sounds again. It works for some and not for others. Some understand what is said,
others only hear when they’re called. But many deaf children
have one nowadays. The clubhouse accommodates
the soccer club of the deaf… …the deaf billiards club,
the deaf women’s society… …the deaf church service,
and the monthly deaf eating club. Children of the Guyot School
prepare the meals. The others can do the chopping.
– I’ll chop. We can do the chopping together. One person puts it in,
the other one chops. It’s faster. I see the children sometimes talking
in regular spoken language… …and sometimes in sign language.
They switch. Yes, they are bilingual.
It depends on what they like. I don’t talk, I sign a lot.
But it’s up to the children. You can hear a little, can’t you? But do you prefer
using sign language, or… I prefer signing.
– You do. Is it a secret language
the hearing can’t understand? In the hearing world, it is.
In the hearing world. After a hearing visitor remarked
he’d heard nothing but noisy eating… …Dirk Jan called the monthly dinner
the Smack Group. The old and the golden generation
get together here. Using the deaf-friendly light switch… …the main course is announced. There is no envy
between the generations. Although the kids should be told
what it was like to sign in the past. Like that?
– Yes. Yes, today’s young people,
with their freedom to sign, and their CI… …are privileged deaf. But the old problems remain. Oddly, when I talk to you,
I don’t feel you’re deaf. On the one hand that’s good,
because people can understand me. But it’s also not good, because people
forget I still have a disability. Even with a hearing aid, it’s hard for me
to follow conversations. Everyone knew
Jantine was a good student. But the school offered nothing better
than Higher Secondary. So she chose a hearing school. Her marks weren’t at fault,
nor the teachers. And especially not her hearing friends. But eventually Jantine realized
she didn’t belong at this school. At the hearing school I always had
headaches. I was exhausted and sad. I wanted to hear what my friends said
during the break. I wanted to belong. You have to be able to cope with it,
but I got fed up. I couldn’t take it anymore.
It made me so sad. What school do you go to now?
– The Guyot School. Which level?
– I’m now in Higher Secondary. While you could handle pre-university. So you took a step down.
– It was worth it. It was worth it to you… Mr. van den Hengel is also here.
He’s not understood right away. He uses his own signs. Mentally challenged, he’s the only
deaf person on a care farm. This is the first time he’s among the deaf.
He looks for proof of kinship. With every hearing aid,
he sees there are more people like him. Often enough, the voice of the deaf
is mocked behind their backs. It’s the same among the young deaf
themselves. What’s going on? Oh, up there.
That man, yes. You are laughing at that man,
that’s what you’re doing now. No, I’m laughing with him.
– Oh sure, laughing with him. Once, Dirk Jan wanted nothing to do
with the hearing. In the past, I’d have resisted
you coming here. In defiance, he had the logo of the deaf
tattooed on his arm. Do you want to see it?
– Yes, I do. So this is it. Okay. He’s Deaf with a militant capital D. That’s the small d,
and this is the capital D. And he understands why some deaf
use an alternative sign for the implant. Some of them use this as a sign. That’s a pistol.
– Yes, a kind of pistol. It’s like being shot in the head. What’s the official sign for it? Two fingers there.
– CI. I get the impression
almost all young kids have one. Why don’t you have an implant? Does this have to go?
I can’t wash it off anymore. So that stays the same.
I don’t want a CI. This won’t change, this is me. There are more deaf
who aren’t enchanted by the implant. In a small house in Haarlem live
a deaf sociologist and a deaf linguist. They question the benefit
of the invention. Wouter suddenly became deaf
but grew up with sound. But his daughter Sophie was born deaf,
so was his wife Annemieke… …and his son Bob. A deplorable fate, according to
the ear specialists of the past. ‘On the personality development of
children with innate or early deafness. We already mentioned
that deaf children show little empathy. Usually, only the most intense
and violent expressions get through. They didn’t hear their mother’s
loving sounds. The baby song did not soothe
their weeping. The lack of hearing impoverished
the world of these children.’ As Wouter had an implant… …it was supposed
his children would get one too. But after long debates, their parents
decided the kids didn’t need to be fixed. They weren’t broken, after all. To almost all medical people
involved with deafness… …it’s an infirmity that can be repaired
somewhat, and should. But sign language and the culture
of the deaf are always swept aside. The focus is on hearing,
on the development of hearing… …the rehabilitation of hearing. So you have decided that Bob,
and I assume Sophie as well… …won’t have an implant installed, or… Not to have it implanted. As a mother, you have doubts.
You want what’s best for your child. And you have motherly feelings. Wouter was more resolute.
He said, this is our decision. While she was born deaf,
and you could partly hear for a while. Because we believe a deaf person
can grow up very well… …with sign language,
the culture and identity of the deaf. You can go to college,
get a job and grow old happily. A CI doesn’t make you
more or less happy. And children with a CI differ a lot
in what they hear. They’re not the same
as people with perfect hearing. They can’t hear everything.
In a group, they feel excluded. They look for a group they belong to. It’s not a choice between deaf
and hearing… …but between deaf
and hard of hearing. Wouter saw his deaf wife grew up
happier than he, being hard of hearing. He was a stranger in his class.
Couldn’t follow much. And she had culture, confidence,
a language that made her blossom. He wanted his children to have that.
– He does have the pain of being deaf. But that seems less bad to me
than the pain of being hard of hearing. It was clear. Better a full member
of one group, than half a member of two. Did people have debates about this
with you? Your relatives, friends?
– Yes, they used to. My relatives, my surroundings.
– It’s funny, really. When the CI started to make headway,
in the eighties and nineties… …a lot of deaf people were against it. And many of the extreme opponents
now have a CI as well. So somehow, maybe they gave in to
the pressure or the temptation of a CI. But I’m glad about the reaction
of some deaf people… …when I tell them I have deaf children.
They say: Well done. Their group has a new member. Sophie and Bob will stay deaf
and grow up in Groningen. At the Guyot School. Today you’re signing… The house in Haarlem has been sold. Page 2 describes exactly
what you’re selling. The house. In Groningen, their parents say,
you can get stronger in a trusty place. So that later, you’ll enter
the hearing world with a capital D. In the capital, in a noisy area,
is the DoPa, the Deaf Premises. A kind of student flat
where nine deaf young people reside. The bell is always out of service,
but everyone is welcome. Someone said to me, are you deaf?
You look so normal. Hello, I’m not a monster. Does it often happen that only
one hearing person has dinner here? No, no. It doesn’t, actually. Now and then my sister comes. But that’s almost
as if a deaf person visits. Your sister is with you. But one hearing
person in the group? Almost never. Maybe it would be good if you told me
where we are, exactly. These are the Deaf Premises.
– The DoPa. This is the sign for dope.
– The sign for dope? Drugs? Yes, exactly. It’s a cool sign.
Because we want to keep it cool. We just feel at home here.
And this is our home. Especially because of
the communication. Right? You come home out of
the hearing world, you’re tired. Fed up with what you have to deal with.
In here, you get healthy oxygen. You recharge your batteries. Would you be friends if you could hear? Or was it the deafness
that brought you together? It wasn’t? With one foot in the city
and another in this sanctuary… …the residents are able to reflect
on the bad sides of both worlds. Is there an invisible hierarchy
in the deaf world as well? That people with 20 percent hearing
think they’re better, are looked up to? How does that work?
– Sometimes we criticize the signing. I’m better. My Dutch is better,
and I talk better. But the funny thing is,
some deaf people can talk very well… …and we can sign better. Then we say,
those arrogant people love to talk. There’s something contradictory
about it. It’s certainly a paradox. A deaf person who grows strong
and achieves a lot… …is sometimes dragged down
by other deaf people. He should stop growing,
and not become better than us. Deaf people can get jealous. Success is resented.
– Exactly. And sometimes we say negative things:
He’s bad, look how he develops. We drag someone down.
– Explain how that works. Deaf people often say:
We demand a share of the success. That’s a feeling they have. I’m deaf, you’re deaf,
so we have to share the success. I think you’re basically saying… …there’s a kind of enforced solidarity. We are deaf, so I expect help from you. We’re both deaf,
I expect something from you. When you’re successful, you have to…
– Share it. Share it with others. The deaf community
is really developing. We could get very rich,
we have good qualities. But we don’t always use them. It’s stupid that we drag
each other down. If it’s personal, the business side
gets cut short too. It’s also because there are
more and more deaf people. The world gets more accessible
to them. And many deaf people never got
that chance, or that access. That’s why they think:
Why them, and not us? Once a year, somewhere in the world… …young deaf people get together
for a festive encounter. Today, Amsterdam has the honour. A stone’s throw from DoPa,
the festivities start. People arrive from Denmark. Germany, recognizable by the spike
on the old war helmet. Hawaii. Finland. Spain. Italy, where even the hearing
are good at sign language. The Fins agree, who think they’re
a little flat, but with a big heart. But most of them are from
that other country. You’re Dutch, aren’t you?
– No, I’m from the land of the deaf. And there, everything is red. Sound is red. You can see it. Even if you’ve just met, in this land
there’s no time for circumlocution. Here, you smile kindly and patiently… …when the outsider keeps trying
to be heard. Here, they think of the American village… …where so many people were deaf
even the hearing signed to each other. That won’t happen again. In this land they even whisper the deaf
won’t exist anymore in 100 years. Scientific progress, some say,
will make us extinct. And our sign language with it. With its grammar that moves
through space in flowing patterns. And, some people say,
our schools will disappear. Perhaps Bob will be one
of the last deaf. And tell his grandchildren
about the culture and history… …of his vanished people.