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"The utmost extreme to which tyranny can go when its mailed hand descends upon a conquered people is the proscription of their national language," wrote a brokenhearted Robert P. McGregor, the first president of the National Association of the Deaf, shortly after the Milan conference. "What heinous crime have the deaf been guilty of that their language should be proscribed?"
This legacy of loss reached its horrific culmination in Germany during the 1930s, when the Nazis instituted a program of "race hygiene" that led to the forced sterilization of 17,000 deaf people. Inmates of deaf asylums were also among the first targets of the Nazis' monstrous "euthanasia" programs, designed to end the lives of the unnuntzer Esser ("useless eaters"). These programs were the forerunners of the systematic slaughter of millions of Jews.
The deaf world, its existence alternately threatened and ignored, orbited silently around the hearing one, a shadow planet. "When I was a little girl, I felt different from the hearing," says Leona Norrod, the mother of Gallaudet running back Rocky Murray. "It was a lot worse then. Hearing people weren't aware of deaf people as much as they are today. They used to make fun of us when we used sign language. Deaf people were scared."
Since the uprising at Gallaudet in '88, it has become apparent that on matters relating to their own culture the deaf do not speak with one hand. The school's own information center calls deafness "the hidden handicap." But as Silvestri, who is both an All-America wrestler and a product of the heady days on the barricades, insists, "I'm not handicapped. 'There's nothing wrong with my body, it's just my ears that don't work."
His deafness prevents Silvestri from monitoring his own speech or knowing what words sound like, so he has no means of modulating his voice. When he speaks, he produces a series of high-pitched yips that are almost impossible for a hearing person unaccustomed to Silvestri's voice to understand. "I hate to use voice," he says. "My voice is weird."
Cathy Valcourt, a Gallaudet sophomore with only about 50% hearing loss who works in the school's athletic department, says that when she and her friends are among the hearing, they frequently "turn off our voices" so they won't attract attention to themselves. "I think deaf voices are the most beautiful in the world," she says. "But hearing people think they're strange. We sound scary to you."
Even scarier to some hearing parents is the eagerness of many deaf people to have children who are deaf. "I would rather marry a man who is deaf or hard of hearing and then have deaf children," says Valcourt. Her friend Becca Batchelder, who like Valcourt is only partially deaf, agrees. "I tell people I want deaf children, and they get this shocked look on their faces and ask why I would want a thing like that," she says. "My grandmother was horrified when I told her."
It is a measure of the powerful hold the deaf culture exerts that 18 months ago neither one of these women had ever met another deaf person. "The Amish have their own culture and feel they're the same," Murray says. "It's that way with deaf people, too. We're in the same boat. Deaf people want to have deaf children so they can share the experience."
Murray's stepfather, Ernie Norrod, came from a family in which he was the first deaf child (he has two deaf brothers). "My parents were hearing, but they never figured out how to communicate with me until I was six years old," says Norrod. "I don't know what my parents think. I still can't communicate with my dad, but my mother is finally learning how to sign."
Murray's entire family is deaf except for his sister, Brenda, whose first language, nonetheless, was sign. Murray was sent to the Indiana School for the Deaf—a residential school in Indianapolis—when he was 3½ years old and stayed there until he graduated from high school. "I felt the dorm was the heartbeat of the deaf culture," he says. "I could go out and play sports or flirt with girls. My family understood. They had all lived in dorms, too, even my grandparents.