The Silent Network

The hearing-impaired converge on The Block each month to bring back the simple art of conversation

It surprises me how noisy an outdoor shopping center can get as mall-goers slow to a parade pace in the service of that primal ritual: checking each other out.

So it is on a Friday night that my friend and I shout to be heard as we approach Starbucks in The Block at Orange. That’s when the crowd suddenly grows hushed even as we jabber on, our voices making us feel we’d been stripped naked on a stage.

All around us, everyone is communicating in sign language.

The conversations are vigorous,flirtatious, even aggressive, as dozens cluster in small groups, fingers flying, pausing, vying for attention, interrupting, several trying to sign at once. We soon discover that we’ve wandered into one of Southern California’s largest monthly social gatherings for the hearing impaired. 

Every second Friday night of the month, hundreds from throughout the region converge on the same Starbucks. The social started in the 1990s with some friends meeting for coffee. A few years ago, pushed by social media, the party exploded into what one man called Deaf Jam—as many as 600 hearing-impaired participants from as far away as New York clogging the corridors around the coffeehouse. 

It was a lot for the mall to handle. Management brought in three interpreters to help with crowd control. Security guards shined flashlights in people’s eyes to get their attention. Some Starbucks baristas picked up on how to sign. 

While promotion is done through social media, the party also is a rejection of social media—the deaf exploiting Facebook and Twitter to bring about old-fashioned face-to-face contact.

 

When I revisit the event months later, I find the crowd has thinned to about 100. Scott Allen of Yorba Linda, a 26-year-old, fourth-year sign language student from Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, translates for me. Regulars say that the deaf social at The Block has given birth to many smaller gatherings, but it remains one of the major places for the hearing impaired to meet in Southern California. Romances begin, friendships develop. It has even sparked a few marriages. 

Participants look forward to the event all month because it provides communication they don’t get in other ways. And they're willing to come a long distance for it. I meet people from San Diego, Riverside, and Los Angeles counties.

Maria Rodriguez, a bouncy 19-year-old with her long curls swept up into a high headband, checks for texts, smiles, and shoves the phone into her bag before heading into the mall. The Anaheim teen tells me she’s been coming to the deaf social for three years and believes it’s a great place to find a boyfriend. She just broke up with a guy she met here six months earlier and she’s hoping to meet someone new.

“This is just an awesome place to hang out,” she says. “I like to walk around. I run into people I know. You should get out there, too. The party’s not just here. It’s all over The Block.” 

At first, I worried that asking Allen to help me translate might be awkward. The social has been besieged in recent years by sign language students sent by their teachers to practice. Some of the hearing-impaired would like to see them return to their classrooms. (As an anonymous blogger wrote in “The Orange Deafie Blog”: “Students should just freaking stay out.”) But Allen has been coming here as long as he has been signing, and he clearly has earned his stay by developing real friendships.

The conflict between signing students and the deaf is but one issue that bubbles up . There’s also a controversy over using American Sign Language versus signed English, in which users spell words with their hands. One blogger claimed the event had been taken over by “ASL extremists.”

 

But the longevity of the social also says a lot about the cohesion of the Orange County deaf community and points to a deep need. It’s summed up best by Rachel French, opposite page, a 26-year-old Anaheim resident who lost her hearing mysteriously just a few years ago. Boyfriend Jakob Meireis, 26, of Garden Grove met her about that time and learned sign language so they could communicate. Still, she often feels lonely.

“How many times a day do you think I run into someone who can sign?” she asks. “It’s a very hard thing. My own family can’t even communicate with me. But you come to an event like this and 99 percent of the people can understand you, and you can understand them.”

I thought about how we take that for granted: the simple abilities to speak and hear, to be understood whenever and wherever we wish—how much our relationships depend on the spontaneity of easy communication. 

A lot has been made lately of how we squander that gift, replacing face time with a mess of texts, often reporting no more than our hourly whereabouts. Some of us—who, me?—even use the new technology to avoid real communication.

But maybe it’s not so bleak. It doesn’t surprise me that the hearing-impaired are way ahead, muscling the social media to bring back the joys of simple conversation. 

They know more than the rest of us what it’s like to be without it.

Photograph by Challenge Roddie

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.