In May 2016 Evelyn Glennie, the Scottish virtuoso percussionist, collaborated with the Papworth Trust charity to create a very special garden for the Chelsea Flower Show, where new gardening ideas are showcased every year. Glennie, who has been profoundly deaf since the age of twelve, plays her panoply of instruments by feeling the vibrations with her body, and the inability to hear in the conventional way has never stood in the way of her musical ambitions. Deaf culture, of course, has always been about ability rather than disability, and some new words connected with Deaf culture recently added to the Cambridge Dictionary recognize this fact.
The Chelsea garden, called the “Together We Can” garden, celebrates the charity’s inclusive vision for people with disabilities. It is an acoustic garden making use of musical instruments that are played by the wind, water, and sun, as well as visual interpretations of those sounds, and shows that deaf people are not limited by their disabilities, but can appreciate and enjoy the subtleties of music just as much as hearing people, albeit in different ways.
Deaf culture shows us this too. In the past there has been a tendency for the hearing majority to assume that the visual language of deaf people, sign language or sign, is simply a form of body language or non-verbal communication. In fact, sign languages are natural languages: fully complex linguistic systems that are capable of expressing the whole of human thought, with a complex grammar and a rich vocabulary. There are at least 137 sign languages in the world, because they have developed in the same way as spoken languages, by being passed on from parents to children and by being moulded into a functioning, conventionalized system by a community of users.
People who sign, or communicate using a sign language, can often understand spoken language by lip-reading, and are often able to speak clearly to hearing people. Subtitles on TV and in movies and surtitles in the theatre (usually supertitles in the US) also add an extra dimension. But signing gives them the opportunity to communicate in a manner that is in no way less subtle or meaningful than speech, in an environment in which they feel totally at home: the visual.