Augmentation or alienation?

Photo from 'Playing God' by Paula Garfield and Rebecca Atkinson.I’ve been trying to think about how the cultures of those with and without augmented senses may diverge, and the difficulties this may cause. The problem is already being grappled with by deaf people deciding whether to give their children cochlear implants, and the chance of a more “normal” life, or whether to encourage them to embrace signing and the deaf community. So, when I heard last week about a play on this subject here in London, Playing God by Paula Garfield and Rebecca Atkinson, I immediately bought tickets. Though it’s a departure, I thought I’d review it and some of the issues it raises here. Also, the play’s on until August 4th, so I wanted to discuss it right away while there is still an opportunity for people to go and see it if it’s of interest.

The story is relatively straightforward. Emma, who became deaf through meningitis at age 3, is married to computer-programmer John who was born deaf and humiliated by his family for his lack of normal speech as a child. Their daughter Ruby was also born deaf, a fact that her father takes great pride in: he has, he says, “the perfect deaf family.” Emma however, becomes concerned when Ruby’s teachers report that her speech isn’t developing properly. This and her friendship with Alison, the wife of a hearing specialist (Alex), lead her to consider an implant for her daughter.

The play explores the concerns of Emma, who just wants her child to have the best possible opportunities, and of John, who is tortured by his memories of his own youth and wants to give his daughter a good deaf childhood to compensate. John is happy for Ruby to only be able to sign, and to take her place in the small but intimate deaf community that he and is wife are both part of. He is afraid that the ability to hear will squash her ability to sign, and ultimately her interest in the deaf world. He is afraid of losing her.

The play also makes an analogy between this conflict and another between Alison and Alex: he wants their daughter Leila to go to a private school (to get the best education and opportunities), she wants her to go to a state school (so that the girl will learn identify with the broader community). In some ways, a better analogy might have involved immigrants coming to the UK from, say, India and wanting their kids to grow up the way they did, and stay part of the British Indian community rather than spinning off into the wider world. However, that might have been a more difficult story to tell.

What was interesting, though, was that the middle ground was not really discussed. Hearing children of deaf parents often learn to sign fluently and can be a bridge between the deaf and hearing communities. There are good state schools where children can get an excellent education regardless of class or income (there should be more, but that’s another story), and second-generation immigrants can lead their lives and respect their cultural traditions without being bound by them. In fact, there was a fully-hearing (from what we could tell), fluently-signing character in the play. An interpreter at Alex’s clinic. She made it possible for the various parties to communicate, but was given absolutely no character or story of her own. The playwrights seem to have created her as a device, and yet, to me, she was the key to the story: she showed that you could have the best of both worlds.

The play was popular with the predominantly deaf audience. We enjoyed it too, and found it well balanced. However, I would have liked some less emotional, more analytical, consideration of what Ruby might be losing with her deafness: perhaps related to visual imagination. That was not forthcoming. But perhaps what was not obvious to me was clear to the deaf majority in the theatre. Ultimately it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking play, if a bit intellectually shallow for my taste.

Originally posted on Brains and Machines.