The following article was printed in Artemisia, the newsletter for practitioners
of Anthroposophical Healing Arts:
Signs of Genius: Deaf Children in the Waldorf School
Long ago and far away in a land of fog where the sun rises and sets but is
seldom seen--a place called Medical School--I recall a weekly class at the
very end of a very long lecture day. This class in retrospect was perhaps one
of the least appreciated yet most worthwhile classes of the curriculum. The
class focused on the human element of medicine through patients sharing
their medical biographies with the students. I recall a particular mother who
came before 140 of us to share her experience with her child born with
Downs’s syndrome. She presented her child with Downs as a "wonderful gift"
to herself and her family, claiming this child taught them a "different way of
being in the world". She said that given the opportunity, she would not choose
to change this experience. At the time, I rolled my eyes and said, "Who is she
kidding? She sure rationalized this one to make an impossible-to-accept
situation look like a gift!" I saw her tears as she spoke and I knew they were
tears of grief. Today I know that they were not tears of grief but tears of
profound gratitude for the understanding of a deep truth-- A gratitude and truth
I now share because of my third child who was born Deaf and other Deaf
children I have since worked with. I now occasionally find myself misty eyed
as I share my biography with others. I am sure they cannot and may not even
care to truly understand as I try to describe this "gift". Rudolf Steiner with his
insight described it beautifully in the following opening lecture to would-be
curative educators (1924):
"The only possible grounds we can have for speaking of the normality or
abnormality of the child’s life of soul, or indeed of the life of soul of any human
being, is that we have in mind something that is normal in the sense of being
average. At present there is really no other criterion. That is why the
conclusions people come to are so very confused. When they have in this
way ascertained the existence of ‘abnormality,’ they begin to do---heavens
knows what---believing they are thereby helping to get rid of the abnormality,
while all the time they are driving out a fragment of genius."
The uppercase "Deaf" is used to denote a group who consider themselves
part of a separate Deaf culture. These are individuals striving to epitomize
what it means to be Deaf rather than identifying themselves as a less
endowed or broken version of the hearing human being. They are trying to
defend this "fragment of genius".
This cultural identity stems in part from the development of true signed languages.
Part of the "genius" I experience in Deaf children is the ability to meet other human
beings through this language in a common world of pictures--a world, which
demands that two people stop and truly meet. Deaf people cannot communicate
in passing as they walk away or continue another activity. They must stop and
focus on the exchange. One cannot make dinner while carrying on a casual
conversation with a Deaf child in the other room. Instead, one must stop,
free the hands, establish eye contact and exchange pictures through signed
Further, both parties must want to be involved for conversation to occur. A hearing child
may cover her ears when she doesn’t want to hear-- but she still hears. A Deaf
child merely closes her eyes and communication ends. All of this means that
while using signed languages human beings must truly "meet"--dare I say on
a soul level?--in order to communicate. In these days of doing at least three
things at the same time--talking and walking and thinking of something else--
this intense, focused meeting is truly a gift. It is a different way of being in the
world, a way of being, which many of us have almost forgotten. A way perhaps
of bridging our separateness by meeting in a shared picture painted by a
visual spatial language, which imparts its experience sometimes better than
In the last century there existed in Martha’s Vineyard a bilingual sign
language/English community due to a high incidence of deafness among its
residents. Even today a few residents remain who are completely bilingual.
Their conversations at times will lapse back and forth between sign and
English because some ideas are better suited for one language or another.
Steiner describes in "The Work of The Angels in Mans Astral Body"
—"pictures which work on a definite principle, namely, that in the future no
human being is to find peace in the enjoyment of happiness if others beside
him are unhappy. An impulse of brotherhood in the absolute sense..." He also
describes pictures which "inculcate into the astral body their aim that in future
times every human being shall see in each and all of his fellow men a hidden
divinity." There is in signed languages a remarkable quality, which demands
that we begin to meet each other in this way. The sharing of pictures allows us
to live into the other’s sense of perception more fully--perhaps in that common
space that lies between two human beings. Even beyond the mode of
exchange, the language form itself is more active. For example there is no
form of be in American Sign Language. One does not share a somewhat
removed "I am hungry" or "I have hunger". Rather the form is "I hunger."
Following the realization that my child was Deaf, the search began for an
educational environment for this child. It soon became clear to me that
Waldorf Education was at that time completely inaccessible to Deaf children
and Deaf families. Mainstream Deaf education tends to focus on early reading
and use of media and computers. Yet, the Waldorf pedagogy, as an
alternative, fits Deaf children very well in many ways. Drama is ideal for
development of the Deaf child’s communication skills. Movement and touch
continues to develop and support the other senses, which are often keenly
developed to compensate for the deafness. (Or perhaps it is not as a
compensation but rather that this is part of the gift the Deaf child brings, the
high development of the other senses and demonstration of the possibilities
which exist in the human potential.) Because sign language also has no true
written form, Deaf culture parallels other cultures with oral traditions in the
importance of storytelling and the great archetypal stories used in the Waldorf
curriculum are a natural fit. The social isolation experienced by many Deaf
children even in their own families (90%of deaf children are born to hearing
families who have no skills for communicating with these children) makes the
social impulse of the Waldorf classroom ideal.
At the same time the Deaf child brings to attention many questions for Waldorf
educators and Anthroposophical therapists. It is not enough to say Deaf
children cannot hear music and therefore skip that part of the curriculum. One
must ask what is the soul experience of music and how can that experience
be brought to Deaf children. Yes, Deaf children can feel vibrations of stringed
instruments but does this really give the same rich experience as the hearing
of music? What is the soul experience we seek through music? What are
parallels? Also, in our times comes the issue of cochlear implants now
available for Deaf children. As a parent myself I struggle with the availability of
this technology and how it might improve my child’s access to sound. Yet as I
review Steiner’s words I wonder what a Deaf child loses if we "fix" this genius
she expresses. What also is the karmic effect of "curing" the deafness? Does
this stop a process that she is growing through in her own spiritual evolution?
Why are so many Deaf people so adverse to cochlear implants in children,
even going so far as to refer to it as "genocide"? The Deaf children I see now
are wonderful, beautiful, human beings in a world that doesn’t know how to
communicate with them or accept their differences. Can we change the world?
Some days it feels that in some tiny way we will change the world. Other days
it feels absolutely impossible. What does the Deaf child bring and how do we
best prepare her for her work here? These questions haunt me. What will I
see when I look back 50 years from now. As the incidence of cochlear
implants skyrockets, will unimplanted children represent a few remaining
natural Deaf human beings isolated in a world of "bionic cures"? Is a bionic
ear like taking antibiotics to stop an infection or Tylenol for a fever? Or is it
merely like wearing glasses for weak vision or wearing a hat to keep your
balding head warm? Or is it something else?
My work with the Deaf community has led me to strive to develop a Deaf
Community Waldorf School. Currently we have a small program with Deaf
children integrated into a Waldorf preschool/kindergarten setting. A Deaf
teacher-in-training team-teaches with an experienced and signing Waldorf
teacher to make a truly bilingual environment equally accessible for all the
students. This has been a wonderfully heart warming and educational
experience for all involved. It is interesting to watch the evolution of the
children. The youngest children (Deaf and hearing) will play together without
the use of spoken or signed language and seem not to notice any difference.
At this age they don’t need language to communicate. This progresses to
hearing children flapping their arms and hands about in unintelligible gestures
to which the Deaf children nod their agreement as they go on merrily playing
together. Or in reverse, the Deaf child may vocalize incoherently to the
hearing child who may gleefully imitate the noises and return to their play
By the last year of preschool and first year of kindergarten, both
groups of children are picking up the other’s language, asking for assistance
with signs or words and attempting to use these for communication. Without
judgment, the hearing children describe the Deaf children as "talking with their
hands". Many hearing children brought gesture into their homes especially at
the table and for the blessing. Even parents who began the year with grave
concerns, later requested books to support the development of signed
language at home and expressed their desire that the program continue.
Development of the school continues with the goal of opening a first grade in
the fall of 2001.
We also continue to explore the use of therapies for the Deaf
child. Eurythmy for example has proven to be very exciting to Deaf children
who clearly understand it as a form of visual speech. The children I work with
have discovered several new sounds through Eurythmy. A diluted form of
Eurythmy has been introduced into some oral deaf programs to aid with
pronunciation of sounds, which are difficult to lip-read like K, G or S.
Chirophonetics is another therapy, which may prove useful to Deaf children.
The further exploration of the role of music and how this experience can be
provided to Deaf children through color, light, tonal eurythmy and movement is
a whole area of investigation wide open and desperately needed. Any ideas,
information and experience other physicians and therapists are willing to
share would be greatly appreciated by our group as we continue to explore
ways to develop this program. We also continue to reach out to contact
families with Deaf children who are interested in Waldorf education and invite
them to explore our program as an educational option for their child.
Interested professionals with a combined experience in Waldorf education or
therapies and Deaf education or the Deaf community are especially needed to
carry this initiative forward.
It is my hope that we all can find room in our hearts to support this initiative;
for, I firmly believe that Waldorf education is itself a healing therapy and
therefore the best form of education for all children. I am reminded of an Asian
fable about a fox and a heron. The fox invited the heron to dinner where he
served a wonderful soup in a flat shallow plate. The heron struggled and
struggled but could not eat the soup from the plate with his long beak. The fox
ate all the soup himself and was quite satisfied. The heron went home hungry.
Soon afterwards, the heron invited the fox to dinner and served a marvelous
smelling soup in a deep narrow vase. The fox struggled and struggled but
could not eat the soup with his thick snout. The heron noticed this and
transferred the fox’s soup to a shallow bowl. Both ate their meals with relish,
were well satisfied and remained good friends from that day forward.
Presently, Deaf children and the Deaf community are knocking at the door--
will we welcome them in and accommodate them? I need all your help to
throw open the door of accessibility and inclusion. Thereby we create a loving
space into which something wonderful may grow and in which we may all as
brothers and sisters revel in the gifts our differences bring--not as variations
on the theme of "normal" but instead as our own unique "forms of genius".