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Cultures of Jackson: Deafness & the Discovery of Language


Cultures of Jackson: Deafness & the Discovery of Language

Cultures of Jackson


This piece was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.


Exit 85: West Tennessee School for the Deaf. I take this exit off of I-40 every week to go to my English lessons. The exit sign catches my eye (and not just because it is also the exit for Christmasville Road, which I think is a pretty fantastic name for a road). Here is some background to the significance of my road sign musings: my youngest brother, Jack, is hard of hearing. After we found out about his hearing loss, our family moved several hours away in order to be near a good school for him. So I know from personal experience that there aren’t many schools for the deaf just hanging around interstate exits.

I thought back on this particular exit when I began considering studying speech pathology in graduate school. While I was looking for places to learn more about that field, a friend connected me with Kris Wolfe, a speech pathologist at the West Tennessee School for the Deaf (WTSD). I was able to spend a morning with Mrs. Wolfe and her students. One thing I initially found funny was that I was actually more comfortable in this sort of school environment than I have been in most public or private schools. I think it’s because we spent a lot of time at my brother’s school growing up, and WTSD reminded me of his school: dedicated, intimate, familial.

The West Tennessee School for the Deaf has been around since 1986, when it opened as the first school for the deaf in the state. Since deaf schools are so few and far between, it is common for kids with a hearing loss to commute several hours to come to school. The same goes for many students at WTSD. While visiting the school, I was given tour of the buildings and met several of the students, including one youthful individual named Xiao Yu Guilaran (pronounced “shy-you”). He was in the midst of helping demonstrate a tennis move to the rest of the class. Xiao Yu is one of forty-plus students at the school and arguably traveled one of the furthest distances in order to join his family and study at WTSD. 


I first met the Guilarans several years ago at a sign language club entitled “Signs.” Dr. Guilaran is half Filipino, is from Kentucky, and wears his hair pulled back in a small ponytail. A physics professor at Union University, many refer to him as “Dr. G.” He and his wife Lesley—a calm, attentive woman with glasses—adopted two deaf boys several years ago, Xiao Yu and Angel. The Guilarans, like Melissa’s family, changed houses and jobs in order to find a good school for the deaf. Curious about the deaf community in Jackson, I sought out an interview with the family. 

To the delight of my college student heart, they graciously invited me over for dinner. After knocking on the door, I was greeted by the sound of a child bouncing off walls on his way to open the door. Xiao Yu, the eight-year-old Chinese boy, had grown a lot since I last saw him. He rarely stops moving and is constantly in a state of sheer joy. Even without knowing him, you would be able to discern his personality simply by watching him sign his name, taking the letters “X” and “Y” and moving them in the motion for “happy.”

The Guilaran’s home has a natural sense of peace and welcome, instantly putting visitors at ease. Lesley greeted me as I entered the kitchen, and we all headed for the dinner table where Angel was waiting for us. Angel is a fourteen-year-old boy of Filipino (and possibly Chinese) descent. When Angel first became a part of the Guilaran family, they discovered that he had a congenital cataract in one eye, was deaf in both ears, and autistic. Sitting at the table I noticed that he was wearing glasses and signing rapidly in American Sign Language (ASL) with Dr. G and Lesley. 

During dinner I learned that both the boys had cochlear implants. Lesley, who had taken ASL in college, told me about a controversy in the deaf community surrounding the use cochlear implants for deaf children. Deafness is a part Xiao Yu’s and Angel’s identities. How would this identity be affected by introducing spoken language to them as another means of communication? Since Angel was autistic, his parents decided more easily that implants would help open up his world. However, the Guilarans admitted that they struggled for a while with the decision of getting cochlear implants for Xiao Yu. Implants allow a child to hear, but they accomplish this by destroying the child’s eardrum. Lesley says that after much thought and prayer, she thinks they made the right decision.

“He is such a social little boy,” she said, also telling me that many people think that anyone can learn to speak no matter how long they have gone without hearing. “But it doesn’t work like that. I think Xiao Yu would regret it if we had not done this.” 

Smack dab (How about that for a sophisticated, linguistic-y term?) in the middle of the Guilaran’s tale is the role that WTSD has played in their family. Mrs. G was Angel’s personal assistant for the first three months at the school, which she says was very helpful for her to see how the school operated and how to help Angel in his education. 


WTSD is well-equipped to provide for the deaf community in Jackson. Many of the students have cochlear implants or hearing aids, and so WTSD incorporated auditory training into the daily schedule as well as providing various hearing tests for those who need them. The school is careful to make sure that those student it accepts will receive the care they need. Another unique feature of WTSD is that it uses total communication, with faculty and students signing and speaking simultaneously. There are two full-time audiologists on staff dedicated to helping the students aged two to thirteen, as well as their families. For those not in the school, there are other resources for the Jackson deaf community, including a Facebook group for hearing parents who have adopted deaf children. Other places you may run across WTSD students include local places like ComeUnity Café (where they have volunteered), at WTSD Deaf Awareness Week in September, or at a sign language class around town. While there are sign language classes at WTSD and the Star Center, the Guilarans assured us that there is always need for more. 

Learning someone’s language is the most precious gift we can give that person.
— Melissa Hardman

I asked if there was anything Lesley or Dr. G would like to share with the Jackson community. Lesley, who is a Christian, replied, “A lot of people don’t realize that the largest unreached people group [group of people who have not heard about Christianity] is the deaf community—98% unchurched. . . . As Christians, it is important to learn ASL. . . . That’s the biggest thing—entering into their world.” Sometimes when Lesley goes grocery shopping, people will see her signing to her children and assume that she is deaf. Upon learning that she can hear they ask, slightly baffled, “Then why are you signing??” Lesley response: “That’s his first language. Why would I not do that [speak to him in his first language]?” As a linguist, I agree with Mrs. G that learning someone’s language is the most precious gift we can give that person. 


Some may not think of sign language as a “real language” because it is not oral. I must admit that I used to be in that category of people; however, studying language in a college linguistics class in fascinating! I am about to get really nerdy, but bear with me. So in the linguistic world, a “pidgin” is not a bird; it’sa language that was formed because two groups communicating did not share the same L1 (first language). A pidgin has no consistent grammar and is not considered a true language—more like a code used for the bare minimum communication. Meanwhile, children have what has been dubbed a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) that enables them to discern patterns in language, and patterns must be logical and consistent. Are the children of pidgin speakers baffled by their parents’ code for communication? Nope. They perfect the means of communication so that it becomes a true language with grammar and accepted norms. This language of the children is known as a creole. Personally, I became convinced that sign language is a true language when I learned that children of “pidgin sign language speakers” perfect the non-verbal language just like kids of oral speakers! So neat, right?


The Guilaran are just one of the many families and individuals and businesses in the deaf community. There are many beautiful strands which make up Jackson’s tapestry of communities, and the deaf community is much more integral to daily life than we may know. In fact, globally speaking, the deaf community is so large that its members number more than the entire population of the United States. 

Before we started this piece, I was rather terrified of writing about the deaf community, even though I have a fair bit of background in it. Sometimes I’m not sure what to do with my experiences in the deaf community since I’m not deaf. But talking the Guilarans and going to the WTSD reminded me that it is never too late to learn a language, to make a friend, or to get off the beaten path and see what adventures are waiting to be discovered. 

It is never too late to learn a language, to make a friend, or to get off the beaten path and see what adventures are waiting to be discovered.
— Melissa Hardman

So, the next time you take the exit for Christmasville Road off of I-40, it’s possible you may also come across the West Tennessee School for the Deaf. The road sign for the school was only recently put up as part of WTSD’s desire to raise awareness of the deaf community. I suppose this is the point where we tie this story together, but I think in reality this is the point where the story must now run off the page. It’s more than a bit humbling to have a role like this. Dipping into the lives of people we meet, I feel as though I’m the one being discovered, realizing that I need to come up for air, or that I need to look at everything different than I was. Writing these articles shows me just how blind I am to much of the world. Hopefully the West Tennessee School for the Deaf, my brother Jack, and families like the Guilarans will continue to awaken my senses. Perhaps I’ll take a second look at the signs, too.

The West Tennessee School for the Deaf is located at 100 Berryhill Drive in Jackson, Tennessee, and is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.. To learn more, visit their website or call 731.423.5706.

Kimberly Chavers is originally from Alabama but has lived all across the Southeast. Currently she is a student at Union University studying Intercultural Studies and Teaching English as a Second Language.

Originally from the Chicago area, Melissa Hardman came to Jackson to study Linguistics at Union University and plans to graduate in spring of 2016. She hopes to teach English or work with humanitarian aid organizations one day.

Photography by Hannah Heckart.