Maya Ashers poetry in this issue.
To see Maya Ashers ASL Video Poem click on the link and enter the password maya when prompted.
Disability, Poetry, ASL, and Me.
by Maya Asher
One of my favorite professors in college said, If I tell you his diagnosis, I tell you nothing. At age seven, I received five different Axis I diagnoses. I agree with my professor; the label doesnt matter—what matters is my experience. As a child, at times it felt like my language broke off from me. I could hear what people were saying and understand, but I couldnt respond. It still happens. When I get overwhelmed or overworked, my verbal language is gone. It usually only lasts a few minutes to an hour (now), but as a child, it felt like it went on for days. I felt stupid and messed up. No matter how high the success, I felt like I did not deserve it. I felt for a long time that there was something wrong with me. I felt this rage in me, which seems almost impossible now—a rage at the microscope held over me and a rage at myself. I went through testing, tutoring, and what seemed like torture via flash cards and constant redirection from my mother.
I received accommodations throughout school, and my peers picked up on it and noted it as unfair. It was believed that I was faking it or a baby because I looked normal. This caused me to feel that I had to hide who I was, and I often struggled to express my feelings even to my closest of friends. At 18, I had to be revaluated, and had panic attacks just thinking about the testing. At one point, the Ph.D. told me, joking, well youre not stupid, and I almost burst into tears. When people told me I was smart, I never believed it, and when they told me I was stupid, it felt like a jab at a soft spot. That one phrase knocked loose my feelings, and I started to write more and more about difference and the different worlds we have inside all of us.
I cope through my imagination and extended daydreaming; I can go away in my mind for hours. Writing and poetry also provide an escape and a way to connect with others. I have found poetry to be a space in which anything can happen. I can use my words, grammar, structure as I want to, instead of forcing these things into a structure I find limiting. I find English very limiting; it is my primary language and yet, I often feel restricted in its use. Poetry allows me to break out of restriction and communicate more creatively and accurately. I started to write poetry at the same time I learned to write; my father, who is also a poet, influenced me. I spent hours in my fathers office with a computer that had a black screen and green letters, just creating. I went to college at first focused initially on Creative Writing. My studies bridged into disability constructs, counseling and along the way, I fell in love with American Sign Language (ASL).
My initial experience with ASL was like finding a new lung. I felt like I could breathe in ways I had never before. I started to sign when I was stressed, and it helped even if no one in the room understood me. I had noticed that at times when I was very passionate about something, my hands would chime in. I found my dreams becoming more interactive, and less like I was just watching a movie. It felt like my mind was rewired. I connected with deaf culture, and started to dream in sign. My hands became a conduit for communication, and I felt a freedom that can only be compared with poetry. All of my previous attempts at a second language had failed. I wish I had discovered ASL in childhood.
When I first performed my ASL poem in the spoken word community, it was the perfect meeting of two of my worlds. When I got on stage and moved the microphone out of the way in order to perform, I felt this exhilaration like riding a bike without training wheels. Leaving my spoken words behind, moving everything out of the way, and speaking with my hands, was the most pure performance Ive ever done. Language through movement seems to be a pure expression, like dance. Dancing with my hands and face, and listening with my eyes, feels more natural at times than speech.
Today, I do not see myself as having something wrong with me. It is through poetry, through my studies at the University of Arizona, and ASL that I was able to reconnect within myself. There is a line in my ASL poem that rings very true to my overall experience in English; it goes, There are countries inside me that words cannot capture. It was the perception of others, the limiting and restricting design of schools/education, and the assumptions of mass-produced media which disabled me. And it was also myself—I disabled myself by buying into it all. Im so grateful for the freedom and growth which I have had through ASL, Disability Studies, poetry and the love and support of my friends and family.