Sunday, December 21, 2008

Deaf artist fights sign language prejudice through his work

From Yomiuri Shimbun in Japan:

SAPPORO, Japan -- Deaf painter Hideto Noritomi, 39, (pictured) recently published a book titled "Shuwa de Ikitai" (I Want to Live with Sign Language) featuring 25 of his pictures.

In the book, Noritomi, of Obihiro, Hokkaido, tells part of the sad history of sign language while conveying also the joy of communicating in sign language, drawing on his own experiences.

When this reporter was interviewing Noritomi, his 5-year-old son Kazuchi returned from the kindergarten department of a school for the deaf and ran up to him. Kazuchi began to explain to his father about some cards he had received from his friends and some animation DVDs, using his small hands to communicate in sign language.

"Can this person hear?" Kazuchi asked his father in sign language, pointing to this reporter.

"Comparing him to how I was at 5, my son expresses what he wants to say and his feelings very well," Noritomi said with a smile. "I'm so happy about this, I keep talking to him all the time."

Noritomi, who was born deaf, also attended a school for the deaf. But when he attended school, it was prohibited to use sign language. Instead his deaf education focused on an oral approach at the school. Students were required to understand teachers by reading their lips and to pronounce sounds themselves.

If students used sign language, teachers would scold them by striking their hands or arms. Noritomi often cried out in frustration and hardship as he could not adequately convey what he wanted to say or read the lips of other people accurately.

Noritomi studied design and got a job at a company. He then went to Paris to study oil painting. When he was 29, he married Kazuko, now 35, who is also deaf, and began to make a living as a landscape painter.

Kazuchi was born in 2003. Noritomi decided to write a book about the history of sign language and deaf culture, in the hope that his son and others would not have to experience the same pain of being deprived of sign language that Noritomi and Kazuko had.

Japan's first school for the deaf was established in 1878 and deaf education using sign language started. However, the idea of using an oral approach to aid interaction with people who can hear later spread internationally.

In Japan, the use of sign language at schools for the deaf was banned in 1933. Noritomi's book gives a historical account of these developments with forthright language drawing on his own experiences.

"Many schools for the deaf are reluctant to educate deaf people using sign language even today," Noritomi said. "However, sign language is an important first language for deaf children that enables them to express themselves. I'd like many people to understand that."

To illustrate his book, Noritomi used oil paintings from his "Deaf Art" series, whose theme is sign language. Abstract motifs such as a bird with wings shaped like hands are beautifully depicted using blue and white as principal colors.

"I hope this book will build bridges between people who can hear and people who can't," he said.