Hands: Silent Yet Speaking

"I'm moved by Saint Sebastian's bound hands as symbols of linguistic oppression."—Emmanuel von Schack, educator and ASL user

Master of the Furies (Austrian). Saint Sebastian, 17th century. Ivory and kingwood socle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Fund, Walter and Leonore Annenberg Acquisitions Endowment Fund, and Mr. and Mrs. J. Tomilson Hill and Hester Diamond Gifts, 2013 (2013.36). Learn more about this object.

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Emmanuel von Schack: Seeing Saint Sebastian's hands bound to the tree is sad, heartbreaking, but for ASL users the impact is even stronger because hands are necessary for our communication. There has been a longstanding controversy over the best approach for educating deaf students. There is a contingent that staunchly supports the use of ASL and visual communication, and at the other end of the spectrum are those who advocate speech only and, in effect, bind the hands of those who wish to sign.

Those who sign ASL but have also experienced oppression of their language may have a more visceral response to this piece, consciously or subconsciously. Unfortunately, there have been many instances of deaf people arrested and their hands cuffed, leaving them unable to communicate, which is quite serious.

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