Wednesday, November 28, 2007

From earthworms to Starbucks, Josh Swiller speaks to Gallaudet University

Just a quick note: Yes, Josh Swiller is a real life person, not a Deaf Character. I know that. With the picture below as proof, I didn't think he was a figment. But he is quite a character so this book is being included on this blog.
Josh Swiller made a fan out of me yesterday during his presentation “Deafness, Africa, and the Peace Corps”. After all, how can you not love a man who admits that he used to sleep through English class (but loved reading), ate fried earthworms in Africa (and said they tasted like popcorn), admitted that three pairs of underwear was all that was really needed during a two-year stay in the Peace Corps (frankly, he seemed more concerned about how many hearing aid batteries he would be bringing) and is full of sarcastic little comments and strange factoids (for instance, the former Zambian President Kaunda is an avid ballroom dancer and was a member of the audience for an episode on Dancing with the Stars)!

I’m not sure where to begin because I’m not sure he knew where to start. He sort of began by explaining the title of his book, The Unheard. He revealed that there are three significant meanings to the title but unfortunately he only told us one meaning after losing his train of thought. In his defense, his train (pun intended) arrived late and he showed up to the presentation just in the nick of time; there were some technology glitches that needed to be solved before his presentation could begin; and how could he begin his lecture without being promptly provided with a cup of coffee?!? Who can blame an un-caffeinated man for being a little distracted?

The “unheard”, he explained, refers to the cues that he, as a deaf person, missed. Not just “not hearing” but the missed conversations, the things that he as a deaf person just couldn’t catch or somehow missed. Josh (he seems casual enough for me to call him by his first name) explained that he never felt connected so he went to Yale in hopes of finding what he was missing. He didn’t find the illusive “it” at Yale. He said, “The more accomplished the professor, the worse their manners”. In a side note, I’d like to mention that I was the one who finally poured his coffee when no one else bothered to assist him. Following his logic, I must not be that accomplished. Nevertheless, he explained that he had professors who consistently would lecture with their backs to students while writing on chalk boards. This was not the best learning environment for an individual attempting to lipread.

After graduating from Yale, he went to Gallaudet hoping that once again and perhaps by being surrounded with other deaf people he would feel connected. Even after learning American Sign Language, he didn’t feel like he belonged. He explains, "To the hearing people, I was deaf; to the deaf people, I was hearing."

Josh said that he wanted to find a place so intense that deafness and belonging would be irrelevant... so he joined the Peace Corps. Because he communicates best in a one-on-one environment, the exact nature of the Peace Corps interview, his “deafness” never even came up. He was accepted, trained and then as part of a group of eight volunteers headed to Zambia. Josh shared that he was initially concerned about learning the language. After all, he was the only deaf guy, right. Yet, within the group of volunteers, Josh became the second-best language learner. And while some of the other volunteers just couldn’t make a connection with the villagers, Josh almost instantly made these connections. He believes that his “deafness was a benefit” because by being deaf he had learned to focus on people (for lipreading purposes); he had learned how to become an assertive communicator; and, because being deaf and having a younger brother and a cousin who are deaf, he “knew how to have a connection without words”.

While in Zambia, Josh learned how to run quickly (after all, he accidentally stepped on a black mamba, the second largest, venomous snake in the world); he learned how the villagers believed in witchcraft (when asked if he believed, he laughed and said “No” while simultaneously knocking on the wood table); and, he learned how to appreciate what is truly important in his life. During the rainy season, he said that approximately three people would die daily from diseases. Even Josh, who didn’t like to take his preventative pills, got Malaria and was told that for hours during his hallucinations he sang the dreidel song that he had learned in his childhood.

“Africans embraced each day with complete joy even though they got a raw deal”. This helped him put his own “raw deal” in perspective. He explained, “Having a sense of humor when things are at their worst is really important.” He joined the Peace Corps because they “get you outside of yourself”. When a student in the audience seemed hesitant about joining the Peace Corps because of all the differences, Josh said, “In Africa, you lose everything you know. It’s out the window!... that is a gift.” Now after the experience, he steps back during his day-to-day occurrences and asks himself, “How important is this?”

Another student who mentioned her concern about joining the Peace Corps was that when the volunteers came home they usually couldn’t find jobs. Josh smiled and said that three weeks after returning home he became a Zen Monk for a few years. When an audience member asked him to compare his feelings of his deafness before his Africa experience and about how he feels about his deafness now, he sipped his coffee and replied, “It’s an irrelevant word”. In Zen practice, he learned that what keeps us back is how we define ourselves. At the end of the day, we should drop the labels and ask, “Was I kind? Did I love well? Did I keep my heart open? Deafness is not that important… it’s how we’re open”.

The presentation was well-attended. Afterwards, I was able to chat with him for a few moments and secure a future interview with him. He signed with individuals in one-on-one situations but had explained when he began the presentation that for lectures he prefers to speak.

He was charming, witty, and because this blog is for a younger (and younger at heart) audience, I had to leave out the racy side comments (which only made me adore him more) because they just weren’t “PG”.

For more information about Josh Swiller or to buy his book, visit his website:


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Sharon Pajka,Ph.D. said...

Jodi, I did relay your message about Josh needing to blog more. He just smiled and said, "Sharon, I'm lazy".

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