Fellows Friday TED Fellows

Signs of friendship: A conversation between Christine Sun Kim & Renée Hlozek

Above, Christine Sun Kim and Renée Hlozek share a snippet of conversation using American Sign Language and the Big Words app. Christine has been teaching Renée American Sign Language so they can communicate more directly.

Renée Hlozek is a cosmologist from South Africa who studies the cosmic microwave background, radiation left over from the Big Bang. Christine Sun Kim is a deaf artist who investigates the relationships between sound and silence. What could they possibly have to talk about?

When the two TED Senior Fellows first met at TED2013, the pair decided to try and communicate with each other directly as much as possible using American Sign Language (ASL). Kim attends TED with ASL interpreters and often relies on text, such as the app Big Words, to communicate. In the last two years, Hlozek has continued learning ASL to better communicate with Kim. Here at TED2015, we asked them to let us in on their friendship — and to tell us more about how Hlozek’s insistence on learning ASL has affected their relationship. Read the interview below, then watch the videos above for some simple ASL lessons between the two.

Renée Hlozek: When I met CK, I wanted to be able to communicate better on my own, like if the interpreter wasn’t around” But the more I got to know her, and thought about it. I realized:  if I don’t learn sign language, how involved am I in our relationship? Or rather, how am I communicating that involvement in our relationship? It became much more of an imperative for me, rather than a fun thing to do.

Christine Sun Kim: That’s why I appreciate our relationship and what’s it’s evolved into. You serve as a reminder for me that ASL is fundamental to my being. In the art world I’m often interacting with people that don’t know ASL, so I rely on textual communication, be it BIG words or email and electronic communication. But I’m signing less in my everyday life, and that’s a pity.

RH: I think it’s really important that the tools improve your ability to interact with random strangers and make your access to the world much larger. But at the same time, it makes it much easier for hearing people to pretend you’re not deaf and pretend you don’t sign.

I have the technology to type to you. It’s easy – but then I’m always looking at the screen, not at you — and there’s a delay because you have to read and then type in the response. I much prefer when you sign, because it’s all your personality, all the time, and it’s very visible. That’s why I like ASL. Even though the interpreters are fantastic — it’s different for me when you and I sign. It’s different, right? Do you feel isolated sometimes, behind the texting and the interpreters?

CSK: I’m not sure if I would say isolated… maybe I feel a bit less connected on interaction level, but that’s reality. I can’t expect that everyone will learn ASL.

RH: I’m militant. THEY MUST!

CSK:  That’s right. You’re fighting for me! <laughs> But the reason I focus on textual means of communication is that it makes it easier for hearing people to interact with me. Especially in the art world, I feel I can go to places far and wide if I meet them where they’re at, rather than them meeting me where I’m at.

RH: I kind of want to be an ally. Sometimes I see it’s difficult for you to see your interpreter, or someone doesn’t appreciate that if they slow down when they speak it will help you. Just little things. People are lazy, because they know if they mess up, YOU can get out the Big Words app, and it will be okay. But that’s not fair, because you do all the work.

CSK: I think I also have this messed-up idea about how the world should perceive me. I want the world to treat me as “normal,” but sometimes that comes at a cost. But sometimes when people treat me just like everyone else, I’m actually losing information, or denied access to information.

For example, when the interpreter is present, I’m treated as just another person at an event. People view that accommodation as “filling in the gap” — but that’s not enough, because placement of the interpreters, and thus where I can sit, is restricted. I do need some flexibility in terms of accommodation that allow me to access the environment.

RH: I like what you just said about redefining “normal.” Why is it not normal that I learn to sign? If you were French and I wanted to talk to you, I would learn French. I would think about it. But because you’re Deaf it’s a BIG thing that I’m doing. People say to me, “Why are you learning ASL?” and I say, “Because my friend speaks ASL.” It’s a no-brainer.

CSK: Yeah, what is normal anyway? One great thing is that you are very active in asking for signs, “What’s the sign for this?” Sometimes I’ll remind you to sign when we’re out. But also it’s become the norm that if you don’t know a sign, you will ask for it.

I think my attitude has changed in terms of how I interact with people because of your willingness to learn ASL. Because you are so assertive in your learning I have to learn to put the phone away to make sure I’m signing with you. And I appreciate that, even if it takes a bit longer to get through a conversation. So much more information get across, and it helps us connect better because we are looking at each other.

RH: Sometimes I feel shy because it’s super slow and you’re very patient. Like when I’m spelling… you’re like…ugh… and you wait for me, but I like it because it forces me to learn.

CSK: You always say, “Thank you for being patient.” But you are also patient when you’re communicating with me, so it’s a two-way street.

I’ve noticed that when I text with someone for four or five days at a conference, our relationship is temporary and can be superficial. But when I sign with someone like you, someone motivated to learn ASL, I develop a deeper and more meaningful relationship and friendship because you took the time to connect with me on my level.

Rooming with you has given me the opportunity to learn about myself, too. Sometimes we have opposite schedules, so I’ll be coming into the room after you’re already asleep. And I had warned you to bring earplugs because of my snoring.

RH: One funny thing is, you are very considerate about making noise. You sent me an email saying, “I snore a bunch,” so I brought earplugs. But I’ve never needed to use them. Also you woke up really early one morning but were typing super softly. It’s interesting because I think your understanding is that any noise will wake me — or you just entrenched consideration about not wanting to make noise.

CSK: It’s because I’m obsessed with the range and volume of sound. I don’t know if something is loud or something is quiet. But at the same time, how people hear and perceive sound vary. So I don’t know if that typing sound wouldn’t bother you, but might bother another hearing person. I have to figure out how to accommodate your sound needs. … I just wanna be a good hotel roommate!

It’s interesting — David Eagleman just spoke [watch his talk,  “Can we create new senses for humans?”] about the advancements that have been made with sensory technology, and now there’s a vest that can translate sound (or speech) into vibration patterns. Which was really cool. And I have to say, I fell for it. Then I looked at you and said “That’s a politically smart move.” Because with cochlear implants, the Deaf community can be vocal about their opposition of the device. But now, David Eagleman, has shifted the focus from the ear to sense of touch and these vibration patterns. But then you came in with your observations.

RH: I said no. It’s making it the Deaf person’s problem. “You must perceive sound.” So that means a hearing person has even less reason to learn ASL.

CSK: Right. And then I caught myself. Why should I receive training on how to recognize speech through vibration patterns? I’m falling into that same behavioral trap again. The vest is mediating communication, but the problem is that it’s only mediating it one way, making the hearing person understood by me. Still, I was thinking that vest could be a cool tool in terms how to localize sound. For example, if someone came in from behind me making a sound, I could receive a vibration pattern alerting me to that, and I would be able to localize.

RH: That’s actually why I subtitle videos. I want to make sure all people can watch my science videos. I want everyone to have access to them by default. We often talk about “helping” Deaf people. But I don’t want to help you. I want to include you. I want you and other Deaf people to learn science. And astronomy.

CSK: But also I mean, both Deaf people and hearing people have privilege. And all people benefit from accessible design.

RH: True.

CSK: [teaching Renee how to sign TRUE]

RH: And false is?

CSK: [teaches Renee how to sign FALSE]