TEDxUCLA 2018: Waves
Sign language is my superpower
Austin Vaday is a software engineer, innovator, and entrepreneur. After becoming deaf at the age of 3 , Austin has proved to the world that disabilities are super-powers, not disadvantages. At only 17 years of age, Austin experienced his first of four software engineering internships at NASA and Amazon. When he was 19 years old, Austin co-founded a startup, Aquaint, a tool for social media discovery and organization. Currently a Computer Science student at UCLA, his technical skill-set includes web, iOS, and backend development. In May 2017, Austin started Signs For Humanity, a social media initiative that seeks to spread the beauty of sign language with all of humanity. In just 6 short months, his educational videos have generated over 3.5 million views and have been watched from all around the world. Some say that Austin’s true talent is not in his technical ability, but in his ability to inspire and motivate others.”
I want you all to think back to when you were eight years old. I want you to imagine yourself sitting at a dinner table with your family and friends on Thanksgiving. Your siblings are laughing, your parents are smiling, everyone around you is talking to each other and having a great time. But you’re not because you live in a world of silence.
Your uncle cracks a hilarious joke that causes your cousin to laugh so hard he spills milk out of his nose. But wait, what was the joke? You lean to the left and ask the person sitting next to you only to be told, “Eh, it’s not important. I’ll tell you later.”
So what do you do? Phase one: you pretend to follow along in conversations with fake laughs and smiles. Phase two: you get tired of faking your emotions and slowly begin to separate yourself from the table. Phase three: you escape reality completely and immerse yourself into a world of your own imagination.
This is my story, and this is the story of millions of Deaf and Hard of Hearing children out there in the world today. I lost most of my hearing at the age of three and gradually became deaf over a span of five years.
A healthy form of communication did not exist with my friends and family. I missed out on the daily conversations, the back-and-forth jokes and the friendships formed out of such bonding episodes. And even though I looked all right on the outside, my internal suffering remained invisible to most.
My language, my learning abilities were hindered compared to those of my peers. I felt lonely. I felt like something was missing. I never felt a human connection. But all of this changed when I started learning American Sign Language at the age of 12.
The very first thing I learned in ASL was the sign for “I love you.” It’s a simple sign that combines the letters I, L and Y. And this sign alone was enough to convince me that this visual language, with its own complex grammatical structure, was indeed a beautiful language.
For the first time in my life I interacted with people like me that relied on the visual rather than on the auditory. Through sign language I was granted equal access to education. I finally felt like I was part of a community. A world that was once black-and-white to me slowly became colorful.
About three years ago, my baby cousin Julius lost all of his hearing to meningitis. Julius, I want you to know that there’s a beautiful language, a wonderful community, and a rich and vibrant culture that awaits you. Julius, I need you to know that although you may be different, it doesn’t make you any less of a human being. Julius inspired me to start Signs for Humanity, a social media initiative with a simple goal: to spread awareness of the beauty of sign language.
A few months ago, I created a video on Facebook where I taught ten signs that every parent should teach their babies, whether they are hearing or deaf. These signs allow for babies to communicate effectively with their parents nearly six months before being able to even speak. And the response was phenomenal. The video had over 4 million views and thousands of reactions.
So many parents were supportive of their hearing babies learning signs to communicate early on, and that is fantastic. But what I slowly realized was that it’s quite the opposite for deaf babies. About 90 percent of deaf babies are born into hearing families. The harsh reality is that parents tend to look at their deaf children and panic. Of course they want the best for their children and are oftentimes advised to force their deaf children to learn how to speak and listen, to be normal, even when doing so is detrimental to the child’s critical period of language development and acquisition.
But listen to this: Deafness is not the limitation. The limitation is the lack of awareness in today’s society. Society tells us that we are broken. Society tells us that we need to be fixed. Society tells us that if you cannot hear, you can’t be successful. But let me show you what we should do instead.
I’d like to introduce two individuals that I truly admire: Edgar and Maribel Pineda. Their six-year-old son E.J. was born deaf. They knew nothing about American Sign Language and nothing at all about the deaf community, but nevertheless, they sought to be educated. In essence, their actions can be illustrated as follows.
Instead of forcing our deaf child to be part of our hearing community, let us cultivate a community around him with sign language. Let us foster him with the love, support, and access to language that he needs to truly be successful in life. Let us lead by example and show him that if he puts his mind to it he can change the world, because in our eyes he is not disabled. He is differently abled.
Now the main reason why I’m on this stage speaking to you with my voice instead of signing to you with my hands is because I feel the need to personally reach out to you all in your language and ask you to come and embrace mine.
Did you know that millions of people all over the world use some form of sign language unique to their location and culture? Millions of people out there in the world that can communicate from afar, underwater, and even through windows. Millions of people out there in the world that are living their daily lives like you and I, striving for greatness.
Let me tell you something: the innate beauty of sign language is that it allows for us to express ourselves with not just our hands, but with our face and body in a creative, three-dimensional way. It provides a medium of meaningful and effective communication, not only for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, but for our friends on the autism spectrum and for our friends with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.
Sign language is my superpower. It gave me the opportunity to increase my knowledge of the world and to form meaningful human connections.
I want you to know that sign language impacts the lives of millions of people all over the world. I want you to know that it’s important for us to empower one another and embrace our differences. I want you to know that we’re not broken. We’re bonded together by this beautiful language and unique culture.
As I prepare to walk off this stage, I need you all to understand that we are all the leaves of one tree and the drops of one ocean. It’s time for us to use our superpowers, whatever they may be, to soar through the skies together and advance humanity farther than we have ever imagined.