An Invitation to Silence: My Perspective as a Deaf Tour Guide

February 17, 2015Tali Zino-Elimelech

I remember the day as if it was yesterday. In an online forum, I read an advertisement that said that the Children’s Museum in Holon was looking for deaf guides, fluent in sign language, for “an innovative project.” I was surprised to learn that they were looking for deaf individuals because I am familiar with a different world – a world in which I must omit the word “deaf” from my résumé or make a point of mentioning that I am able to communicate well with the hearing world, that I can speak and understand spoken language fairly well because a great deal of lip-reading practice has proven to be extremely useful.

Much to my surprise, my interviewers at the museum understood me; they didn’t look at me wondering how I, a person who is deaf, would fit in. Rather, they asked about my perception of the world as a deaf person, giving my voice a place to be heard.

The vision of the museum’s innovative project, An Invitation to Silence, was amazing: Visitors would be invited to take a rare glimpse into the sensorial way that those who are deaf experience the world. For 90 minutes, they would wear completely soundproof headphones and be led by a guide who is deaf through a series of exercises that require them to find new ways to communicate and rely on their other senses.

Still, I had my doubts. I wondered how visitors would receive us guides, a group so accustomed to being looked down upon and to hearing sarcastic comments: “As usual, the deaf person will not put in effort.” “The deaf person will have difficulties.” “She is handicapped.”

After a series of challenging and empowering training sessions, simulations, and lectures, the museum launched An Invitation to Silence. My first days as a guide are etched in my memory: I am leading a group of hearing individuals, encouraging them to participate, and I am finding a way to communicate with them. They stand opposite me, open mouthed, amazed and expressing interest. The tour ends at the dialogue room – a personal climax. The visitors take their headphones off, and I tell them my story. I answer questions, shatter myths, enrich their world, and change their perspective. I am there, opposite them, opening a window to my world.

I have the power to change things, even slightly. Every person who leaves the exhibition and views things in our world a bit differently is a success for me.  The experience is so strong, so productive.

I am a person with many identities – a deaf person, a daughter of deaf parents, a mother, a woman, a wife. Deafness is strongly expressed in all of these identities, yet for the first time, I can put my deafness in a secondary place and allow other things to be expressed, too. My world isn’t sliced in two when I arrive at work. My world is one.

Since joining the exhibition, my position has changed. I was promoted from tour guide to senior guide, and later, I became the head of the An Invitation to Silence exhibition. My role may seem trivial to outsiders, but it isn’t to me. As someone who underwent a complicated journey, I am aware of our society’s difficulties in including deaf people in management positions. Now, I sit on the other side, holding the responsibility for the exhibition in my hands.

Not only does the crowd benefit from being exposed to a different type of experience, but the deaf guides also benefit from seeing themselves differently. Guides approach me and tell their stories; each one has experienced a complicated journeyin an effort to integrate into society without standing out. The guides realize that at the exhibition, their unique perspective is required. It is a place where they can be themselves, use their natural language – sign language – and still be approachable and understood. It is a place where their specialty in a different form of communication is positive.

This revolution shakes their world. They succeed in bringing their families to better understand them and accept them as they are. They themselves dare to feel comfortable with their differences. This is a complex journey, and An Invitation to Silence is such an important milestone in the lives of all these people, many of whom become whole from their participation in it.

Around them, the rest of the staff at the Children’s Museum also is undergoing a change in their way of thinking. People are naturally used to homogeneity, so the deep understanding of the importance of heterogeneity to society is a productive change for them as well.

May this journey go on and on.

Tali Zino-Elimelech is the director of the An Invitation to Silence exhibition at the Children’s Museum in Holon, Israel. Tali holds a B.A. in Economics and Life Sciences. Tali is a deaf woman, a spouse, and a mother to Roi and Lidor.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.

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