Julia, the main character of You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner, is a Deaf teen girl who is creative, artistic, and passionate. She can be sulky and vengeful when she feels she has been wronged, but she is also caring and fiercely loyal to the few that she considers friends. And she is an authentic portrayal of deafness.
I don’t know how the author started learning American Sign Language or about the culturally Deaf signing community. She acknowledges four sensitivity readers who shared their insights about Deaf/deaf and hard-of-hearing people and sign interpreters — not even counting her ASL tutor and mentor in Deaf culture. It’s obvious that her research has been extensive. It shows in the detail she incorporates throughout her novel. She knows that sign language interpreters should never have long painted fingernails (because it can make signing harder to understand and an eyestrain to follow during a long lecture). And she knows there exist a few interpreters who wear them anyway. Julia, like many Deaf people whose American Sign Language (ASL) is stronger than their English, writes English with a strong dose of ASL sentence structure and idiomatic expressions, such as spelling “TB” to mean “Too bad!” Another detail I liked is that Julia learns a lot about sounds that she cannot hear by reading closed captions in television and film — just like me and other deaf people.
Again similar to Julia’s experience, microaggressions are as common as breathing in the lives of many deaf people. I can relate with Julia’s cynical assessment that most hearing people who promise to learn ASL “bail” when they realize that it is as challenging as any other language. Hearing people make silly assumptions about deaf people, like Julia’s new friend “YP” thinking that Julia being deaf should give her extra talent in art. Many hearing people talk to Julia’s interpreter instead of directly to her, or refuse to accommodate her communication access needs. This makes it easy to understand why Mr. Katz becomes the only teacher with whom Julia feels any real connection. Their shared passion for art is part of it, but not the only reason. He also understands how to use an ASL interpreter correctly, and he always finds ways to overcome the communication challenge when the interpreter isn’t available. When he shares music with the hearing students in class, he gives Julia all the printed lyrics and even draws pictures related to the lyrics in the margins.
One aspect of this book that I especially liked is the nuanced approach Whitney Gardner uses in portraying the language skills of the characters. For Julia, English is her second language: when she types a text message or writes to a non-signing hearing person, the reader can see that her grammar is not always correct. When Julia or her Deaf parents are signing in ASL, though, this is depicted in English translation similar to most foreign language conversations in books for English-reading audiences. Because this English is actually a translation of Deaf people communicating in their own native language, it is fluent and grammatically correct. Meanwhile, the ASL of neophyte signers like YP is not so fluent or well-articulated. The author shows their awkward ASL by translating the signs into awkward English. Readers are therefore allowed to see for themselves that all characters — like most real-life people — are fluent and articulate when able to express themselves in their native language. The characters only sound inarticulate or awkward when struggling to use a language that doesn’t come naturally to them, whether English or ASL.
Deaf people in society are often stereotyped as being less intelligent — and this is especially the case for Deaf people who are more fluent in ASL than in English, or who don’t usually speak. (Of course, the assumption that “lower intelligence” is necessarily bad is itself ableist, and some argue that the whole concept of “intelligence” is ableist as well.) Non-signing people only see the awkwardness of their English and cannot see how beautifully they might express their thoughts in their own native language. Whitney Gardner helps challenge this biased thinking by helping readers see for themselves that all of us sound less articulate if forced to communicate in a language only partly learned. Most fictional deaf characters seem to have no difficulty with English. Some of us certainly have an excellent grasp of English, including me; my English is better than my ASL. It’s still very refreshing to see a Deaf character similar to many Deaf people I have known who are eloquent in ASL but must work harder in English.
One of my biggest annoyances about most deaf characters in the media is that too many of them are unrealistically skilled in lipreading. Although lipreading champs do exist, even they still miss some things and have to work hard just to keep up with the conversation. I can understand why so many writers fall into the temptation of creating lipreading champs as deaf characters. It can be challenging to realistically show how deaf people must ask others to repeat themselves or write it down over and over without bogging down the dialogue and action. Exaggerating how much a deaf person can realistically understand from lipreading makes it easier to evade these challenges, but it can also give hearing audiences misleading impressions about how haphazardly lipreading works for most deaf people in real life.
Julia does occasionally lipread a little — but also misses a lot, and really needs for others to either sign or write to her most of the time, just like many real-life deaf people. Many fictional deaf characters also fall into one of two extremes in relation to speaking ability. Some speak almost perfectly — which is realistic, even expected, if they were able to hear for most of their childhood before becoming deaf, but is less likely (though not impossible) if they became deaf very early in their childhood. At the other extreme, some deaf characters seem physically incapable of speaking at all. In real life, although some deaf people really are full-time non-speaking people or else nearly perfect speakers, most of us fall into a wide spectrum somewhere in between. Julia mostly doesn’t speak, but does occasionally speak a few words. Her skill levels with regards to ASL and English fit her family environment: Both of Julia’s mothers are Deaf. Like 90 percent of their real-world counterparts, most fictional deaf characters have hearing families, but I found Gardner’s choice of writing a Deaf character with Deaf parents refreshing because Deaf children of Deaf parents rarely receive representation.
There a few deaf-related nitpicks I could make. It is implied at the start of the book, for example, that a principal would have to have good sign skills in order to be hired at a school for deaf students. This may be true for the best-quality deaf schools. In real life, though, many principals and teachers at schools for deaf students do not sign as fluently as they should. There is also one scene in the book where Julia reportedly feels the vibrations of a man’s voice through the air. Although it is certainly possible to pick up the vibrations of, say, an immensely loud rock concert in your chest via the air, I usually can only feel the vibrations of a person’s voice if I am touching the person’s chest or back.
At one point, Julia describes an insensitive store clerk as “ableist.” I always love seeing a character use this word because it’s a word that most non-disabled people don’t know and I want more people to learn what it means. Given that Julia and her mothers seem to have little or no contact with the wider cross-disability community outside of the signing Deaf community, though, I would think that she would be more likely to use the word “audist.” The word “audist” is often used among culturally Deaf signing people, even if it is not yet used often in the wider cross-disability community.
However, none of these minor issues are important enough to detract from the overall high authenticity of how Whitney Gardner portrays deafness.
Other types of marginalized identities are also included in the book: both Julia and her birth mother are of Indian heritage, and, as mentioned, Julia has same-sex parents. Being white, I cannot speak to how well Whitney Gardner handles the former, but as a woman married to a woman, I had no personal concerns with how Julia’s mothers were presented.
My overall rating for this book is two thumbs up.