deafhood and deaf culture

(optional: jump to notes on captioning or start reading here)

What I want to do with this post is to put together some background on myself and some of my thoughts on these things. I don’t want to feel like I’m continually harping on certain subjects and such, but I find that people interpret my unhappiness with “Deaf culture” as an attack on its legitimacy, when in reality it is something quite different. As I’m writing this for presumably a number of different audiences, including hearing folk (who may or may not have a clue about any of this subject matter) and deaf folk (who may range the gamut from oral deaf to “Deaf Panther” style deaf and everything in between), I will be defining and explaining some things that may be redundant (and in disagreement with some) just to be sure we’re all on the same train.

Warning, this is fairly long.

First of all, a quick note about Deaf culture and the big-d/little-d distinction (eg Deaf vs deaf). Generally Deaf is meant to refer to people who are part of a deaf culture and deaf refers to the physical condition of being unable to hear. Not all deaf are Deaf: obvious examples would be late-deafened people. The dividing line is very murky, though: some people regard as Deaf those deaf people who accept what they are, are proud of it, and wouldn’t change anything, whereas other people only consider native, fluent signers of American Sign Language (ASL) to be properly Deaf. My unhappiness with the entire concept/application of “Deaf culture” revolves around this gray area.

Another note about ASL: it was for years dismissed as “not a real language” by hearing folks. Plus, in the ongoing quest (mostly by hearing folks) to “educate” deaf folk, a variety of signing methods have been developed, from Signed Exact English (SEE), Pidgin Signed English (PSE), Cued Speech and others. All of these suffer from being artificial constructions and usually very cumbersome. However, in reality, ASL is a natural language as repeatedly demonstrated by research (when the blinders of discrimination are removed). It is important to remember, also, that for many decades, hearing people dictated that “oralism” was the only acceptable method to teach deaf students, in many cases punishing students for using sign language in schools (think for example of left handed students being punished for not using their right hands). Oralism has been crumbling slightly, but even so the tendency is to teach using artificial sign languages rather than ASL. Isolation (with a deaf student frequently being the only such student in his or her school) is also still very common.

Finally, let me explain “audism”. It is a (badly constructed) neologism that describes the general notion that a person’s worth is dependent on their level of hearing. Typically, it means that the more deaf a person is, the “worse” that person is. However, many people, like myself, also count as audism the discrimination oral or speaking deaf encounter among ASL signers. The issue is still level of hearing or more precisely, communication ability, whether you’re “bad” for more or less hearing/better speech or better signing.

As for my background: I was one of many “rubella babies” born in the mid sixties after the epidemic of German Measles swept the U.S. Among other possible problems, deafness is a very common outcome. This congenital deafness is sensori-neural in nature: that is, it affects either the cochlear or the auditory nerves and as such is considered untreatable and permanent. My parents did not discover that I was deaf until I was three years old. The story goes that a friend of my mother’s came over to visit and when I ignored my mother’s calls to lunch (staying glued to the TV set), her friend said to my mother, “Get her hearing tested.” My mom had thought it was just “terrible twos”, but on the other hand I wasn’t talking either. As my mother’s first child, she didn’t have earlier children to compare to. Off to the doctor’s I went, and was diagnosed profoundly deaf, with a bilateral loss of 90db.

According to my mother, once I was fitted with HA (body aids), I rapidly caught up to my age group with talking and communicating. So in my particular instance, HA and oralism happened to work very well for me. Since no one else in my family is deaf, my parents relied on the advice of doctors and the deaf educators in our area (John Tracy Clinic in LA) and first put me in private (regular) schools to see how I would do, and then “mainstreamed” me in second grade. Throughout K-12, I was always the only deaf child in school. I don’t recall it bothering me too much. It was all I knew. Sure, I have always had trouble with communication, and I am a master of social bluffing (which I never did in scholastic or work settings; I have a number of strategies for those — but socially? You absolutely can not ask for punchlines to be repeated or rapid back and forth banter to be repeated; the joke isn’t funny even to me once it’s repeated three times and no one can remember the exact flow of banter two seconds after it’s happened.)

Looking back, though it didn’t bother me at the time, one thing that drives me nuts is the “itinerant tutor” program that I was in. Up until sixth grade, I had to go once a week and do speech therapy, review progress in my class(es) and so on. I finally rebelled in sixth grade and said I didn’t need any more. You can’t practice your hearing to make it any better! For some reason these sessions resumed in my sophomore or junior year; I put up with them for about a year before announcing I just didn’t need it and wouldn’t go to them anymore. Fortunately my parents were always willing to back me up. But one reason the program makes me angry is that in third grade, the tutor I had was a pedophile. Deaf and disabled children who have extra tutors and such are especially vulnerable to this type of predation, I believe. I don’t know why more stringent background checking is done for these type of tutors, but I have heard many similar stories of predation among students with such supplementary tutors. Fortunately, he was caught and after testimony by myself and several of his other students, he was commited to a mental institution. I note this because deaf and disabled people are very often seen as easy prey.

As an introvert by nature, I think that’s why being deaf didn’t disturb me too much. Once I was older though, and started college and interacting with a wider range of people, I experienced more in the way of being brushed off (when asking for repetition of things) or outright assumptions that I was a moron and so on. So at this point, I took an ASL class. Remember, I knew nothing absolutely zero about other deaf people. I knew finger spelling, from a book. I’d read stories about Helen Keller. That was it. But I thought it would be interesting to learn. It was a class offered by one of the local student groups at the university, not an actual University class. The class was taught by a hearing person, who was an interpreter, and there were two deaf folk in there, I think as assistants. All the other students in there were hearing, and I was the only other deaf person there. Those two, when they found out I was deaf, peppered me with questions: How come you don’t know ASL? Did you think you were too good for us? You’re learning this too late. And so on and so on. I finished the course (a ten week course meeting once a week, it was a bare intro) and never went back.

After that, I completed my B.S., applied to grad school and got into a doctorate program; realised I didn’t want to go the full academic route, so got out after getting the M.S. and have worked in the industry since. I got married, got divorced, changed jobs, etc. I’ve got all kinds of interests and hobbies, but in the back of my mind this whole deaf thing has always kind of bubbled quietly. I should note that I’ve always been perfectly accepting of being deaf. I’ve never had any particular wish to be hearing. I’ve wished to be better able to understand what goes on around me, but you know, everyone has problems that they’d like to resolve or change around, and like me sometimes they can and sometimes they just can’t. You can rail about it or accept it, and in the main I’ve simply accepted it. I’ve got workarounds and strategies for most things and in the main I can make it all work. I do run into people who are just convinced I need to try harder, get better hearing aids, and so on. I learned about cochlear implants (CI) from one such person; while it sounds interesting, I’m NOT at all interested in brain surgery!! And when I realised that I really found it rather offensive that I would be so desperate to hear that I’d consent to something that sounds so invasive & dangerous, I started looking up deaf topics and such on the net. This happened to be last October, right when the Gallaudet protests started up. To briefly summarize, a woman named Jane K Fernandes (JKF) was selected to be the next president of Gallaudet; given her prior history with the deaf students and lack of overall leadership ability that students, staff AND faculty all publicly objected to, massive protests against her appointment started and lasted through the month of October until the Board of Trustees finally removed her appointment. The presidential search committee has been reopened and the search continues. During the protests, the campus was shut down by protesters, a number were arrested, and there was quite a campaign of information and disinformation waged by the protesters and Gallaudet administration. If you sift carefully through all the (dis)information, JKF’s lack of leadership and other qualities needed for a university president become clear, but there’s a lot of other noise going on. (I believe this is because there are a number of ongoing issues within the deaf community independent of this particular incident that have been boiling and bubbling for some time, and got mixed in with all this.)

Now this was a real eye-opener. I found DeafRead and through that an amazing plethora of deaf related blogs. Much of it was very interesting to read. But a lot was also very painful to read. There were many, many protesters who dropped a lot of comments regarding people who weren’t “truly” deaf. I’ve got an entire Google Notebook here of citations; I started keeping track of them after finding so many. This tendency to elitism was unscrupulously exploited by Gallaudet’s administration to explain why the students were protesting. This wasn’t actually the case, but given so much material out there, it was entirely believable, and the hearing world in the main found it easy to accept that explanation.

Let me stop for a moment and try to convey my personal feelings on encountering the more exclusionary type of Deaf culture, the type that says, if you do not fluently sign ASL, you are not one of us. (Not all people who identify as Deaf are of this mindset; but too many unfortunately are). Let me give some quotes I came across in the last two months to give you an idea of my starting point:

How stupid you are and you have been with deaf people for more than 30 years and you still cant sign well. From a protester, talking about Gallaudet President Jordan (IKJ for short)

The larger context is Jordan’s support for the ADA and the increasing amount of mainstreaming in deaf ed. Presently, 80% of students at Gally come from mainstream programs. A commenter, bemoaning the current composition of students arriving at Gallaudet; pointing out that the proposed new president supports including “these people”

let remove Fernedes and hire “full deaf” president. sentiment voiced by a protester

Gallaudet is a major center for deaf culture around the world. The people of the lower case of “deaf” (i.e.: senior citizens with hearing loss, hard of hearing who prefer to use the oralism method and know absolutely nothing about ASL or the culture, so on…) are NOT part of the Deaf culture. Those people don’t belong to Gallaudet. kinda speaks for itself; this entire page is full of a lot of back and forth on this; it’s clearly a deeply divisive topic in its own right

Not everybody who go to Gallaudet University is fluent in ASL, sign language or are completely deaf as in stone deaf. In fact, some students left Gallaudet University because they were harassed for not being “deaf enough.”

Any Deaf people not taking a consicous effort to learn ASL and forget their sorry audism-oppressed pasts and learn their native language- are doomed. These people doesn’t deserve a spot in the Deaf community.

Jane was born deaf to a hearing father and a deaf mother. She was mainstreamed throughout her youth. She learned to sign at the late age of 23. She can communicate and function like a hearing person and if I’m not mistaken, hearing people are often convinced that she’s hearing. She, like I. King Jordan, uses simcom which is the use of both sign language and spoken English. This form of communication is the corruption of ASL and that alone is reason enough for the FSSA to demand her removal from the Office of President at Gallaudet University. written by a protester, who amazingly enough also stated: I have been called an audist because I speak, regardless of the fact that I was born deaf and regardless of the fact that I graduated from MSSD. my irony meter may be damaged at this rate…

Back to recent events. Simply because Jane Fernandes didn’t go to a deaf school, didn’t learn sign language until her twenties, or any of those other complaints doesn’t make her any less of a deaf person than I am. New signers enroll at Gallaudet every year. Should they be shunned forever? Of course not. Nor should she be. I know what a lot of you are thinking. You’re thinking that the “She’s not deaf enough!” argument was invented by Dr. Fernandes and shouldn’t be brought up in a “serious” discussion. Fine. But how do you explain some of the Deaf-centric statements that have been made to argue against her selection? In the various blogs I’ve read, I’ve noticed that some — not all, but some — of Dr. Fernandes’ detractors attack her signing skills, the fact that she grew up orally, the fact that she (like Dr. Jordan) uses Simultaneous Communication (speaking and signing at the same time) rather than so-called “pure” ASL, and so on. I mean, who bloody cares if she signs and speaks at the same time, or signs with “voice-off”? Honestly! Audism, like racism and sexism, goes both ways, people. I’m not the only one who noticed the meme present in the protesters blogs…

Deafness, whether total or only partial, implies American Sign Language, although, quoting this guy may not be fair; he’s absolutely incoherent most of the time; this blog entry is pretty representive; if anyone has some light to shed on his overall point here, I’d love to hear it, But overall, his point is pretty clear, vis a vis these other quotes: Once she or he has chosen a mode of communication in the place of American Sign Language, for example, she or he cannot free herself or himself from the oppression. and But our Deaf community must define itself from within, not without. And it is not our cultural nature alone, not its difference from the Deaf-and-Hard-of-Hearing-and-Cochlear-Implan-Users-and-Hearing nature, but American Sign Language that makes us different.

From some comments I have seen in this blog it is still apparent that two groups are clashing: the “core” and the HH Community or mainstream school by-products. in a word…ouch. I’m a “by-product”??

New calls for Gallaudet to become an ASL-only campus (now courses are taught in a variety of ways, including orally) smack of a kind of new deaf elitism. While it is more than legitimate to expect students to learn ASL (as it would be for students attending the Lycée Français in the United States to learn French), there must be ways to insure that people whose ASL isn’t up to snuff don’t get snuffed out in the education process. After all, identity is a complex and fragile thing. When you try to make it ironclad and rigid, you end up enforcing the kind of identitarianism that created discriminatory behaviors in the first place. a very good point

I am totally convinced that ASL is what has been evolving for me in my Deafhood journey. It is not a question of diversity. If we were obsessed with diversity we are missing the ship. If the paddlers paddled on their own will in order to remain diverse, the ship would get nowhere. That is status quo. Deafness is not a choice; it happens in all the fairness. Ultimately the inclusiveness is what we need: Use American Sign Language exclusively so we could expect to bring our strength to our ship. I still have trouble with this guy’s logic (and check out the list at the top of this article — my irony meter just pegs out here)

Now that is what I would say is being audistic, and refusing to recognize that the Deaf community has all kinds of deaf people in it. I don’t think it’s right to force an oral deaf person to learn ASL just to get access to a vlog that should be captioned. No one still has addressed the main point I brought up here, and I shall repeat it again: If we deny captioning access to our own Deaf community, for instance, there are many Deaf people that may not be ASL-proficient to the level of Anne Marie, then how can we reasonably expect telecommunication companies to caption video podcasts of popular television media or internet videos? They’ll just tell us, “Why don’t you get a CI and learn how to cope with your hearing to understand our videos?” That’s the equivalent of what you’re telling me when you suggest that I should learn ASL to access a Deaf video as a Deaf oral person.

Here is my reaction, from the heart. I consider myself deaf. I do not consider myself some kind of “hearing wannabe”. I am at peace with what I am, and if others can’t accept that, I move on because it’s their problem not mine. But I’m no dummy; I know that the hearing world operates largely like this: If you cannot speak well enough, if you cannot hear well enough, you are deficient. You do not belong here. We will not try to remove barriers in your way (think of the fight to get close captioning on TV shows and DVDs). Well enough; it is not fair, but it is the way the hearing world works, and I fight against it, with the abilities and methods at my disposal. I support accessibility standards, I write letters demanding accessibility, I actively seek to educate people that their perception of deaf=stupid is wrong and so on. I am not a hearing person, so I understand this You Are Not Us paradigm even while I work to whittle it away.

So now I come to the deaf world. I go to deaf blogs and find vlogs in ASL. I ask for captioning or transcripts and get told to go away, or learn ASL and then come back. I find quotes like the above. I am deaf, but I’m still running into (another) You Are Not Us paradigm. And it hurts. A lot. I don’t know if I can convey that adequately. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me. People are people, whether deaf or not. Whether white or black, American or European, or any other group you care to mention. So if you have hateful hearing people, it must follow that some deaf people will be like this too.

What is especially painfully ironic about this is that I am not one of the “Deaf Culture” people because I am a victim of one of the very policies that they fight against: the use of oralism in deaf education. Think about that. Deaf Culturists label oralism (and rightly so, I think, let me be clear about that) as one of the worst ways to try and educate deaf children. Then they reject the products of that same process of education. I can learn ASL (I am in fact planning to take a class next January, having finally found one at a local community college), but I will never be native or fluent. I can’t help that, because I never learned any sign language at all as a child.

Now the argument goes that Deaf Culture is properly a culture through ASL, hence someone who does not sign is not part of this culture. I don’t have a problem with this aspect of it, I have a problem with the exclusivity practiced by some folks, who will reject those who through no fault of their own do not natively speak ASL. I have a second point in this regard, as well, as it relates back to my overall objections to this attitude. Normally, a culture is transmitted to the next generation mainly via the common language, and the exposure to other aspects of the culture via participation. Stop and consider for a moment that 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents.

This means that for a deaf culture to propagate successfully, it needs to bridge the gap between deaf people and hearing parents; between deaf people and (hearing) educators in order to reach succeeding generations. Connections to the parents is I think the most critical, because most children are five years or so by the time they enter the formal educational system, which is well past initial language and culture acquisition. As long as there are those in the deaf culture who practice this kind of exclusion, it will be very difficult to build those bridges, because there will be plenty of material available to frighten those parents away from deaf culture and to gravitate toward what they know much better — the hearing world.

I’m well acquainted with multiculturism, by the way. I’ve learned spanish, and I lived for a while in Mexico. I never found the sort of attitude among mexicans as I do among some elements of deaf culture.

Fortunately, there are more inclusive voices out there. All of this is an ongoing process, for many of us, and we’re all at different points, and also inevitably reaching different conclusions. And that, I guess, is one of the underlying points of Deafhood. Of course, now I have to go shell out some $$ for this weighty tome 😀

If you read all of this, thank you for your patience…

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2 Responses to deafhood and deaf culture

  1. Jess says:

    Hey there, I have just been introduced to the Deaf culture through my studies in Social Work and was really interested in reading your views, thanks so much for sharing, and best of luck with your ASL course.

  2. Brett says:

    This seems to ring a bell with my own experiences. I was born deaf, to hearing parents, and was mainstreamed schooled. I can hear with the help of hearing aids, and I use lip reading to guide me along when talking to people. When I was younger, I did learn a little bit of sign language, but mostly just small words and the alphabet; I did not stick with this as I personally WANTED to be able to talk. I think I spent a year at a deaf school before eventually going mainstream (I started out in a disability unit, then incorporated slowly into hearing classes, until I was comfortable enough to do this full time with the help of an aide and understanding teachers).
    I’m now 24, and I feel exactly like you do – stuck between 2 worlds; the hearing world and the deaf world. I don’t fit into either so I feel slightly exiled.
    Fortunately I have very understanding friends who don’t care if I’m deaf. I still do struggle to survive in the hearing world sometimes and it does make me despair, but I have no choice. I feel no connection at all to deaf culture and have tried learning sign language again (to no avail – I can’t manage to make myself use simplified grammar and try to sign every word, including the words that there are no signs for).
    As exiled as I feel, I think it’s important that I learnt to be able to survive in the hearing world, because I can’t spend my life trapped in some small group of people and not being able to cope by myself outside of it. That said, if a cure came along for deafness, I’d definitely take it. I have also viewed being deaf as a disability (it literally is, there’s no mistake about it – I’m a realist) and there IS something wrong with me; my ears don’t work.