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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Crossing the Divide: Representations of Deafness in Biography

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The human need for heroes exists just as strongly for people with disabilities who, until recently, lacked heroes and a voice. Thomas Couser believes that life-writing genres are particularly useful. But disability and illness narratives present particular challenges to a genre that, as we have seen, is already quite complex. The issues that Couser seeks to explore include how such narratives get written at all, given the disadvantaged position of the protagonists; and how can one make a coherent narrative out of such lives.15

Couser especially laments the rareness of deaf biography and autobiography. Although the study of marginalization with regard to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation has become quite prevalent, illness and disability studies have been slow to develop. Yet, as Couser asserts, this is the most widespread kind of marginalization.

He rightly points, however, to great progress in making the deaf community and its issues more visible, beginning with a deaf Renaissance initiated by William Stokoe’s 1960 Sign Language Structure. Stokoe’s research legitimated American Sign Language and the Deaf Pride and Deaf Empowerment movements in the 1970s that culminated in the Deaf President Now uprising at Gallaudet University in 1988 and the installation of the university’s first deaf president.

Within the deaf community, there are powerful cultural impediments to autobiographical and biographical narratives. The deaf community has continued to be somewhat segregated. Its cohesion and use of a different language, American Sign Language (ASL), has had the important value of forging community among deaf people, but this has complicated the process of reconnecting to mainstream hearing society. As with the languages of all oral cultures, ASL is unable to function as a written language. Thus, autobiography and biography of deaf lives must be written and published in the language of the majority hearing society.

Once written, the question arises as to how to classify these stories. Should deaf narratives be considered part of the new genre of disability studies? Do they belong in the category of minority group studies? The Deaf empowerment movement has been accompanied by the growing belief by many deaf and hearing people that the deaf community represents an oppressed linguistic and cultural minority. To many deaf people, deafness is not a medical condition that requires a cure. According to Couser, the obstacles to literary self-representation and representation of the deaf create a problem. Continued segregation will encourage the ongoing perception of deafness as a disability, rather than as a cultural/linguistic minority. However, all narratives of deaf lives offer a counterdiscourse that disables “stereotypes of disability” merely by the act of giving voice to deaf experiences.16 The importance of these narratives lies in the portrayal of the life into which disability enters and intrudes, imposing marginality on the deaf person and how the deaf person deals with that state. For deaf people, the depiction of their own marginality similarly serves as an agent of their recovery and the recovery of a narrow society, in addition to being a means of self-expression.

In spite of the need to rethink the concept of life writing (including biography, autobiography, diary, and memoir) in its application to disability and deafness narratives, these genres that are “located on the borders of the literary”17 are genres that are especially appropriate to individuals who are marginalized and, consequently, on the borders of society, according to Couser. Memoirs and autobiographies of deafness, in particular, seem to be entering a richer period. Each narrative offers a new view of the ways in which deafness can impact on life experience and interact with other factors, both physical and cultural: “Signing individuals have been given lasting and memorable traces on paper.”18

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