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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf and Disability Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives
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In very practical ways, this need to address basic survival issues historically has pushed deaf Nigerians to try to assimilate to hearing (nondisabled) norms rather than to stand aside and create their own communities. For example, most deaf people spoke orally or tried to learn to speak. The majority languages in Nigeria emphasized speech, so if individuals wanted to communicate with others or get a job to earn a living, spoken language skills were necessary. Those who were unable to speak orally definitely faced disadvantages. In more recent years people in my country of origin have celebrated “deaf awareness days” and “deaf pride” type events, but these have not been as radical as in the U.S. There’s no rejecting the majority hearing culture, for instance. The closest analogy I can think of is the historic racial hierarchy in America. For generations, black people with lighter skin generally fared better, because they more closely resembled the white ideal. For deaf Nigerians, advantages have been bestowed on those who are more hard of hearing than deaf, on those who possessed oral speech abilities over those who do not.

In this non-Western context especially, being deaf and having a disability were inextricably linked. Deafness was, by definition, a disability: the inability to use one of the five basic senses (hearing). Scholars and activists have argued passionately that deaf is strictly a cultural phenomenon, but I would say that is in addition to the disability, not separate from it. I don’t view these identities and conditions as in conflict with one another: Being deaf is a disability and, because of language issues, it is a culture at the same time. For people in developing countries, it simply has not been possible to fully separate disability from culture, or culture from disability. Our societies viewed (and still view) deaf people as disabled, and while some may prefer to ignore this, the situation is similar even in the United States. Invoking disability status in recent decades, for example, has benefited American deaf people, who can demand accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act, receive preferential status during hiring searches, and pay less money for various services, such as metro fares and video phone use. Gaining the medical label of deaf or hard of hearing has allowed deaf people in America and beyond to attend specialized primary and secondary schools and to attend Gallaudet University for free or very nearly so.

Race also plays an important part in identity, although those pursuing Deaf and Disability Studies have not fully recognized this. When I lived in Nigeria my racial identity was virtually invisible because everyone with whom I came into contact was black. In 1986 I moved to Washington, DC, to attend Gallaudet University. In this new context, race took on completely different meaning. For example, when I shared stories of activities with others from the deaf community, my African-American deaf friends would regularly ask me to clarify whether my compatriots were white or black. This confused me at first and I often found that I hadn’t registered other people’s race. Living in America, I gained a different kind of deaf cultural identity: a racialized one, in which I was in the minority.

The profound ways race infuses the American sense of self became even more clear to me after a recent family trip back to Nigeria. My American-born and raised children were repeatedly struck by race. “EVERYONE IS BLACK!” was the first thing my daughter said, followed by a question, “Where are all the white people?” The expectation of being a minority, of being “othered” to a certain degree, is a pervasive part of being a person of color in the United States. When contexts shift, however, so do identities. After a while, my children became accustomed to life in Nigeria, and their Americanized racial expectations receded. I think even within America the meaning of race has been malleable. In 2008, the people elected a black President, and he has since selected cabinet members of color, potentially changing stereotypes about what national figures look like; migrations of peoples over the years mean that we encounter diverse races and ethnicities at the intersections of cities on a daily basis. In many ways the impact of globalization has blurred the lines of identity, complicating the notion and experience of race—and deaf and disability—as national boundaries become more porous.

That blurring of lines has personal meaning to me. Often, Western Deaf Studies scholars emphasize the linguistic part of deaf culture, which can sometimes seem to advocate using sign language over all other languages. Living in Nigeria and America, I have acquired facility in multiple languages, which has been a boon to me. I wouldn’t be who I am without that ability. For example, my parents came from two different linguistic groups (i.e., tribes) so their families spoke different languages. In my family we spoke both languages plus English, right from our earliest days. Admittedly, I haven’t spoken my father’s heritage language, Hausa, since my father died when I was fifteen, and I did not return to the North, where others communicated in his language. My mother moved back to her Southern homeland twenty years ago and now lives with me, and so I communicate with her primarily in her language, Yoruba. My mother can speak English but we both feel more comfortable using Yoruba. If I couldn’t speak that language, my ability to talk with my own mother would be severely limited.

Having facility in multiple languages—signed and spoken—enables me to interact better when I meet new people, too. Code switching—shifting languages—has proven to be especially valuable when I visit other countries. Exposure to multiple languages has made me open to new languages and new experiences, helping me communicate with people in some way and on some level, whether I actually speak their language or not. For example, in 1987, a couple of friends and I traveled through Europe. None of us had command of any of the local languages, but we got along perfectly fine with all the people we met along the way who spoke French, Dutch, Italian, or German. We managed to make ourselves understood through gestures, sign, and by picking up a few local words. I think that, sadly, most Americans (deaf and hearing) don’t possess that openness to others’ languages. It always seems to be “you speak English or else!” or, here on the Gallaudet campus, “you sign or else!” as if there’s no other choice. In reality, there’s a rich world of linguistic diversity out there that we could all enjoy, if only we were willing to step a bit outside of our comfort zones. I think speaking different languages also helps with perceiving different modes of thought, because every language has some concepts that are almost impossible to translate into other languages. Those of us who use American Sign Language have faced scenarios where it is literally impossible to translate a specific sign into spoken English, and I’m sure this is true of virtually all languages. My multicultural and multilingual background has sensitized me to the ways that we limit ourselves when we don’t learn other languages. From my worldview, seeking facility in multiple languages is simply part of being an educated person in the broadest sense of the word.

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