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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Adolescents: Inner Lives and Lifeworld Development

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Mary has a different set of cultural influences. She is a European American female born deaf to deaf parents with multiple generations of deaf relatives. She attends a public school. She speaks of her comfort in the company of deaf peers and deaf family members and her disconnect and discomfort in the company of nonsigning hearing people. Mary’s perceptions of herself in relation to hearing people have changed since our last meeting. As a child she described an easygoing relationship with her hearing classmates and relatives. During this adolescent study, her self-perceptions have shifted, and she acknowledges a much stronger identification with the communication and cultural aspects of the Deaf community and in deaf social, educational, and familial contexts.

These teenagers must confront and transition from shifting cultural orientations and realities as they move back and forth between their families, their peer groups, and the communities in which they interact. The theories discussed at the beginning of this book and in my previous book suggest that the participants have a multicultural existence. While many authors have discussed the deaf or hearing cultural orientation of the deaf person, it is becoming clear that in an increasingly multicultural society, deaf people are not restricted to a constant either-or dichotomy in their identities. Based on this reality, many bilingual, bicultural education programs have shifted to a multicultural approach. Developing an identity is a continuous process.

Overt Identity. In both the phase I and phase II studies, I showed the participants pictures of individuals and groups in photographs and asked them to create stories about the characters they observed in the photographs. Frequently, they volunteered information about the hearing status of the people in the pictures, which they determined from visible objects, actions, and clues.

In the phase I study, the children assigned a deaf or hard of hearing identity to individuals in the photographs based on visual indicators such as visual alerting and electronic devices, hearing aids, and the visible activity of signing. Mouth movement and the lack of sign language or other familiar visual cues led the informants to believe the observed was not deaf. In the phase II study, the adolescents used these same indicators and new indicators as well. They mentioned gestures; material goods and fashionable clothing and accessories indicative of a comfortable socioeconomic level; stance; emotional affect; and academic subject matter as clues to a deaf or hearing identity.

HEARING AIDS. The visible presence of hearing aids was an indicator in both studies that the characters pictured were deaf. The lack of hearing aids indicated that individuals in the photos could be hearing.

DANNY: Of course they’re deaf. Several have hearing aids.

JOE: I know that most of them are deaf because some of them have hearing aids and they’re chatting. Hearing. I think hearing. I don’t see any hearing aids.

USE OF SIGN LANGUAGE AND GESTURES. The participants interpreted the apparent use of sign language and gestures in the photographs as an indicator of the identities of the characters pictured.
ALEX: I noticed if they were speaking or if they were signing. I know this person is deaf because I noticed them signing.

DANNY: Hearing aid, signing, and gesturing. It looks like, maybe in Gallaudet. It looks like they’re college students plus deaf.

MARY: They’re deaf because they’re talking to each other through sign language. You don’t see deaf families act like that. You don’t see deaf families do that. When deaf families get together, they tend to talk a lot and use large gestures to get people to pay attention and look at them. This looks laid back.

JOE: And some look like they’re signing.

MATERIAL GOODS, FASHIONABLE CLOTHING, AND ACCESSORIES. Danny and Mary both mentioned that characters in photographs with what they perceived as expensive fashions, accessories, and material goods were likely hearing. They indicated that it was unusual for deaf people to possess such items.
DANNY: They’re hearing. You don’t see many deaf people with fancy watches. Not many deaf women wear these heels. Not many that I’ve noticed.

DANNY [describing what appears to be a group of hearing people]: Fancy. It’s nice. Looks like that’s [points to picture] a new car. Looks like they’re hearing.

MARY: I think she’s probably hearing. Because most deaf people, girls I know don’t dress like that. We dress kind of down to earth, not wear fancy nice clothes.


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