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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Identities in the Making: Local Lives, Transnational Connections

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Anita is a twenty-year-old woman who lives in Trondheim. Her story differs from Hilde’s in many ways. In the following, she tells about herself and how she became who she is today:

I was adopted when I was seven months old. My parents had wanted a child for seven years without success and they decided to adopt a deaf child. The deaf child was me—a little Bolivian child. When this was arranged, my mother suddenly became pregnant—so they got two instead of one. Everyone in my family is deaf: my father, mother, aunts and uncles, grandparents and siblings. In fact I grew up as an ordinary member of a deaf family, and had no early experience of being deaf and different; deafness was the normal state and I didn’t have to discover myself as deaf—it was self-evident and totally accepted, actually even wanted.

This is really a different point of departure than Hilde’s and most other deaf children’s. The deafness was no shock at all for Anita’s parents and family; it was both welcomed and planned. The brown skin color and black hair from being a child born in Latin America are two of the things that make her different, as seen from a regular Norwegian outlook—but mostly in a unproblematic way.

Trouble Ahead: Discrediting Deafness

The big difference between Anita and her family that was revealed after awhile was, however, of a different kind: “After a while it was discovered that I had some residual hearing; that I was hard of hearing—audiologically. That’s when the trouble started.”

Growing up in a deaf and content environment, Anita’s new imposed status as hard of hearing caused some trouble. She simply deviated from the expectations in regular family life, but that would not necessarily be a problem because all seeing people are fully capable of being immersed into a deaf and signing socialization process. The problem was caused by the diagnosis, the medical establishment, and the pressure from outside: “The doctors meant that I could develop my speech and the Norwegian language, and that an operation could improve my hearing ability. They also meant that my parents were unable to raise me because of their deafness.”

From a deaf point of view, this is humiliating. It shows quite clearly that there are not only two different centers for valuation of deafness, but also that there is a power imbalance—to the extent that a healthy, strong, deaf family is infantilized and regarded as less able to raise children. The discredit resulting from the stigma of deafness is thus more than obvious (Goffman 1963). In this case, however, they managed to resist the pressure. “My mother, who was a Norwegian language teacher, became furious because of this. Anyway, I went to a kindergarten for deaf and hard of hearing children. They fancied sign language at that time; the children should learn both signs and speech. But speech got high priority.”

She experienced conflicting scripts of behavior, and this caused some problems at home:

I can remember that my father felt pity for me, because I sometimes had problems separating “signing and speaking at the same time” from the sign language that we used at home. I brought speech into my communication at home, and my father was angry at the kindergarten because of this. He wanted me to use sign language. I felt some identity problems at that time, because there was so much I couldn’t understand.

Anita’s early sense of ambivalence related to her identity was thus produced by a conflict between two competing versions of “her best interest”: the hearing society against the deaf family. Anita also remembers a battle with the phonocentric doctors.

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