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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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The two deaf women presented in this chapter both live within the Deaf community in Norway. They share the Norwegian sign language and the joys and challenges of deaf life. Through the medium of sign language, they affiliate with the Deaf community, but this is not all-encompassing and they seem to seek a certain degree of distance. Both are critical of the "extremist" tendencies in the Deaf world, which they experience as limiting. They have strong connections to both deaf and hearing friends in Norway and abroad. However, their stories are very different. Hilde tells a partially traumatic tale, related to nonacceptance of her deafness. Anita, on the other hand, was immersed into the Deaf world, and deafness was part of regular life. The existential uncertainty is very well reflected in Hilde’s story, primarily because she had no chance to appreciate her own deafness as a child. The phonocentric cultural regime surrounding her made her adopt a negative outlook on deafness, with damaging effects to her self-esteem. Initially, her identity quest was to become someone beyond her reach. The self-destructive aspect of this phase is evocatively demonstrated. For Anita this was different, because she could take her being in the world much more for granted. Her difference (being adopted by a deaf family and diagnosed as hard of hearing, not deaf, in terms of medical audiology) led her toward different identity pathways and other challenges in life.

HILDE’S STORY: COMING OUT AS DEAF

Hilde is a woman in her early forties, living alone with her three hearing children in a small city in central Norway. She is an active woman, engaged in her children’s schooling and leisure activities and in promoting certain aspects of Deaf culture:

I was born deaf, but it was not discovered until I was about one year old. My parents had no suspicion that there was something wrong, before an uncle of mine wondered if I could hear at all. They then took me to a hearing test. To discover that I was deaf was not easy for my parents. You see: I was their firstborn child.

Deafness as a malfunction looms large and sets the stage for her sense of self to be experienced as tragically different. Continuing, she tells of a complicated childhood with much frustration and confusion. Part of this confusion was due to her parents’ lack of knowledge of deafness as such and of appropriate communication skills:

My mother was able to join a sign language course when I was eight years old, but that was really too late. She was confused about the lack of information. The doctors stated the fact that I was deaf, but no more information was given. So my parents had to find out more by themselves. By chance, my mother was informed about a deaf woman living in our town and she literally grabbed her and begged her to teach her how to sign. The woman helped my mother to some extent, and they still have some contact. My communication situation was not good; I only knew a few signs at that time. But it changed later on when I started at a school for deaf children.

Her own confusion in childhood clearly relates to her own inability to communicate, and she gives a brief account of how this started to change:

I went to an ordinary kindergarten for hearing children in my hometown, without sign language. In fact I was raised orally with lipreading and speaking. When I was six and a half, I started at a residential school for deaf children not very far away. That was a real change. At this school, I gradually learned to sign, and my communicative abilities increased.


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