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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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She tolerated the distress for such a long time, however, because of the possibilities of getting a job in a deaf workplace in the future. “Yes, I got the job. I feel very comfortable because I am surrounded by sign language the whole working day. I have deaf colleagues, the patients are deaf, and most people around sign.”

Unrestrained signed communication is one of the cherished aspects of Hilde’s life at present, a practice that she fully engages in at work. However, this is not an all-encompassing aspect of life:

I cannot fancy living twenty-four hours a day with deaf persons only. This is because I want to develop other aspects of myself. Hearing and deaf people think differently. Hearing persons get more information through the media and deaf persons lose a lot. So I feel that I can mature more by being with hearing persons as well. Besides, I have hearing children and I feel comfortable in keeping up with them and their world. The best thing is to alternate and enjoy the best of both worlds. But I must admit that I identify myself as deaf. That’s where I really feel at home.

Trouble Within: The Sense of Imprisonment

Her troublesome route to adult life as a (now) self-defined and proud deaf woman has not led her to isolate herself from the hearing world. Having three hearing children, she constantly engages with this world. Because of this involvement, she has a lot of comments, which often include harsh critiques of the hearing majority’s insensitivity toward deaf people. However, on the other side, her experiences in the Deaf environment are not strictly harmonious. Even though she is proud of being deaf and works hard to improve the conditions for deaf people in society, she is critical about what she coins “extremist tendencies” in the deaf struggle:

I can’t stand it when someone tells me what to think, what the right answers to certain questions are, and so on. I have experienced this attitude, not only from representatives of the hearing majority, but also from deaf persons. At Ål Deaf College, there are certain persons that seem to be brainwashed or something similar. My own observation of that place and the “Ålings” (“ålingene”), as I call them, is that they are shortsighted and some just keep repeating the phrase: “Be deaf conscious!” This means using the “right” signs, and that hearing persons should behave on the deaf persons’ terms. There was a conflict between one of the teachers at Ål and myself. He told me that my signing was wrong and I reacted. Nobody has the right to say that this is right and that is wrong. “If you had stayed here one year,” he continued, “you would have become deaf conscious.” That is bullshit.

She has a lot to tell about this “bullshit,” including the following incident:

There was a hearing man staying at Ål in order to learn sign language. We had a long chat where I used my voice. Suddenly a deaf man appears telling us,“Here we shall use the sign language, exclusively!” I thought, “Wow, don’t we live in a free country?” I really want to decide such things for myself. In search of the best way to promote a dialogue, I sometimes prefer to use my voice. I became frustrated and felt imprisoned at Ål after that incident. It felt like being sentenced to use sign language. I tried to discuss the issue at Ål, but this caused a violent argument. People coming from outside Ål had some nuances and understood what I meant, but the “Ålings” were so fixed. Perhaps the reason is that Ål is located high in the mountains in isolation. The phenomenon frightens me, and I cannot even think of living there or in any other isolated deaf environment.

The college at Ål is one of the few places where deafness is the rule and where sign language has a dominant position. Furthermore, it is an important transnational and translocal deaf gathering spot, and one of the sites for the spread of “Deaf consciousness” and cultural awareness in Norway. These aspects came into focus in the 1980s when sign language was replacing the “old” sign-plus-speech philosophy and a new sense of pride was emerging. All adult members of the Deaf community in Norway relate to this site in emotionally charged but different ways. Some just love the place, whereas others, such as Hilde, have mixed sentiments.

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