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Disability Protests: Contentious Politics, 1970-1999

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There are, however, larger issues for many deaf people. Deaf culture and its recognition and acceptance as distinct from hearing culture is one of the major issues for those deaf people who consider themselves to be Deaf (White, 1998). This culture is seen to have its own norms or rules for behavior, values, symbols, language, and other components. Norms include, for example, tapping someone on the shoulder, stomping on the floor, or flashing the lights in a room to get someone’s attention, introducing oneself by telling one’s name and where one went to school before offering any other information, and assuming that gatherings in a house will take place in the kitchen (because it usually has the best lighting). Other norms include raising and shaking hands in the air instead of clapping and standing farther apart than hearing people do when communicating in order to utilize the entire upper body for sign communication (White, 1998). There are Deaf values, including the value on signing as opposed to speaking or lipreading, a strong positive regard for ASL, rejection of the clinical-medical perspective of deafness, and a high regard for deaf children, who symbolize the continuation of Deaf culture.11 One of the most central values is that deaf people should identify with the Deaf movement and should demonstrate cultural pride. There are symbols, including the “I Love You” symbol and an ear with a slash through it. There are slogans, such as “Deaf people can do anything except hear,” first said by Dr. I. King Jordan when he became president of Gallaudet University (Christiansen and Barnartt, 1995). There is a non-auditory language that contains all of the linguistic components found in auditory languages (Neisser, 1983). One demand is that ASL be recognized as the equivalent of other languages. There is a history of the Deaf community and Deaf people that is as separate from the history of hearing people as the history of blacks is separate from the history of whites. There is Deaf humor, including a corpus of jokes passed from one generation to the next. There is also Deaf art as well as Deaf poetry (which is meant to be signed, not read) and Deaf theater. There are also items of material culture that are different for deaf people than hearing people, such as TDDs, flashing light alerting systems (doorbells, baby monitors, smoke detectors, and alarm clocks), and vibrating bed alarms.

Jankowski (1997) argues that the most basic difference between the Deaf movement and the disability movement is that, although the disability movement has embraced the frame of civil rights in its discussions of access and discrimination and in its demands for change, the Deaf movement has not. Rather, it has embraced the frames of multiculturalism and diversity. Under this frame, Deaf people would fight not for integration but for respected segregation. She and other activists who embrace this perspective disavow the label of disability. They see themselves as being part of a linguistic minority rather than part of the disability community, a position the United Nations endorsed in 1987: “deaf and gravely hearing-impaired people [are] to be recognized as a linguistic minority, with the specific right to have their native and indigenous sign languages accepted as their first and official language and as the medium of conversation and instruction” (Wrigley, 1996: xiv). For activists who accept this position, being considered to be disabled is not a compliment, and it is not an option.12

The central issues for the Deaf movement are education, language, and culture—three issues that are intertwined. It is in the area of education that Deaf activists most strongly oppose the views of people with other types of impairments. Although some Deaf people do support the concept of mainstreaming, most suggest that it has problems. Deaf students in regular schools cannot just be put into a class with other students and be expected to succeed in the same way, perhaps, that a child who uses a wheelchair might. Deaf children need additional resources. They need teachers who know how to communicate in sign language, or because such teachers are so rare, they need interpreters. Because of issues about correct interpretation of advanced concepts at the high school and college levels, it is crucial that the interpreter and the teacher work together to make sure that the interpretation follows the meaning of the concept rather than be a word-for-word translation, which is almost never done.13  In addition, because deaf students cannot watch an interpreter and take notes at the same time (and because few regular classrooms would be able to allow the additional time needed for them to take notes), students in higher grades and college classes need notetakers if they are to be on an equal footing with hearing students in those classes.

But even if competent, knowledgeable interpreters and diligent notetakers are provided, deaf students in hearing classrooms or schools are at a disadvantage in social interactions and extracurricular activities, for which interpreters are never provided. Because of this, deaf students who attend hearing schools will have more limited opportunities to participate on student councils, sports teams, or other extracurricular activities that are important to high school and college students, and they will have more limited communication in social interactions with their hearing peers. Thus, some deaf people and educators feel that a regular classroom does not constitute a “least restrictive” environment and, in fact, may constitute the most restrictive environment. Those who are adamant about this situation feel so strongly that they use terms such as “communication abuse,” “communication violence,” or “cultural genocide” when they discuss mainstreaming (Jankowski, 1997: 154; Foster, forthcoming). They favor the use of separate classrooms or, as the better alternative, separate schools where deaf students can interact with other deaf students and deaf, preferable native, signing teachers in environments that address their needs for communications accessibility.

In addition to supporting the use of separate classrooms or schools because of the communication accessibility, some deaf people favor the continuation of residential schools (even if many of the students are day pupils or pupils who go home for weekends) because they think that this is where Deaf culture is transmitted. In residential schools, Deaf culture is taught by osmosis, through role models, and sometimes explicitly, along with Deaf history, whereas in public schools with small numbers of other deaf children and no deaf adults, deaf children are not systematically exposed to either Deaf history or culture. If residential schools die out, it will be much more difficult to socialize young deaf people into Deaf culture, because they are likely to be isolated from other deaf people. Activists in the Deaf movement cite the demands of cultural continuation and equality in school situations in their opposition to mainstreaming.


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