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American Annals of the Deaf

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Hearing, Mother Father Deaf: Hearing People in Deaf Families

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According to Higgins’s (1980) model of the deaf community, I would only satisfy one or two of the following elements of community membership: hearing-impaired, shared experience, identification with one another, and participation in community activities. Baker and Cokely (1980) defined four avenues of membership to the deaf community: audiological, political, linguistic, and social. According to their model, only those people who satisfied all four aspects could be considered as core members of the community. But there is an allowance for the involvement of hearing people in the community on a linguistic, social, and political level.

According to Padden’s (1980) early definition of the deaf community, I am clearly a member:

A deaf community is a group of people who live in a particular location, share the common goals of its members, and in various ways, work toward achieving these goals. A deaf community may include persons who are not themselves Deaf, but who actively support the goals of the community and work with Deaf people to achieve them. (p. 92)
Padden (1980) stated that deaf culture, however, is different, implying that although hearing people can be members of the community, they cannot have ownership of deaf culture:
The culture of Deaf people, however, is more closed than the deaf community. Members of the Deaf culture behave as Deaf people do, use the language of Deaf people, and share the beliefs of Deaf people towards themselves and other people who are not Deaf. (p. 93)
I grew up as a member of the deaf community, enculturated to the deaf way of life, and I am a person whose first (and sometimes preferred) language is a signed language. When I am with deaf people, I behave as they do, use the language they do, and share their beliefs. But ultimately, I am not deaf or Deaf. I do not have the majority of the (positive or negative) shared experiences that most deaf people have—in relation to education, access, communication, discrimination, etc. Although I could be considered a member of the deaf community, do I really belong? The fact is that to some extent I have a choice. I can choose to participate in the community; I can choose to behave culturally like a deaf person. But I can also choose not to when in a hearing dominated environment.6 Similarly, a second-generation child born to Greek parents in Australia may choose to occasionally spend time with Anglo-Saxon English-speaking Australian friends, and at other times socialize with his or her family speaking Greek; this person can choose which community and culture to participate in. Does this make them any less a member of each community?

The point of confusion is essentially in relation to the nexus between community and culture. Hodge (1987) defined culture as “[t]hat web of behaviours, beliefs, values, customs, artefacts and social institutions that we share with others whom we recognise as belonging to the group of people” (p. 4). Therefore, if someone is a member of a community and engages in the appropriate behaviors, beliefs, and values of that community, then they should be considered as a full member of that community.

Turner (1994) criticized Padden’s (1980) definition of deaf culture, saying that her rationale was too self-referential and not based on any ethnomethodological observation. He suggested that her definition perpetuated an “us and them” approach to hearing people, as well as to deaf culture and community membership. Ladd (1994) agreed with Turner about the risks of an “us and them” philosophy and suggested a continuum of cultural identification, rather than separate groups (i.e., deaf/hearing). Ladd’s suggestion allows for a person like me to feel comfortable in identifying with deaf culture and the community, without necessarily saying that I am Deaf. In Ladd’s (2003) later work, he questioned previous definitions of deaf culture, stating that the study of any form of deaf culture needs a thorough theoretical grounding, drawing on anthropology, linguistics, sociology, and politics. Through a major ethnomethodological study involving interviews with a wide range of deaf people, Ladd introduced the notion of Deafhood, which he defined as “a process—the struggle by each deaf child, deaf family and deaf adult to explain to themselves and each other their own existence in the world” (p. 3). So although I have grown up in the deaf community, I have not necessarily participated in the process of Deafhood, because I have not experienced life in the same way as most deaf people, and I have not struggled in establishing my identity. So what should I call myself? I am a member of the community, but what is my identity if I am not deaf?


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