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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Literacy and Deaf People: Cultural and Contextual Perspectives

Brenda Jo Brueggemann, Editor

Part One
Modernizing Deaf Selves and Deaf Education: Histories and Habits

What Does Culture Have to Do with the Education
of Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing?

Claire Ramsey

In everyday discourse, we expect culture to point to a particular group and its features (e.g., Mexican culture, Russian culture, clothing, cuisine, and kinship patterns). However, the narrowness of everyday definitions of culture has become especially apparent in education (Sleeter 2001; Kalyanpur and Harry 1999) since some children’s “cultural” backgrounds are associated with their schooling outcomes, positive or negative. Ogbu’s (1987) treatment of this topic, while almost two decades old, is not out of date. Yet learning about national holidays, special foods, manners of dress, and folklore does not provide a helpful account of culture as it might interact with schooling. Indeed, such well-intentioned approaches frequently trivialize culture.

Although definitions of culture are problematic, the potential impact of culture on general education is a well-grounded topic, bolstered by a body of strategic and practical knowledge (e.g., Banks 1996). Special education as a broad field has also received attention from scholars of culture (e.g., Harry 1992; Kalyanpur and Harry 1999). In the United States, deaf education presents a more elaborate set of cultural problems, in part, because at least two sources of culture exist for deaf children—the culture of their families and the culture of American Deaf people. Cultural transmission is unusual in the case of deaf children. In fact, although some would argue that I am misinformed, the cultural status of most deaf infants is unclear because most are raised in families with no access to Deaf people or their culture. Additionally, impaired hearing, even mild cases, can lead to early development that unfolds without adequate language exposure. As a result, transmission of the family’s culture to a deaf child may be incomplete. Many deaf children become expert border dwellers as they grow up, with knowledge of their family’s cultural ways, as well as those of Deaf people. Many will, at some moment in the future, find that they are comfortably and culturally Deaf and align themselves with the adult Deaf ASL-signing community as their primary cultural identity. Still, the facts about interactions of culture with deaf education do not help us understand exactly why culture should be of concern in deaf education. As a colleague once said to me, “It’s a disability. There’s nothing cultural about it. We just try to fix it.” Educational questions about culture are unresolved, even though it is becoming apparent that Deaf cultural ways, especially ways of using language, contribute to learning, (e.g., Ramsey and Padden 1998; Humphries and MacDougall 2000). Claims about the role of Deaf culture in the education of deaf children have rarely been elaborate enough to move us away from trait-based visions of culture. My argument here is that seriously thinking about culture in deaf education requires starting at the beginning, with a generic understanding of ways that this impressive human achievement provides a context for learning.

I know from my life experience that developing and holding a rich definition of culture, one that might help me see culture in schooling, does not come easily. Indeed, my persistence on this topic is driven by my personal history and curiosity as well as the many views of culture I have examined and rejected. I am a baby boomer child of the 1960s. In my first year


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