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American Annals of the Deaf

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Literacy and Deaf People: Cultural and Contextual Perspectives

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progress. Not completely frivolously, one of the Deaf students said, “OK, if it’s a culture, then where are the Deaf ethnic restaurants? What do Deaf native costumes look like? Is Gallaudet like the Deaf homeland?” My Deaf classmates were all from hearing families, and all learned ASL well beyond infancy. They felt Deaf but, like I did in my Chicano studies class, longed for a list of traits that would document their authentic cultural connection to other Deaf people. Like me, they needed a richer way of thinking about culture, especially how groups of Deaf people might have become cultural.

Here the three kinds of time are illuminating. Like all of us who have received the benefits of a long span of evolutionary time, Deaf people have the full human linguistic and cognitive inheritance that comes with our biology. Additionally, culture comes into being “wherever people engage in joint activity over time” (Cole 1996, 301). Like all groups, Deaf people have a social history during which they created and improved upon innovations that took account of their lack of hearing and pooled their cognitive resources. Passing these innovations on ensured that individuals in following generations would not have to individually figure out the world into which they were born. No individual deaf infant has to invent a language that does not depend on hearing. No modern deaf infant has to devise technology to use the telecommunications system. Rather, each generation can use the cultural artifacts of the group; understand that others are intentional agents; and share a world full of objects, symbols, and social practices that previous members created for their use. Last, like all of us during our developmental time, deaf babies have the capacity to recognize the agency and mental lives of others and to acquire the symbol systems developed by their ancestors.


Typically, children grow up “in the midst of the very best tools and symbols their forebears have invented for negotiating the rigors of their physical and social worlds” (Tomasello 1999, 199). To use the artifacts as they were meant to be used and to participate in the social practices in the ways they were meant to be participated in, the child needs to place herself in the position of adults who use those artifacts and participate in social practices. She needs to comprehend how “we” (that is, the people like her) use those artifacts and practices. The gift of cultural inheritance prepares us to engage in certain types of social interactions, but it is participating in the interactions themselves that does the work. Just being prepared to interact is not enough. Participation is often, although not always, mediated through language. So, our biological and cultural histories ensure that children acquire and master most of their native human language early and quickly, within five or six years. But the circumstances of deaf children’s development (with some exceptions) do not match the broader biological and cultural design. It is an unavoidable fact that, through no fault of their own, most deaf children have a late start at language acquisition. Acquisition of language is designed to begin at birth; indeed, late first-language acquisition is so atypical that is it virtually impossible to find (Mayberry 1993). This has consequences for all areas of deaf children’s lives, but especially threatens their schooling. In our industrialized, information-steeped society, schooling is organized on the assumption that children enter their years of formal education with native command of their first language (i.e., “ready to learn”).

It is unfortunate that the notion of culture has become clouded in deaf education. Discussions of culture sometimes disintegrate into pointless arguments about whether or not there IS a Deaf culture, whether ASL is a real language or not, who owns deaf children, what is the relative value of residential schools, and what is the “best” medium of instruction. This is not the way to think about either culture or Deaf culture if the goal is to determine how culture can be helpful to deaf children. Cole’s garden metaphor offers a concrete way to think about culture and its role in human development

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