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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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are not completely unique. But there is one area where the resources accumulated over the history of the hearing cultural world are not as effective for deaf children as they are for hearing children. Obviously that is spoken language. And in most societies, the shared spoken language(s) is the key to gaining access to other highly valued social innovations, like learning in formal schooling.

We can hypothesize about whether or not a lack of ability to hear has ever been in the evolutionary, historical, or developmental plan. But it does not matter. The fact is that there are people who cannot hear, there always have been, and they have invented a variety of cultural solutions and transmitted them to others. We can state unconditionally that late, random, or degraded access to language is not in the plan. Partial or ambiguous access to language does not fill the requirements for participating in culture, nor does receiving basic skills instruction second-hand through an interpreter (Ramsey 2001). And living without the accumulated cultural inventions that boosted the intellects of previous generations is simply not in the plan either.


Recently, I had a chance to consider a new millennium definition of culture that was conveyed to me by hearing undergraduates at a midwestern university. The university offers a four-course series of ASL classes. About half of the eighty students per semester who enroll in the courses do so to satisfy their “foreign language” requirement. In these courses, readings about Deaf culture are included on the assumption that learning a language entails learning about its culture. In the case of a minority language like ASL, sensitivity to the culture of Deaf people is required. The same is required for students of Spanish, Lakota, and all the other modern language courses at the university. To my surprise, and, I think, to the Deaf instructors’ surprise, a large group of ASL students took an oppositional stance to the Deaf culture readings. They doubted the authenticity of a culture of Deaf people. Why, they asked, wasn’t it good enough for Deaf people to just be deaf? Why did they have to come up with this idea of culture? Don’t they like hearing people? Why can’t they be like us, just “normal people,” who go around inventing a culture to set themselves apart. It was as if even talking about the culture and lives of Deaf people took something away from the hearing students and threatened their own cultural connections. We managed to resolve this situation, but the fact that it arose taught me again that narrow definitions of culture are not only overly romantic and useless, but dangerous and intolerant. The cost of narrow, trait-based, ethnic identity definitions of culture may be quite high for those of us who are not just “normal people.”

The garden metaphor definition of culture as a growing medium, calibrated over time to meet the needs of people in social groups, offers a more useful way to think about culture as it interacts with schooling. To acknowledge that culture, in the foundational definition that I have offered here, is to acknowledge that deaf children have the same inheritance that the rest of us are born with, and that they are born ready to develop according to the human program. They only need full access to the material and symbolic culture and the social practices that will support the specific developmental plan that comes with not hearing. This definition frees us from the overly romantic notion of culture, from confusing lists of traits and learning styles, and from discussions of culture as contests over which culture produces “normal people.” In addition, the foundational definition of culture as an evolutionary, historical, and individual accomplishment and tool tells us what culture is not. Culture does not exist in a vacuum, does not have claws to snatch people, or snares to trap them. Culture emerges when people engage in joint activities, and all cultures take on life and adapt to changes in the world because people need and use them. And, like fish in water, most of the time we are unaware of our own culture until we are suddenly without it. I never thought of myself as a gringa until I started to spend time in Mexico. To my surprise, it turns out that I am one. And I never thought of myself as a hearing person until I learned ASL and started hanging out with Deaf people. Again, I learned that I am a hearing person, even though for half of my life, I did not know that category even existed.

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