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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language Policy and Planning for Sign Languages
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identify themselves as members of a common deaf cultural community (see Baker & Battison, 1980; Ladd, 2003; Lindgren et al., 2008; Padden & Humphries, 1988, 2005; Paul & Jackson, 1993; Reagan, 1988, 1990a, 1995a, 2002c, 2005b [1985]; Schein, 1989; Siple, 1994; Stokkoe, 1980; Vernon & Andrews, 1990; Wilcox, 1989). Such a cultural conceptualization of deafness presents a significant challenge to the more popular view among hearing people of deafness as a disability. The difference is not merely a semantic one; it is fundamental to one’s conception of what deafness is, what it means to be deaf, and how both individuals and society as a whole ought to address deafness. As Lane, Hoffmeister, and Bahan note in their powerful book A Journey into the deaf-world, “When hearing people think about Deaf people, they project their concerns and subtractive perspective onto Deaf people. The result is an inevitable collision with the values of the deafworld, whose goal is to promote the unique heritage of Deaf language and culture. The disparity in decision-making power between the hearing world and the deafworld renders this collision frightening for Deaf people” (1996, p. 371).

The complexities of the situation become even greater when one takes into account the fact that not all deaf people are Deaf. Audiological deafness and cultural deafness are distinct and different conditions. The deaf population can be subdivided into a wide range of different groups, distinguished in part of degree of hearing loss, but also by language preference, educational experience, and relative integration into either the deafworld or the hearing world (see Goodstein, 2006; Monaghan et al., 2003). My focus in this book is on understanding the multiple, competing conceptions of deafness that divide the deafworld and hearing world, with emphasis on the dominant constructions of deafness that exist in each of these worlds. It is important to note at the outset, then, that the concern here is primarily with Deaf people rather than with deaf people. As Harlan Lane observes in his masterful book The Mask of Benevolence, “Most Americans who have impaired hearing are not members of the American deaf community. They were acculturated to hearing society, their first language was a spoken one, and they became hard of hearing or deaf in the course of their lives, often late in life. This book is not about them; it is about people who grow up deaf, acculturated to the manual language and society of the deaf community” (1992, p. xi). Although there are many interesting issues that might be addressed with respect to the identities of deaf people, as well as with regard to the complex identities of the hearing children of deaf people (generally referred to as Codas, for children of deaf adults), these issues are beyond the bounds of this book (Bishop & Hicks, 2008). It is, nevertheless, important to recognize that the dichotomy separating the hearing and deaf worlds is in fact a false one; rather than two completing distinct identities, the reality of deafness is one of a continuum of multiple identities ranging from “hearing” to “deaf.”

At issue here is the broader issue of disability. As numerous scholars have explored in detail in recent years, “disability” is a social construct grounded in cultural, political, ideological, and economic assumptions and biases (Barton, 1997; Charlton, 1998; Davis, 1995, 1997; Linton, 1998; Safford & Safford, 1996). In the case of deaf people, the relative emphasis and importance accorded to audiological versus social factors is the central feature of differentiation between what can be labeled the etic and emic views of deafness (Gregory & Hartley, 1991; Ohna, 2003; Reagan, 2002c; Schein, 1989). At stake, ultimately, is the question of who defines “deafness”: the dominant hearing world or the deafworld. It is, fundamentally, the relationship of power and discourse that is at stake.

Deaf constructions of deaf identity, which are grounded in the experiences and history of the deafworld (see Fischer & Lane, 1993; Van Cleve, 1993, 2004), stress the sociocultural and linguistic aspects of deafness (Andersson, 1990, 1994; Burch, 2000; Corker, 2000; Ladd, 2003; Lindgren et al., 2008; Padden & Humphries, 1988, 2005; Paul & Jackson, 1993; Reagan, 1988, 1990a, 1995a, 2002c, 2005b [1985]; Schein, 1989; Skelton & Valentine, 2003; Vernon & Andrews, 1990; Wilcox, 1989). Such emic constructions of deafness focus primarily on deaf people as a cultural and linguistic minority community (and, indeed, on that community as an oppressed one). The deaf cultural community is, from this perspective, characterized by the same sorts of elements that might characterize any cultural community, among which are:

  • a common, shared language
  • a literary and artistic tradition
  • a shared awareness of cultural identity
  • culturally specific humor
  • endogamous marital patterns
  • distinctive behavioral norms and patterns
  • cultural artifacts
  • a shared historical knowledge and awareness
  • a network of voluntary, in-group social organizations.
We turn now to a brief discussion of each of these elements of the deafworld.
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