Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf
F—— radiated a confidence in himself as a deaf person that was unique among the people I met. He never talked of being hearing or what life might be like if he were a hearing person. He seemed not only to accept but also to cherish his deafness, to have the sense that it was not a bit regrettable to be deaf. He appeared to attach no great importance to the fact that, as a deaf person, he was a member of a minority. F—— talked of opportunities as though he had access to them and not at all as though they were unattainable. I had the sense that, although F—— knew perfectly well what the world would offer him as a deaf man, in small ways each day, he simply refused to accept it. F——’s attitudes were neither motivated nor reinforced by a politically active deaf community around him. They seemed simply to be a part of his nature. And, in fact, he was relatively successful in gaining some of society’s advantages.
As a linguistic consultant, F—— was superior. He had intuitions about TSL that he discussed easily with me. More than any other person I worked with, he seemed after a short time to know what I wanted when I asked him “linguist” questions. When he taught, the children were rapt. They asked questions and participated fully in their lessons. F—— seemed well suited for the job of teacher because he understood what his students (including me) knew and pushed them forward from there.
W—— was a baker at the school. Intelligent, reserved and hard working, he did not bring too much attention to himself. He had learned CSL at the Chiying School as a child and then had acquired TSL as a middle school student in Tainan. If at first W—— was somewhat hesitant to deal with me, he quickly became both an expert at that task and one of the people who greatly supported my work while I was at Chiying. For example, when other deaf people would want a chance to sign on videotape but were not sure how to do so, W—— would patiently explain what I wanted and stay around long enough to make sure the person truly understood and got off to a good start.
The community I came to know at the Chiying School was larger. However, these descriptions introduce some of the people with whom I interacted at the Chiying School and provide a sense of the key people who contributed to my research.
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONS OF DEAFNESS AND HEARING
In many societies, “disabilities” such as deafness are hidden from view because they are not the norm and are, therefore, negative (see Tsuchiya 1994, 65). In Taiwanese society, young deaf adults (and people with other “disabilities”) who have never been to school are still sometimes discovered.11 At worst, hearing society in Taiwan seems to view deaf people as lawless and uneducable; at best, pitiful and incompetent. Certainly, I sensed that nearly every Taiwanese person believed on some significant level that deafness is at least a somewhat negative attribute. In this section, I focus on how the deaf and hearing people in the Chiying School saw deafness and hearing.
Deaf People’s Attitudes about Deafness
Although deafness often “creates unique social groupings and identities,” the mere fact that deaf people have a particular audiological status does not necessarily cause them to cohere into a social unit (Johnson 1994, 102). Although many sorts of relationships could be found among the Chiying deaf people, they did not seem to primarily help or socialize with other deaf people. Hearing family members were often involved with supporting deaf people. Deaf people probably socialized as much with hearing people as with other deaf people.
Although the Chiying deaf people were not explicit about this, they believe that to be born deaf is less desirable than to be born hearing and become deaf later. Certainly, someone who was born deaf would prefer to marry a hearing person, a hard of hearing person, or a deaf person who had been born hearing. This preference was related to the fear that deafness might be passed on to one’s children if one were born deaf. Most of the deaf people I met described themselves as “born hearing and became deaf in childhood because of a fever.”