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Voices: Deaf Culture, Identity, Language, and Arts|
noted that “[c]onceptual alignment with American social and political movements opens visitors’ eyes to parallels in minority/majority experiences.” This shift in paradigm became an act of recovery because, as a minority culture and as users of a minority language, hard of hearing, deaf, and Deaf people have largely been erased from the narratives that constitute the American public’s understanding of history. As a result of this focus on common experiences—regardless of cultural affiliation—the exhibition intentionally did not include an explicit message or definition of what is or is not Deaf identity and what is or is not the American Deaf community.
Understandably, many in the Deaf community saw this shift in focus from “DEAF: A Community of Signers” to “History through Deaf Eyes” as a lost opportunity to explain Deaf culture and community to an international audience. However, by responding to contested notions of d/Deaf identity, this exhibition ended up elucidating competing narratives of representation, and as such, the texts generated by the making of this exhibit—that is, the letters of protest and support and the entries in the visitors’ logbooks posted at each site—are enormously revealing of discourses describing and defining Deaf culture and deafness in American social life. It is within these texts that we see the juxtaposition of imposed, adopted, and organic social theories of deafness and Deaf lives and bodies. In addition to the letters reiterating the idea of deafness as absence and the perceived need for inclusion of deaf people within the national “hearing” body, there are also letters and logbook entries that show an emerging sensibility arising from Deaf and deaf viewers, theorizing the representation of their lives and experiences in ways that both overlap with and depart from politicized social discourses. As such, texts provide a map of the discursive conflicts in representation.
Because of the increasing numbers of cochlear-implanted and mainstreamed deaf children, as well as the development of genetic screening and related technologies, this is a historically important moment for examining what is at stake when we talk about representing Deaf, deaf, and hard of hearing people.
Questions raised, but not necessarily answered, by the exhibition include, but were not limited to:
[T]here was vigorous discussion about the exhibition, even shouting, in both voice and sign. . . . Soon a campaign to shift the project focus became evident. Oral schools and associations wrote to the Smithsonian, urging . . . [the Institution] to alter the exhibition. Of the more than 300 letters [written between October 1995 and December 1996], most came from oral school administrators, parents and grandparents of deaf children, primarily hearing people.What the original planners, in all their initial excitement, didn’t realize is that some reviewers of this original plan would feel as though the exhibit meant to reject hearing people, and by extension, oral deaf individuals.
16. Wells 1994.