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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Signs and Voices: Deaf Culture, Identity, Language, and Arts

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noted that “[c]onceptual alignment with American social and political movements opens visitors’ eyes to parallels in minority/majority experiences.”[16] 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:

  • Are d/Deaf, hard of hearing, cochlear-implanted, and late-deafened people all members of a larger disability community in which the only commonality is deafness, and what purposes does such a pulling together serve?
  • Is there such a thing as a shared experience that can be said to be common to all deaf and hard of hearing people, and if so, is that shared experience a matter of living through a shared historical moment?
  • In the struggle to become visible and politically viable, which grouping, which narrative, which frame, is the most compelling and productive?
  • Which narrative trope is most empowering for Deaf people and yet still accessible to a larger American public, particularly when stigma, misunderstanding, and pathologizing discourses are omnipresent in regards to deafness?
  • Interestingly enough, for an exhibition focused upon history, the most emotionally weighted questions have to do with children: Where does the deaf child fit into all of this? Who “owns” the deaf child?
These and other questions informed the exhibition’s evolution. In 1995, after the National Museum of American History (part of the Smithsonian Institution) had approved the original proposal for “DEAF: A Community of Signers,” an audiologically diverse national review group was put together to generate feedback. Members of this review committee included several representatives from the Deaf academic community as well as from the oralist deaf community. As Bergey recounted at that review meeting,
[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.[17]
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.

17. Bergey 1998, 82.

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