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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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Parents of deaf children felt that because their children did not sign, they—and their hearing families—were erased from this public discourse on deafness. One such letter included a picture of a deaf child, with an emphatic caption that reads, “I AM DEAF—BUT I LISTEN AND SPEAK. I DON’T USE SIGN. CHANGE YOUR EXHIBIT TO INCLUDE ME.”[18] The concept of “inclusion” popped up again and again in the letters, a truncation of a hugely conflicted history of deaf education in the United States. This is often accompanied by an implied argument that “exclusion” is a form of treason. A large part of the emotional outcry had to do with the sense that a parent’s own deaf child (or oneself, in the case of a deaf adult) would be “left out” or excluded . . . a sort of nationwide shunning. The parent works so hard, these letters suggest, to “include” the deaf child in every way, and yet this child is left out of a national exhibition that is “funded by public monies.” This perceived oversight felt very personal to many letter writers. “[W]e have a fourteen year old son,” wrote one mother, “who was born with a profound loss and has been educated all his life with hearing kids. He has worked very very hard to accomplish this.”[19]

Many of the letters, especially those from parents and oral school administrators, also stressed “choice.” One deaf adult wrote, “I am proud that my parents have chosen the oral communication mode for my upbringing.”[20] This excerpt calls up a particular and persistent discourse, or narrative, about a “hearing impaired” child’s choices, ostensibly to live as either a member of the hearing world or of the Deaf world. An audiologist wrote in with thoughts on the matter: “Although ASL is one option for people who are deaf, there are other options in which children who are deaf learn to listen, talk, and communicate in the hearing world. . . . More than anything, it is critical to present the OPTIONS of deafness and the OPTIONS of the use of technology to provide hearing to deaf people” (emphasis in original).[21] Again and again in the letters of protest, words like these were highlighted, underlined, or capitalized. This suggests not only extreme opposition but also extreme emotion, with a resulting and reiterated emphasis upon inclusion, with the hope that doing so will blend the deaf child into “mainstream” American life. “This is what makes our country so great,” one parent of a ten-year-old deaf son wrote, “that is, having choices!”[22] What is left out of this love letter to the melting pot is that the deaf child rarely chooses.

What is also clear in these protest letters is that, due to stigmatizing social discourses about deafness, the use of ASL, a visual language, is rarely presented as a valid “option.” One parent of a profoundly deaf child wrote that “[a]fter . . . studying the manual method of helping [our daughter] with her deafness, it became obvious to me that there must be something better, something modern and more scientific. . . . The manual method . . . seemed primitive. It was born in the 18th century. It compared to my patients wearing wooden dentures.”[23] Similarly, other writers also referenced notions of modernity and of technological progress in their case against “manualism.” To wit: “The Smithsonian was supposed to be up-to-date and modern. Hopefully, [“DEAF: A Community”] was simply a mistake, a case of being uninformed or misinformed.”[24] By suggesting that sign language was a tool that people used until better technology came along, the Deaf community was portrayed as a retrogressive throwback that was out of synch with the progressive era and maintained a postwar sensibility toward science and medicine. A particularly 1950s’ understanding of culture as a set of tangible and visible features was also pervasive in these letters. “Frankly, I am tired of the so-called ‘deaf culture’ tearing parents of hearing-impaired and the hearing-impaired down for making it easier for their children to hear,” wrote one mother of a profoundly deaf son. “Show me their anthropological roots, relics . . . to prove that they have a ‘culture.’ How can the Smithsonian Institution recognize only one side of such a rapidly changing technological field with something so outdated?”[25] Notions of the progressive era and of deafness (e.g., the common perception of Helen Keller) surfaced with surprising consistency.

A parent of a cochlear-implanted deaf child wrote, “Parents need to be given accurate information on all the available options and then be free to make their own decisions. . . . Technology is a miracle and a gift. . . . However, this is a two-sided issue that has created factions as divided and as militant as those in the abortion issue.”[26] The analogy made between the exhibition and the

18. Letter to the Smithsonian, March 1996. Gallaudet University Archives.

19. Letter to the Smithsonian, n.d., Gallaudet University Archives.

20. Letter to the Smithsonian, December 1, 1995. Gallaudet University Archives.

21. Letter to the Smithsonian, November 27, 1995. Gallaudet University Archives.

22. Letter to the Smithsonian, November 6, 1995. Gallaudet University Archives.

23. Letter to the Smithsonian, n.d., Gallaudet University Archives.

24. Letter to the Smithsonian, n.d., Gallaudet University Archives.

25. Letter to the Smithsonian, November 24, 1995. Gallaudet University Archives.

26. Letter to the Smithsonian, November 15, 1995. Gallaudet University Archives.

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