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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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abortion debate suggests that what is at stake is a potentially aborted child, so to speak, an undeveloped child that the hearing parents try their best to bring to term, with the attendant implications that in doing so, the child will become “born again” into normalcy, into the narratives of completion and bodily integrity. This parent also references the ownership issue when she says that parents should be “free” to make their own decisions, as if the Deaf community were waiting to snatch her deaf child. This unstated concern about “ownership” appeared in letter after letter, suggesting both great concern and anxiety about the ways in which family and marital bonds are highlighted in the presence of a child, who forces the family to consider what integration and belonging mean when there is love but perhaps little meaningful, easy, or consistent communication.

Many of these letters present short “protonarratives” that the letter writers felt compelled to offer as a kind of anecdotal evidence in the case against “exclusion.” These were not fully developed narratives or personal stories; instead these protonarratives are short kernels of often agonized, sometimes angry, narratives that focus primarily on the struggle with choices and emphasize the perceived threat to the integrity of the family. “This was all new to my wife and myself,” wrote the father of a profoundly deaf daughter. “We knew no one deaf.”[27] And similarly, “As a working mother, my time is of utmost importance to me. However, I feel the need to send this letter to you,” wrote the mother of a seven-year-old “oral deaf” son. “I am not opposed to signing, and I hope my son will eventually learn this beautiful language, however, now we are communicating orally and are having much success at it.”[28]

These letters insist over and over again: “We are doing just fine, thank you very much!” “Through the use of powerful hearing aids,” our deaf child succeeds, they reiterate. “By using her remaining hearing effectively,” my deaf child has learned “to listen and to speak.” Again and again, parents list sports activities, dean’s lists, and various academic achievements: “My son is a recent graduate of [a prestigious college in the Northeast] and communicates by speech, but he is just as much a part of the story as a recent graduate of Gallaudet who signs!”[29]

I have yet to read one letter that tells the story of the other deaf children in the mainstream, the children who are deemed “oral failures” or who struggle with low self-esteem, social isolation, academic failure, and frustration with incomplete communication. Instead, these letters are reiterations of ability vis-à-vis the American Dream: “It was a joy raising [our daughter]. I guess we can be compared to parents centuries ago who refused to accept their child’s blindness and used the early eyeglasses. That is the way scientific breakthroughs happen.”[30]

The most agonized letters came not only from parents but also from oral deaf adults themselves. Because what is at stake is essentially the self, or rather, the validity of a self-concept centered around not-hearing-but-hearing, self-representation takes on an urgent, and at times fierce, tone, as can be seen in protonarratives written by deaf adults: “I am profoundly deaf and oral. . . . I feel that it is significantly important for the public to see the ‘big picture’ of the deaf population, not just one half.”[31] This writer also describes how frustrated she felt when people, upon finding out that she is deaf, assumed that she also knew signs. She seems personally assailed by this assumption, as if it were an accusation of some kind of failure on her part to be hearing (enough).

Most dismaying were the letters that contain echoes of ethnocentrism. As a center with services for deaf children noted: “Our approach is TOTALLY auditory. . . . Infants are fitted as early as possible even at 21 days old . . . WE DO NOT DO SIGNING . . . They can communicate with anyone, not just those who use the local ‘dialect’ of the manual language” (emphasis in original).[32] There is a sense of logic that is constructed here; the “local dialect” is seen as inferior rather than as a culturally valid form of communication for that group. The suggestion is also that the local dialect will limit the signer, with no recognition of the fact that oral languages also have localdialects, yet we don’t try to stop hearing people from using their local language. The writer also seems to think that by “doing” signing, one espouses a particular worldview that she finds repugnant.

In a similar vein, a parent of a cochlear-implanted child expressed her frustration: “Many strangers ask about the equipment [my daughter] wears behind her ear (she wears a CI) and upon learning she is deaf, EVERY SINGLE PERSON has asked, Does she know sign language yet? She does not. She speaks English” (emphasis in original).[33] Again, the sense of xenophobic logic; the mother insists that she “speaks” English, which she then argues will ensure her child’s membership in a monolingual society. Taken far enough, this kind of statement smacks of historically similar statements made about immigrants to America.

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

28. Letter to the Smithsonian, November 14, 1995. Gallaudet University Archives.

29. Letter to the Smithsonian, January 17, 1996. Gallaudet University Archives.

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

31. Letter to the Smithsonian, February 21, 1996. Gallaudet University Archives.

32. Letter to the Smithsonian, July 2, 1996. Gallaudet University Archives.

33. Letter to the Smithsonian, September 10, 1996. Gallaudet University Archives.

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