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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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Those in the medical sciences also bolstered xenophobic logic and amplified it by focusing upon the colonialist corollary, the desire to segment the other’s (the deaf person’s) body by focusing solely upon one fetishized body part: the ear. The deaf person is reduced to a broken-down ear, an absence that must then be medicalized and theorized. An audiologist wrote, “Such an exhibition runs contrary to the Smithsonian’s purpose of advancing and disseminating knowledge.”[34] This writer also noted, “The agenda of the planned exhibition is clearly political in nature; it is not founded on verifiable, incontrovertible facts which lead to a better understanding of the subject.”[35] The writer uses the trope of science; the exhibition is meant to coolly and methodically sort through and display decontextualized bits of information for pseudo-medical decisions about the deaf child.

In these letters, there’s not only the sense of the exhibition content being put under a microscope and analyzed accordingly but there’s also a sense that the proposed and future exhibition viewer is being constructed as a detective, in search of facts that lead to a better understanding of what exactly happened. Thus the deaf child becomes both the site of a murder of normalcy and a medical aberration that needs to be fixed.

The letters raise their voices, even howl, in upper case, at the proposed indignity of the exhibition “DEAF: A Community of Signers.” Perhaps the shrill or sentimental or agonized tone of many of the letters arises from the sense of an undefined and persistent threat to deaf children, grandchildren, deaf students, and clients (e.g., audiologists, teachers): the threat of invisibility and exclusion, of being disabled, disconnected. Certainly, there are “successful”—whatever that really means—oral deaf adults, who also pay a social and personal price for such success. However, what is not mentioned in the letters is that the child is still deaf, no matter the superhuman efforts put into including, offering options, choices, technology, exhibitions, and so forth. A deaf child will not grow up to be hearing.

In contrast to these letters, the exhibition visitors’ logbooks represent more varied responses, more possible ways to represent others and one’s own self and community. Visitors began viewing the exhibit in 2002, and at each posting, a logbook was left for visitors to sign. Many viewers took the opportunity to write their thoughts, and one of the significant differences between the letters and logbooks is that the logbooks contain fewer anguished protonarratives and many more comments explicitly addressing the perceived conflicts in self- and other-representation. Perhaps this shift is due to the nature of writing one’s individual responses to a visual and textual experience, as opposed to making a defensive and polemical point, but it could also be that the shift is due to a different demographic attending the exhibition. It may well be that the people who protested, and eventually influenced, the exhibition were not the same people who viewed the exhibition. The majority of exhibition postings were held at deaf schools around the nation or in communities with a large culturally Deaf population. However, in this chapter, to keep some level of consistency between the inclusion of excerpts from far-flung letter writers and far-flung visitors, I am focusing mainly on the logbooks from the Smithsonian posting.

In addition to registering one’s presence and intimacy with the exhibition’s subject matter, the short texts in the logbooks again evince protonarratives that position the visitor within yet another set of perceived discursive conflicts regarding deafness, Deaf identity, Deaf history, familial and community connections, “hearing,” and minority identity. Although anxious or defensive protonarratives similar to those in the protest letters also were present, in some ways, the logbooks represent those “voices” that were not present consistently in the body of protest letters.

With these responses and protonarratives, provocative and revealing intersections emerge between discursive terms used to represent or describe D/deaf people and deafness and the ways in which hearing and d/Deaf people described their individual experiences with the exhibition. Excerpts from the “outsider’s” perspective on the exhibition show some of the misconceptions and stereotypes that the exhibition had always hoped to correct. A few hearing visitors counted their blessings that they were not also deaf. However, most had the good sense to attempt to step out of their “audiocentric” worldview: “This exhibit was amazing! It showed how smart ‘dumb’ people are. I know ASL myself, but I am not deaf.”[36] With this visitor, the exhibition was clearly successful with its act of recovery and reinscription of deaf people within the context of American history; it was able to normalize and reincorporate deaf citizens for visitors who might otherwise stigmatize the subject of the exhibition.

Some hearing visitors chose to respond by focusing upon deaf people as individuals rather than as a group; but once again, the impulse was to reinscribe deaf people into a normalized category of sensory experience. One visitor wrote, “Does anyone read this? . . . What would be a good addition is a room set up where there were (movies of) people talking that you couldn’t hear and other things that showed what it is like to be deaf.”[37] This visitor imagines that by simulating lack of hearing she might become


34. Letter to the Smithsonian, March 12, 1996. Gallaudet University Archives.

35. Letter to the Smithsonian, March 12, 1996. Gallaudet University Archives.

36. Excerpt, Smithsonian Logbook. 2002. Gallaudet University Archives.

37. Excerpt, Smithsonian Logbook. 2002. Gallaudet University Archives.


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