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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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better able to understand the experience of deaf people. Until that happens, she can only imagine, in a very limited way, what Deaf people experience in their deafened bodies. This lack of something essential in her understanding does not quite square with what she describes as an otherwise “excellent and extremely informative” exhibit. Perhaps that sense of disjunction between what is already described and normalized and then an intriguing encounter with someone who doesn’t easily fit those categories is the reason that quite a few felt compelled to describe encounters with deaf people:
I was a kindergarten teacher . . . at [a school] in Washington, D.C. One of my students . . . was a hearing child of a deaf parent. She provided me with my first experience outside my family with a hearing impaired person. Our “Teacher’s Conference” was a wonderful experience. She and I “talked” about her charming son’s progress. . . . I pray all has gone well for this lovely family.[38]

Praise the Lord! . . . The Lord guided me to this exhibit. We have a “Silent Music Ministry Choir” at our church. . . . [T]he Silent Mission Choir signs sign so beautifully. It’s as if their fingers are literally speaking.[39]

Attention Musicians: Perhaps the most rewarding gig you can play is for an audience who cannot hear you perform. Turn up the Bass and keep a smile on your face. The vibration (and good vibes) will keep your gracious Audience Dancin’ All Night![40]

In most cases, with these kinds of responses, the encounter with a deaf person “enriches” or enhances the hearing person’s understanding of commonplace sensory experiences. In that respect, deaf people serve as arbiters of a sensory and sensual liaison that nonetheless is still framed within the context of “hearing”: “talking,” “hands literally speaking,” “vibration (and good vibes)” set to the tones of loud bass music.

In a similar vein, still others used common tropes of diversity to describe what they saw and how they perceived the exhibition: “Exhibits like this help little by little to dispell [sic] the ignorance of Americans about people. . . . We are a diverse people.”[41] The very frame of the exhibition encourages this kind of reinsertion of deaf people into what has largely been an “able-bodied” narrative, that of American history—hence the overlay of distinctly hearing terms of description onto d/Deaf experiences, d/Deaf bodies.

Other hearing visitors chose to connect to the exhibition by writing protonarratives that, unlike those described earlier, shifted the focus away from the writer and instead signaled intimacy with the Deaf community through the naming of deaf family members:

The exhibit is wonderful! I have a deaf bro and it meant a lot to see such a tribute.[42]

My deaf daughter now 33 went through the entire revolution depicted in this remarkable and bright (?) [sic] exhibit. Thank you indeed.[43]

After 41 years of married life to my deaf wife, I, a hearing person, have not fully mastered sign language.[44]

Those who named a relationship with a culturally Deaf person were enacting the same kind of inter- and intracommunity networking that one does with another Deaf person; by doing so, one establishes a relation to the community as a member, as an ally, or as a participant on the fringes. This sort of relational matrix is common for the culturally Deaf community. In contrast to the letters, these protonarratives do not describe an immediate threat to a family “body” or to the national body. They expand on the representation of Deaf and deaf people through the addition of more bodies and more narratives allied to those on display rather than asserting the deaf child’s inclusion within an already homogenized U.S. history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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