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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Social Constructions of Deafness: Examining Deaf Languacultures in Education

Thomas P. Horejes

Chapter One
My Journey

I am myself plus my circumstance and if I do not save it, I cannot save myself.
                                 —José Ortega y Gasset (Meditations on Quixote, 1914)

This chapter addresses the ethical inquiry of where I am, epistemological inquiries of who I am, and the types of social constructions that permeate my deafness and my identity(ies) (Lankshear & McLaren, 1993). The quote, “I am myself plus my circumstances and if I do not save it, I cannot save myself” by Jose Ortega y Gassett postulates that it is my circumstances that construct who I am; thus, I must first locate myself in a social landscape in a specific historical moment—the where I am. This ethical inquiry of the where is not necessarily confined only to a physical location, but also consciously and historically. How can one begin to explain who they are to the reader if the reader does not understand the author’s positionality and its relevance toward this research? The epistemological question of the “who am I?” provides a knowledge construction of my life, my identit(ies), and how my circumstances shape my deafness in order to “save” (or to reveal) my circumstances. My circumstance is different than yours—but by locating our intersectionalities of difference, we are able to possibly see some of the tangents of our difference into a shared understanding of our social world. My journey through constructions of deafness, including perspectives of normalcy and deviance, began at the age of 6 months when my family members (especially my mother and grandmother) noticed that I was not responding to the sounds of Gumbo, our family dog. Immediately, they considered the possibility that I had a hearing loss. After several visits to different doctors and “specialists,” my family received mixed diagnoses (including one from a doctor who claimed that I was mentally retarded), but the majority of the doctors concluded that there was nothing wrong with me and that my parents were being paranoid. One doctor advised my mother to see a therapist because he felt that she may have acquired Munchausen Syndrome by proxy; a syndrome in which mothers continually diagnose their newly born child with disorders, ostensibly for attention and sympathy from doctors.

Several more months passed, and my mother and grandmother’s intuition grew stronger. They demanded a scientific explanation for why I was not responding to certain sounds. Finally, as I approached 6 months old, the doctors agreed to run more “tests.” They placed me alone in a soundproof glass laboratory room with my body wired to several electrocardiography (EKG) machines in the hope of determining what was “wrong” with me. I would later learn that during this moment, my mother started to get very emotional, not because I might have a hearing loss, but because I was being examined in a quack-type experimental manner in the name of science. My mother felt that the doctors were engaging in some sort of “Frankenstein” experiment, using fabricated tools and exerting their “scientific” authority to justify their actions. After hours of testing, the doctors concluded that I had a hearing loss and told my mother that they would need to keep me overnight for further testing. Repulsed with the way they had treated me, my mother refused, demanded that they stop any further tests, and brought me home. And thus began a new journey in my parents’ lives, “one that challenge[d] their understandings of themselves as parents and of what it is to be human” (Erting, 1985, p. 230).

After confirming through science their intuition that I had a “hearing loss,” questions entered my parents’ minds, including Will my child be “normal”? Will my child “speak”? Will my child be able to “hear”? How can I make my child as “normal” as possible? Will my child ever be able to “function” in a hearing society? How will my child be able to go to the same school as his “hearing” sister? These questions reflected their notions of what it meant to be “normal,” which was based on the ability to speak and hear. For my parents, hearing loss was an indication of a lifelong deficit; the notion of hearing was a human value and a criterion for normalcy. My identification as an individual with a hearing loss constructed the cultural reality in which I was categorized. My parents looked in the Yellow Pages under the heading, “hearing loss” and found that there was a school for children with “hearing impairments.” At the age of 6 months, my parents enrolled me at Central Institute for the Deaf (CID) in St. Louis, founded in 1916 and one of the premier oral schools in the world.

Central Institute for the Deaf (CID)

For 10 years, I received oral training, including extensive speech therapy at CID, where each academic subject (e.g., math, social studies, science, and so on) revolved around the capacity to pronounce terminology within these subjects, but involved little emphasis on the context or the substance of the information being taught. The school focused on speech as Erting (2003) defines it: “the form of language most people consider synonymous with underlying linguistic competence and through which most everyday human relationships are created and maintained” (p. 374). This method would be reinforced as I witnessed my family members and hearing friends using speech as their primary form of communication and as I relied on my hearing aids to connect speech with sounds.

I wanted to be hearing like them, but I was reminded of my limitations every day, either because I could not understand what they were saying or because I had to repeat what I had just said to them. The school was not assisting me to help me “master” my speech, so my parents also became my “personal” speech therapists, correcting my speech whenever possible. My understanding of the social world was centered on the immense importance of speaking as a fundamental criterion of my wholeness as a human being, or a normal human being in accordance with my knowledge construction.

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