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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
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Gallaudet University is also in the midst of a cultural and identity transformation. There are unprecedented numbers of new signers entering Gallaudet with the hopes of gaining an education, learning sign language, and negotiating their long-standing identity in their new social surroundings. The arrival of many new signers has been a welcome sight for some students, but for other students, it has been seen as a threat to their cultural boundaries. In my second semester teaching at Gallaudet (2010), there was a controversial article published in the student newspaper, Buff & Blue, titled, “Who Is Gallaudet?” The author, Elena Ruiz, raises an inquiry: “Why are we wasting our time kowtowing to the needs of ASL-inept and unwilling students rather than taking them by the collar and demanding to know why they are infiltrating our cultural grounds with their spoken language and visible resistance to ASL?” Ruiz speaks of Gallaudet as a deaf space that requires “language immersion at all times. Cultural representation at all times. No more wasting time coddling the hearing students or the Deaf students victimized by the hearing system who are not yet fluent users of ASL. It is time to rise up and unite, to recreate Gallaudet as a deaf embodiment.”

However, what Elena Ruiz may have failed to understand is that a deaf embodiment is in itself a social construct and that many deaf individuals will experience embodiment quite differently as this chapter about my own life experience has indicated. The variety of deaf embodiment was affirmed by the deputy to the president and the associate provost for diversity who responded to the article by hosting an ongoing Dialogue on Language and Communication at Gallaudet. Educational backgrounds of those attending varied from deaf schools to mainstreaming programs. Linguistic backgrounds ranged from deaf people who were fluent in ASL to deaf people who were new signers to hearing students who were fluent in ASL. The narratives by various students during the dialogues were so dynamically diverse, their embodiment so unique, yet many shared a common thread— the importance of their language in their culture. The dialogues were set up in groups of five to six peers with one facilitator in each group. Each group discussed shared issues such as what ought to be the “climate/ culture/community” of Gallaudet, which invoked different responses from students, including the lack of support or welcoming environment for new signers/ASL learners; fear of the loss of ASL and deaf culture as a result of inclusion, mainstreaming, and cochlear implants; and the need to respect all cultures and language abilities. One recurring theme that I observed was the impact of language on deaf culture and how their language represents a unique embodiment of what it means to be deaf. Gallaudet has an opportunity through the Dialogue on Language and Communication program to reveal the different ways that each deaf experience, including language and culture, contributes to the overall social construction of deafness; it is the collection of these experiences (emic) that can be incorporated into theoretical themes (etic) to organize these important experiences and reach a greater understanding about what it means to be deaf. More importantly, understanding the socially constructed embodiment of deafness and the impact of languaculture serves to create awareness of what it means to be deaf. This book continues these inquiries.

When visiting my deaf community in St. Louis and my friends from Troop #132 who have remained in St. Louis all this time, I have been asked why I have not gotten cochlear implants. These friends have also noticed my signing becoming more “fluid” like a “native” deaf person. I remember thinking that by being involved in Troop #132, I had solidified myself in the deaf world, but then I realized that my deafness became contested depending on my situatedness. No matter where I went, my cultural boundaries would shift, but the major factor in these shifts was my manipulation of language—whether I chose to use ASL, spoken English, or a variation of both. It was the usage and maintenance of language that made my culture malleable.

Looking back to my journey between the two worlds and its intersections, I wondered, if I had learned ASL earlier on, how would have my life been different? What social constructions would have developed? If I had not met Bill Blank, what would have become of me? If I had not gone to work for a deaf agency, how would I have understood the importance of entering the margins and then coming back into particular worlds? How would my positionality at Gallaudet have shaped my understanding of selfhood? So many questions!

Being positioned in a certain boundary contingent on time and place surely was important in addressing these questions. For example, my parents got a letter from the director of CID in 1984 saying that the “FDA approved an electronic ear implant” (now known as the cochlear implant), but it was not recommended for children. However a few years later, they switched their stance, and today, more than 90% of the children at CID have at least one cochlear implant.

If I had been born later, I may have gotten a cochlear implant, and that experience would have constructed me differently. If I had not decided to stay at CID for two more years and had gone on to public schools, who knows? I may have left the deaf world and immersed myself as a complete hearing deaf person. These possibilities are some of the contingencies of the social that might have socially constructed my identity and what it meant for me to be deaf. Throughout my journey, I realized that I am who I am because of my circumstances including experiences I have actually had.

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