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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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Throughout my years of speech therapy, I had a strong sense that my parents and the school were more concerned with the disadvantages of my hearing loss and my inability to speak “perfectly” than with the advantages of my possible talents (including deafness). They were more focused on classifying me by means of audiological measurement and disciplining me to become “normal” based on the criteria of their ideology. All of the teachers at CID were trained in speech therapy/pathology and showed no knowledge of sign language or experience with deaf culture. Their focus was on speech pathology. I always wore a 4" x 2" mechanical device placed in front of my chest and sometimes tucked underneath my clothes. It weighed about 5 pounds, and thick wires led from it to my ear(s) (Figure 1.1).

With the use of technology and speech therapy, the school sought to “fix” me, as if I were broken, attempting to help me to hear. I did think I was going to be a hearing person someday.

My classroom during elementary school included one or two other deaf students and was a setting where our “culture in the classroom” and independence (individual/group agency) occurred strictly between the hearing teacher and each deaf student. While I would constantly have to awkwardly look at my peer to understand what he or she was saying, that individual was always fixed on the teacher and never on me (see Figure 1.2). What is also interesting in Figure 1.2 is that the student next to me is pointing at her mouth to emphasize a certain word; it was common for us, as students, to emphasize carefully, as clearly as we could, every word that we were instructed to pronounce and, somehow, by pointing at our mouths, we gave the spoken word more authority.

The awkward seating arrangement in the classroom limited my ability to engage in social interactions with other students. However, in the private spaces such as the hallway, bathrooms, and playground, I remember secretly socializing in gestures with my peers. There was something comfortable and easy about our gestures, about conveying meaning through our hands and facial expressions. It just felt more natural than speaking. Sign language/gestures seemed to be our preferred means of communicating. Most of all, I remember the tremendous backlash from teachers who forbade us to use gestures, as if these gestures were “evil” and an indication of deviant behavior.

Every time I displayed my resistance during class by using signs/gestures, I remember being scolded and made to sit on my hands or have them tied with rubber bands to further prevent me from using them as a communication tool. The message seemed to be that my hands were not a part of me and that they needed to be controlled. I remember the forceful hands of my teachers pressed firmly on my cheekbones to direct my face toward their face as they constantly demanded that I watch and listen to the words coming from their mouths and then to repeat the words, even when I did not comprehend them in the first place. Figure 1.3 by Susan Dupor, titled Coerce, brings back painful memories.

I became indoctrinated to the belief that my ears and my mouth were the fundamental instruments of my education. My notions of success equated to becoming normal and subsequently becoming a hearing person or very close to one. In 1988, CID felt that I was “ready” to enter the realm of mainstreaming where I would be the only deaf person in a public school. The instance in which I learned of this determination is a memory that I remember very vividly (my mother continues to be shocked at my recollection of this memory). During school, my mother pulled me out of art class at the basement of CID and proceeded to walk with me up a flight of stairs where she sat down on one of the steps and said that I was ready academically at third grade to enter the “outside” world. Immediately, I broke down in tears and pleaded with my mother to not let me leave CID—the only environment in which I felt safe and comfortable, being surrounded with my other deaf peers. I could see the pain on her face; she wanted me to progress academically, but sensed that I may not be ready socially and personally. She asked me, “Are you sure you want to stay here [CID]?” Without thinking twice, I said yes. She finally relented, and I went back to art class, not telling anybody because I did not want them to think that I was going to become “different” from them; I wanted us all to be on the same journey together. Two years later, CID would “graduate” me at which point I embarked on a new journey in the public school system as the only deaf child at my school.

Boy Scouts and Public School

In 1990, at the age of 10, I still had not learned sign language. I had been taught by CID that sign language was taboo, deviant, and according to one teacher, reserved for animals, specifically monkeys. This notion was further validated when one of my first exposures to sign language in the media showed a chimpanzee signing “apple” in the 1987 movie, Project X. By then, my perception of sign language was validated. At the age of 10, I was mainstreamed into my new world—the local public school where I was the only deaf student through twelfth grade. But, during the same year, I met Bill Blank, a scoutmaster with CID’s Troop #132, who introduced me to another new world. I was now living in two worlds: educationally, I was immersed as the only deaf person in my public school, but socially, I was immersed with other CID students and alumni who joined Troop #132 of the Boy Scouts. I juggled these two worlds until my senior year of high school—a total of 8 years. I will get back to the educational aspect of my life later in this chapter, but first, I want to highlight some of my invaluable experiences with Bill Blank and his Troop #132.

Troop #132

When I first joined Troop #132, I realized that I was not the only person who went to a public school. Many CID alumni would also share the same isolation as mine, being the only deaf person at their schools; we shared a camaraderie. I remembered that I was always excited for Wednesday night to come—the time when we would have our weekly Boy Scout meetings, ironically, held at CID. The location was ironic because Bill Blank along with his two assistant scoutmasters were deaf, and they communicated with us in SimCom—a combined method of signing and speaking, although during that time, I thought they were using ASL. I had no idea what ASL looked like. Especially in the CID setting, the experience of deaf scoutmasters as teachers, teaching us by means of sign language, set up a sharp contrast to what I had been accustomed to.

During our meetings, we were taught on many subjects that were specifically tailored to help us obtain merit badges in categories including (but not limited to) first aid, rope-tying, government, weatherreading, science, forestry, and zoology. I learned so much through these meetings, and the next Wednesday could not come soon enough. We Boy Scouts would play for as long as we could after each meeting while my mother waited diligently as I pleaded for “just 10 more minutes” over and over.

The troop broke down into two major groups: those who were still at CID and those who were alumni of CID. CID students stayed at the residential dormitory, and the alumni commuted home where they would enter their “other world.” I was always envious of those who stayed at the dorm, wishing that I could join their lifestyle. Being able to socialize 24/7 and eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner without any communication barriers would have been my heaven! Alas, I went home to my family, to my other world, where I would use spoken English and speechread (at least as much as I could understand) my family and my friends at public school. Aside from Wednesdays, Troop #132 also trained for biannual camporees where we competed against hearing troops in our district; we were the only deaf troop (Figure 1.4). We always placed either first or second (I know Troop #98 can vouch for this claim as we were always rivals). Being able to place first or second out of as many as 12–15 hearing troops was truly inspiring.

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