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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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On Wednesdays and on the weekends that we would go camping, I felt the most normal. I was no longer the minority or the outcast, but one of the group. Our languages were the same, our experiences were mutual, and what it meant to be deaf was never necessary to be brought up for discussion. Instead, we learned more about each other and our own unique characteristics, not as a deaf person, but as a human. We all learned what each of us liked and disliked as well as our strengths (some were better at rope-tying while others were better at first aid), which made us a great team.

During the 10 years of my time with Troop #132, I became an Eagle Scout (Troop #132 held the most Eagle Scouts of any deaf troop in the United States), rose to the highest rank of our local district as Chapter Chief, and obtained the Vigil honor with the Order of the Arrow, which is handed only to those who were nominated (without solicitations for those nominations) and considered (Figure 1.5).

While my experiences with Troop #132 gave me some confidence in myself and made me challenge my traditional assumptions about deafness and sign language, my other world overwhelmingly dominated my ideology and sense of personal identity.

Fifth Grade and On

I was the oldest fifth grader in my school and would find out that many mainstreamed deaf students were often “held back” a few years. In fifth grade, I was placed in a classroom taught by one teacher. I thought this arrangement would be an advantage for me since I would have to rely on reading only one set of lips, the teacher’s. However, I soon realized my inability to understand questions from other students. I was always in the front row of the classroom (to ostensibly speechread better). Every time the teacher would allow a student to ask a question, I would immediately look back to locate that student, and by the time I found him or her, I had missed at least half of the question. Then, when the teacher would respond to the answer at length, I would not know what the question was to begin with. It did not take long for me to realize that I was lagging in all aspects of my education.

Being placed in a public school was not an advantage, despite the benefit of having one teacher; it was, in fact, a huge burden. I had to adjust my learning strategies to fit into their system rather than the school adjusting to my specific needs and talents. I did not understand most of the information being communicated by the teacher and the students. I continually had to manage my identity to come up with an understanding and explanation of my status in a new academic environment. During recess, lunch, and travel in the hallways, I would often take off my hearing aids to “hide” my stigma as a deaf person. The possibility of being rejected as a deaf person would be too traumatizing for me, so I tried to maintain my membership in the hearing mainstream by developing an identity that was not native to me (Goffman, 1968). Most of my representation of “self” came from the hearing students as I attempted to pass as “hearing.” I ran and became student council president, hoping that my peers would see me as a possible leader and president rather than as a deaf and disabled individual. Being president was a testament to show others that, although I may be deaf, I was a different type of deaf person and not ordinary. I constantly played the role of master of ceremony and gave welcome speeches for various school-sponsored programs (Figure 1.6).

During recess and lunch, I used to laugh along with the hearing students, even though I did not know what they were laughing about. I wanted to pretend that I was following along conversationally. I tried to be “normal,” but I felt so alienated because I constantly did not understand basic conversations and could not pass fully as a “hearing” person. I felt that I was becoming a failed product in their hearing world. I did not have any camaraderie with most of the hearing students, except for a select few who lived in my neighborhood. However, even they were reluctant to be seen socializing with me in public. I completely understood their resistance because, internally, I had cast myself as deviant and as the “other.” Being deaf was my stigma; I started to become Quasimodo, placed in this society to carry this burden and to be the center of others’ gaze and “smile ruefully . . . yes, I’m deaf. That’s the way I’m made. It’s truly horrible, isn’t it?” (Hugo, 1978, in Davis, 1995, p. 116). I could no longer feel “normal” with hearing people around me, particularly because I was not able to use my hands, gestures, and facial expressions to portray my sense of self. Like Quasimodo, I was often made fun of and was a target for the bullies at my school. At one point, I faced a school bully to let him know that I had had enough, and in return, I was beaten for a good few minutes before staff members could pull us apart. The bully told the staff members that I had started it, which was confirmed by a few other students. However, the staff members concluded that it was both of our faults. In a meeting with the vice principal to discuss the fight, I did not understand what the bully was saying nor did I understand the vice principal. Nonetheless, we were dismissed and told to resume the day as if nothing had happened. The hallways were clear; the rest of the students were already in their classrooms, and as I was proceeding to walk back to my classroom, I broke down crying in the middle of the stairs. Coincidently, my hearing sister, who was in third grade at the time, was on her way to another classroom to give a teacher a note. She saw me on the stairs crying. I did not expect to see her, and I tried to hide my tears and told her to forget about it. Fifteen minutes later, my sister entered my classroom crying; she also was carrying this burden with me.

Both in school and at home, I was becoming increasingly isolated emotionally and socially. I was still struggling with my deafness and often asked God why he put a deaf person like me on Earth and whether this plan was his idea of a sick joke. My local school saw that I was failing fifth grade and intervened by calling the local special school district representative who initiated my first Individualized Education Program (IEP). My IEP would outline my academic goals, including speech therapy, social skills development, and individualized tutoring, to ensure that I would catch up with the other students. According to an “electroacoustic analysis” by my audiologist, I was a

visual learner who uses an interpreter to comprehend the spoken word in a combination with lipreading/speechreading of the speaker. He does receive adequate amplification from his hearing aids as reported by the audiologist. Thomas voices for himself but signs to the interpreter for a preferred sign or for clarification. He effectively uses the interpreter to process information from lectures and discussions, and as needed in small group discussions, and one-on-one conversations with staff, teachers, and peers. (analysis from the Special School District of St. Louis County IEP)
I would attend speech therapy once a day for one hour every day while the rest of my peers would attend their music class; apparently, the school did not think that I needed music training since I was deaf, and therefore, the school practitioners concluded that music was not my “thing.” I loved music, but not in the “normal” sense of music (Figure 1.7).

On top of my academic-related homework, I also had speech therapy homework in which I had to practice certain words with my parents daily. Although I was present at the IEP meeting to assess my failures in the public school system, I understood nothing since it was moderated by these “specialists” speaking for me and about me rather than soliciting any input from me. Their behavior made it seemed as if the school were more “concerned about the primacy of the role of experts—physicians, psychologists, administrators, social workers, and educators in devising the IEP”—than in what I wanted (Fleisher & Zames, 2001, p. 185). The school district mandated that I get an ASL interpreter for my classes.


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