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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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All the while, the oral interpreter proceeded to mouth word for word what the teacher was instructing. Having an interpreter as a third party to my educational learning was a new accommodation that I had never before experienced. The constant speechreading through which I was still able to catch only less than half of what she said proved to be a disaster. I also found myself falling asleep toward the end of the day after intensively speechreading what I could, guessing other words, and connecting the words I could understand to make meaning. A classic example involving you as the reader comes to mind. Go ahead and fill out the words in blanks:
The problems that confront p _______________ in raising ch ______________ from in _________________ to adult life are not easy to s ________________. Both fa _________________ and m ________________ meet with many d _____________ in their concern for satisfactory pro ___________________ from the e ______________ stage to later life.
Are your words the same as the words below?
The problems that confront poultrymen in raising chickens from incubator to adult life are not easy to solve. Both farmers and merchants meet with many demands in their concern for satisfactory production from the egg stage to later life.
This example is a classic exercise given at many “deaf sensitivity” workshops to indicate that speechreading is guesswork and requires a lot of creativity. My experience was no different in the classroom. Additionally, the FM system was ineffective; daily, I would get static white noise—caused by things such as the microphone rubbing against the teacher’s shirt or his breathing—which would startle and distract me.

After several months, the interpreter could see that the current method of accommodation was not effective and subtly offered to sign while mouthing the words. I obliged. I had nothing to lose; I had hit rock bottom, so I figured I would try sign language, with the expectation that it would also fail me. As I look back now, I wondered whether my “teacher of the deaf” played a role in communicating with my current interpreter to make that adjustment (as suggested in the ninth responsibility listed for her above).

Ironically, I embraced sign language in my other world with my other deaf friends, notably during Boy Scouts, but I did not think that it was functional to place sign language in the hearing-dominated world. As soon as the interpreter started signing, I knew that it would be a major distraction for the other students, but I no longer cared since I had become used to being deviant. I would continue to read the interpreter’s lips while picking up the signs attributed to the speechreading. Once she started signing, I could tell immediately that the students were quickly drawn to the signs as some sort of alien language. For me, the immediate impact I had with sign language in my educational instruction struck in the core of my consciousness as a deaf person. I had almost forgotten how important signs and gestures were to me during my childhood at CID, but because I was the only deaf student in my public school, I did not think to demand that the public school incorporate sign language into my academic program. I was now able to really understand what the teacher was saying. I was actually learning! No longer was my ability to comprehend speech used to measure my academic success. It was now a question of how well (and how fast) I could learn sign language that would determine my academic success. I took off the FM systems and never looked back.

I started to embrace sign language as an integral component of my academic instruction, deaf cultural identity, and perception of normalcy. Sign language not only had an emotional and educational impact on me but also gave me more leverage as a “normal” person. I was no longer struggling to adapt to the hearing society, but rather, by using sign language, I found avenues to enable the hearing society to adapt to me. My confidence soared and sign language became my “special” weapon, as if I were somehow equal in different ways (often personally feeling superior) to those hearing students. I also could feel that they looked at me as uniquely different in a positive rather than deviant way. This change would be validated as many of them would come up to me asking me how to sign particular words. I would have a unique relationship with some of them by communicating with them through signs. My school started asking me to perform poems and songs in sign language in front of the entire school. In fact, during the end of fifth grade, the music choir learned a song using some sign language and performed this entire song not only to me and my parents but also to other students’ parents, school administrators, and the superintendent of the entire school district. Interestingly, the song was about “love in every language,” and it was sung in various languages, including German, Italian, Spanish, and ASL, as though ASL was equally as important as the other languages!

I found success through sports and extracurricular activities. Now, I was finally “speaking” back and feeling normal. Suddenly my horizons were broadened and my two worlds and languacultures merged: no longer did I commute my deaf identity from two worlds; I was integrating my identity in both worlds. At the end of fifth grade, I was the goalie of my undefeated soccer team. I remember vividly trying to be the best athlete on the team so I could prove to my hearing friends that I was as good as them, if not better. This determination would also reflect in my academic performance. I strove to earn high scores on all tests and assignments because I needed to constantly remind all hearing people that my deafness was not a “bad” thing and was, perhaps, an advantage. Deafness was no longer my disability; I no longer felt disabled. Now, I was normal, accepted, and natural. Of course, looking back, there were a few experiences that were powerful enough to shift my sense of normalcy back to viewing my deafness as a deficit.

When I entered sixth grade at Ronald E. McNair in 1991, I was assigned to a homeroom teacher who was hard of hearing at best (I was still not sure whether the school consciously placed me with this teacher on purpose), but it proved to be a disaster. The teacher would express to me his frustrations as a person on the margins (neither hearing nor deaf) and his distaste for the “rest” of the world, and he asserted that he and I would become comrades. My classmates constantly mocked him, made comments that he would not understand, and in a way, cast him as deviant. As a result, I tried to disassociate myself from the teacher. When that did not work, I explained to my parents that I wanted a different homeroom teacher. After a few meetings with the administrators, I was reassigned to another teacher with whom I felt much better emotionally, but I still was not happy with my surroundings.

Although I was assigned a new homeroom teacher, I would have different teachers with different peers in each subject. I was more comfortable with my deaf identity in certain classrooms but was not comfortable in other classrooms, depending on the teacher and the peers. I often found that I felt more comfortable with female teachers, and many of my peers were girls who appeared to be sympathetic to my “hearing loss.” Nonetheless, I would regularly pretend that I was sick with some sort of stomach muscle cramp and make my mom pick me up so I could avoid having to deal with my school. I was looking forward to Brittany Woods Junior High school because I knew sports was an important influence at the school, and the better you were athletically, the better your reputation at school. That sports focus could be an opportunity for me to use my athletic skills as leverage to become “normal” and to mask my deafness. An emphasis on athletics seemed to be my game plan, but then, something major happened in 1991–92 that would make my deafness a far less important precursor to my identity—the Rodney King beating (1991) and the trial itself (1992).


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