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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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While the Rodney King beating occurred during sixth grade, racism was not a big issue, but entering junior high school in seventh grade, it seemed a whole different world. I was now entering a school whose population included mainly Black people (nearly 95%) while the rest were White. Before entering junior high school, I never thought about race as a part of identity formation. It just never factored in my mind; identity had always been centered on hearing versus deaf. This new intersection of oppression opened my eyes to new worlds. My peers and I were more aware of racism, the historical oppression of Black people, and the power inequality in society.

The Rodney King situation produced a heightened awareness of racial issues at the school. I now became a double minority, deaf and White, which posed a few advantages and disadvantages for me that I constantly had to negotiate as an individual. The more I aligned myself as a deaf person, the more I was “connected” with my Black friends as being a part of an “oppressed” group and a minority at large. It made sense to me: if I interacted with my White friends, then being White was “cancelled out” and what was left was my deaf identity. Thus, I sat with my Black friends most of the time on the premise that we were all members of an “oppressed group,” regardless of how, and my deafness would be masked. This strategy worked to my advantage; I would sit with my Black friends nearly every day during lunch (which would continue throughout high school). They were much more tolerant of my deafness than my White peers. I learned to play Spades and Craps (allowed back then) and learned to dress like them and talk like them. I gained a lot of respect from the majority of my school. When I won president of the Student Council in seventh and then in eighth grade, my closest competitor who was White came to me and directly said that the only reason I won was because I was deaf and that they voted for me out of pity. I suppressed that specific moment and denied it, but today, I do wonder.

High school was similar to junior high school, but the race issues were much more intensified as I left a school of about 400 students and entered a school of nearly 1,500 students. Many of my White friends with whom I grew up went to private schools, and my parents were determined that I would have a better education at these private schools than at the public school. However, when I found out that these private schools would not provide an interpreter, I immediately defended myself to my parents and emphasized that I needed an interpreter to understand and learn academically. I was empowered enough to voice my own accessibility needs and my parents respected that.

At my high school, I continued to be a “double-minority,” being among the 5% of White people at the school. My parents initially saw the public school as a disadvantage to my learning, but it became a tremendous advantage, both academically and emotionally. My Black friends and I were not privileged, did not have power, and did not live within the dominant ideology of what was normal, and we knew it. This mutual understanding is what led to a shared camaraderie and respect for one another as human. There were some problems, though. When it came to athletics at my high school, race became a major factor. I enjoyed playing basketball and football, but those sports were traditionally reserved only for Black people. If you risked playing these two sports, then you risked stigma. I wanted none of that. One of my White friends played both basketball and football; his nickname was “Snowball” and he appeared to embrace that moniker. Instead, I played soccer (4 years), wrestled (3 years), and played tennis (2 years)—sports that were reserved for White people. It is safe to say that I made varsity on all of those teams basically because we did not have a junior varsity team or any competition among those in the “White” sports (Figure 1.8).

In high school, I felt the most normal ever. I was content with my integrated identity: my identity with my hearing world (academically, athletically, and socially) as well as my deaf identity in my deaf world through Boy Scouts and with many deaf friends who were also mainstreamed at other high schools. There were times when I would have to drive 20–30 miles just to meet with deaf friends; we rotated locations where to meet up and were notorious for staying up during the wee hours, talking and catching up. We did not have the luxury of telephones to converse during the week, so weekends were our opportunity to catch up and to get our “deaf fix”—sign language. While there were times that we would communicate by means of TTYs, the conversations were very one dimensional and did little to fulfill our need and desire to catch up face to face and, again, to use sign language. Before long, it was time to enter the realm of college.

Arizona State University

College was a whole different ballgame. As a senior in high school, I visited three schools that I was interested in and was accepted to. One of my top (if not the top) criteria for a school was its accessibility. What good was my education if I did not have access to it, I thought to myself. This insight was something I would have not figured out earlier on in my deaf education. At this point, I knew I did not want to endure the politics of accessibility that I had so far had to mediate to arrive at where I was today. Thus, the first people I met with at these schools were the disability resource specialists who would be in charge of my accommodations, specifically, ASL interpreters.

At one of the schools, one specialist was blind and another was a person in a wheelchair. I remember immediately disassociating myself from them because I did not want anybody else to “speak” for me; however, I felt that I had no option—until I visited the third school, Arizona State University, whose specialist was a deaf person who was fluent in ASL. I felt relief knowing that I would not have to take the same path that I had taken before, having the “other” speak for me. Of course, later on, I would soon realize that many specialists, regardless of disability, were able to understand the importance of an ASL interpreter as an effective accommodation, but I did not know it at the time. I was being very guarded about what I wanted in terms of access.

Once I met with the specialist at Arizona State, she informed me that I would be having lunch with a few other Arizona State students who were also deaf; I was shocked. “Arizona State has deaf people?” I asked her. I thought that all (if not most) deaf people went to either Gallaudet University or Rochester Institute of Technology, which most of my St. Louis friends had attended. She smiled and said that Arizona State had approximately 40–50 deaf people who used ASL interpreters. I was flabbergasted! I knew I was home once again, despite being among strangers. As long as they were deaf, I was home (Schein, 2003).

I knew this transitional moment from high school to college would be scary, and I did not know what to anticipate because my transition from CID to public schools had proved to be traumatic (and continues to be to this day). That summer, my entire family and my grandparents took a road trip from St. Louis to Phoenix. After arriving in Phoenix and unpacking all my stuff, to be housed in a dorm at Manzanita Hall full of hearing students whom I had not met, I was ready for whatever I would face.

I still felt guarded and wanted to get beyond my first experience with an interpreter in a college class. My first interpreters were Lori and Patty. Their signs were quite different; I was shocked by their fluent and natural ability to sign. I had never encountered interpreters of that caliber. I had never met any deaf person of that caliber, let alone an interpreter! I asked where they got their training in sign language, and they both looked at each other and smiled, “We’re Codas.” Puzzled, I asked, “What’s a Coda?” They answered, “Our parents are deaf. We’re Children of Deaf Adults. Our first culture was the deaf culture.” Holy shit! Adults who had hearing using sign language and acknowledging that they belonged first in the deaf culture?! It was at this point that I realized my positionality as a deaf person was so far away from “the” deaf world and that my “deaf world” was actually an in-between world. I was not fully deaf yet. This realization was affirmed when I learned that my “ASL” (also spoken by my Troop #132 scoutmasters and my deaf friends in St. Louis) was actually PSE (Pidgin Sign Language) and that I was more closely aligned in the hearing world than in the actual deaf world. There were some hearing people that were more “deaf” than me out there (Mudgett-DeCaro, 1996).


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