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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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It was about time! I was not disrespecting my primary language— Spoken English—but I felt that ASL needed to play a larger role in my life and that I needed to have better “balance” in my two worlds. I was tired of being viewed by deaf people as someone who was privileged because I could speak. I also vowed that I would never use my voice; I operated in “voice off” mode. I wanted to be enculturated entirely into the deaf world as I never had before. Whenever my coworkers and I went out for lunch, I always ordered by writing on paper, gesturing, or pointing at the menu. Since the deaf community was so small, I also hung out with my coworkers socially during nights and weekends. I was “passing” as deaf and it was working well; I was finally home again, so I thought.

I ran into an old friend from Arizona State who was visiting a coworker. This person immediately saw a different side of me and asked why I did not use my voice. I tried to quickly comment that I no longer needed my voice and changed the subject. No such luck. My newfound deaf friends immediately asked whether I could speak, and I signed, “I used to.” They probed as if they wanted to know where I stood in terms of a deaf identity within the deaf boundaries, just as my parents had first imagined similar questions to see where I stood within the hearing boundaries. Apparently, my deaf friends had fallen short in “screening” me to determine whether I was welcome in their boundary. Often, when meeting for the first time, the first question deaf people ask of other deaf people is where they went to school. This question serves as a criterion to determine “automatic” membership in the deaf world (Padden, 1980). They had not asked me for that information, until now. “So, did you go to a deaf school?” They used a specific sign for school to denote institution—indicating an important emphasis of a state deaf school containing residential dorms and in which it is assumed that ASL is used. I answered that I had gone to a deaf school (signing the same sign they did), which was technically right since CID did have residential dorms. Then, of course, they asked a second question, “Which school?” so they could see whether they knew anybody from that school to make the “deaf” connection and to identify me as a deaf person. I said that it was in Missouri, and immediately, they said, “Oh, Fulton, Missouri?” where the state school for the deaf was. I knew my answer to this question would answer many questions and open the floodgates to other inquiries of my selfhood. “No, in St. Louis,” I replied. “Oh my god!!! You went to an oral school! You can speak!” exclaimed my friends in a mix of shock and bewilderment as to why they did not “catch” this fact earlier. My friends proceeded to list a few of my childhood friends whom they had met in other circles (mostly from National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology) and asked whether I knew them. I said yes, at which point they immediately said that since those people were all very “strong” oral, you must be too! My “passing” as deaf was now “spoiled”; I started to be (re)relegated once again to the margins.

One coworker confided in me, and she asked, “Can you really speak good? Like a hearing person?” I said, “Yes, but not like a hearing person. I can speak enough if I have to,” signing the last four words with emphasis. She replied, “I’m jealous. I wish I could speak like that. You have a gift, Tommy. Don’t let them get into you.” I understood what she meant, but at the same time, I did not want to show my privilege. A few days later, word had spread at work that I could “talk.” I still ignored this chatter and proceeded to try to “pass,” hoping this awkward situation would go away. During lunch one day at a restaurant, this same coworker who had supported me proceeded to sign me her order and requested that I verbally give her order to the server in front of my other coworkers. At first, I said that I would not speak for her. She was adamant and said, “Tommy, if I had this ability to voice, I would use it. Do not be stubborn.” I caved in and voiced for her, which was the first time I had used my voice in front of my coworkers. The server nodded as he acknowledged the order, and my coworkers stared in amazement as if I had performed a magic trick. It was now official. I no longer was in the margins but, rather, was a deaf hearing person and/or a deaf person who could speak.

Previously, I had not worn hearing aids while working for the deaf company, which had been a personal testament that I could “purge” my “sounds” out of my brain, no longer have to wear hearing aids, and finally feel “natural” again—without “adding sounds,” a feeling similar to a drug addict finally being free of the need for drugs. Not using my hearing aids during this time had been completely overwhelming: physically, all my life, my brain had been accustomed to receiving sound (static) signals from my hearing aids, so when I took them off, my brain reacted to the absence of these sounds, which caused mild vertigo. Emotionally, however, I felt I could now be seen as human, not as a cyborg or a robot. Feeling relegated once more to the hearing boundaries, I put my hearing aids back on and my vertigo went away, but I no longer felt natural anymore. I continued to advocate for my deaf consumers, who did not seem to not care about my “new” hearing aids as long as I could do my job. They also did not seem to care about their newly found discovery that I could talk and would use my voice while advocating. Let me explain.

During work, I had been struggling to make progress with hearing agencies by means of interpreters over the video phone (video relay services). Many of the hearing agencies were confused with the interpreter as the “third party” and could not directly identify with me as being in a position of authority to deal with business-related issues. For example, I would have a deaf consumer who had a question about his credit card bill, and I would proceed to call the credit card agency, through the interpreter, on the behalf of the deaf consumer. Almost always, the agency representative would state that he or she could not divulge information about the consumer (which I could understand, but what other choice did I have?). After I would explain at length the whole process—about the purpose of the relay service and that the interpreter was there as a third party and that I was an advocate for a deaf consumer—we could finally get down to business. The process sometimes took 30 minutes and I had only 1 hour maximum for each consumer per day. Also, this third-party route was not always effective because the agencies would question my ability to discuss terms such as equity, certified deposits, prorated interest, and so on.

However, that awkwardness would soon change when I requested a voice telephone for my office and began using it to conduct business with hearing agencies for my deaf consumers. Instead of having the interpreter sign for me, I would use my voice, speaking directly to these agencies, and the interpreter would sign back to me what they were saying. Often, the agencies had no idea that there was a third party (interpreter) present. I was sad to realize that my ability to advocate improved specifically by making progress with these agencies much more quickly. I started to speak and sign at the same time to interpreters who mingled around the building. Also, my consumers gained renewed respect for me when they found out that I could speak; my sense of privilege was at work once again—or so I thought, until I was called to the CEO’s office.

The CEO graduated from Gallaudet University and had a PhD. I had respect for her, and she carried a reputation of being fierce and blunt. I had an idea what the meeting was about. “So, Tommy, I learned that you are using your voice in this building?” I explained the reasoning why I used my voice for consumers and clarified that the interpreters on the video phone were also interpreting my voice so the consumer was also able to understand effectively what I was saying. This explanation seemed to reassure her just a little, but she made it extremely clear that there was a zero-tolerance policy on voicing. I would be allowed to use my voice only for that particular type of scenario, but I could not use my voice while I signed to deaf and/ or hearing coworkers. It was then that I realized this place no longer suited me, so I began applying for different jobs (in both the deaf and hearing worlds) and to different universities (for a PhD), including Arizona State. (Apparently, I was not done with them.) Arizona State immediately replied, saying that they would offer me a “full-ride” tuition-waived four-year ticket along with a graduate assistantship with a doable financial stipend. They had me sold.

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