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Constructions of Deafness: Examining Deaf Languacultures in Education|
As I prepared to leave for Arizona, what had been an amazing 1-year experience with the agency in California was marred toward the end by two coworkers. We had developed a close friendship before they found out my background as a person who could talk, at which point, they concluded that I was “hearing” (using the sign for “hearing,” not over the chin, but in front of the forehead to indicate that I was a deaf person who wanted to be hearing—that I was a hearing wannabe when in fact, I really wanted to be accepted as deaf. In this aspect, they also classified me as a deaf wannabe—here they placed me once again on the margins of not being fully accepted in both worlds. Their conclusion was a major blow to my identity as a deaf person. I was being told by these two coworkers (both of whom had gone to deaf schools and had graduated from Gallaudet University) that I was “not deaf enough.” I had lost two potentially good friends because of boundary maintenance. One of the last things I did before leaving the agency was an exit interview with the human resources director. I told him everything—my struggle to “pass” as deaf, finding myself once again relegated to the margins, tiptoeing along the borderlands only to be pushed into the hearing boundaries by my coworkers with whom I had once confided. The human resource director sat there in amazement; “I am so sorry, Tommy. I had no idea.” I said to him, “Now you know. Thank you and good-bye.” Arizona State, here I come.
Once arriving at Arizona State, I realized immediately that I needed my hearing aids back again. I had “tested” myself to see how long I could last before getting vertigo without hearing aids and had pushed my threshold. However, without the aids, I found myself either speaking too loud or not loud enough or not being able to speechread (the little bit of sound I heard with the hearing aids helped tremendously with picking up words). Becoming a cyborg once again by using my hearing aids on a daily basis, I met with Pat and told him that I did not want to talk about the Ireland episode and was ready to make sense of all this craziness that I had gone through all my life. He planted a seed that would grow into my dissertation. My dissertation, with his guidance, became a self-fulfilling journey into my life to make sense of its circumstances.
As Pat provided guidance, he advised me to first explain my “story” through my own eyes and then to provide theoretical ideas to help explain the oppressive implications of my experiences, including growing up in school as the only deaf student. I never imagined that I would be able to really examine how my story, as primary data (emic), could be made explicit (etic) so it would make sense to others. Now, I was able to really try to “tell” my story in a way that did not have a negative tone (as I would have done a few years prior) but, instead, could provide a healthy platform for discourse on ideas and themes that would make sense to the reader. There were times where the writing became too emotional and Pat would instruct me to slow down and take a break. The dissertation was the result of Pat’s being a patient, open-hearted, and mindful mentor to an often lost, frustrated, and embattled student trying to make sense of his “disability.”
Toward the end of my dissertation, I came to realize that my deafness was a gift to me (as opposed to the world). My dissertation was a much needed enlightenment about my life. Looking back during this time throughout my doctoral phase, it was Pat’s unselfish dedication, incredible patience, and immense support that made me realize that he was genuine—that he was not just helping me because he “had to” but because he truly wanted to and he cared about me. Most of all, he had faith in me and, in retrospect, gave me faith and encouragement every step of the way. The product of the dissertation is now this book. With his help, I got hired at Gallaudet University. Apparently, I was not done with the deaf world either.
Gallaudet University and Beyond
I first arrived at Gallaudet in 2010 with my wife, my mother, and my mother-in-law. I had to pick up some paperwork to fi ll out from human resources and was going to be quick, so they stayed in the car. As soon as I left the car, I took off my hearing aids. I was going to try to “pass” as a native deaf person. After all, I was now at Gallaudet University, the mecca of the Deaf! The first impression I made on people was not going to be one of a faculty person who wears hearing aids! After being greeted in ASL by a few people at human resources, I proceeded to obtain my paperwork and went back to the car where my family was awaiting. My wife saw me put my hearing aids back on and inquired, “Why’d you take them off?” I told her that she would not understand and that I was right for not using the hearing aids on campus. As it turns out, she was right to question me because she wanted to understand my identity and where I situated myself at Gallaudet University—I was still managing my identity (Goffman, 1968) that I was still working on as a deaf person at Gallaudet.
When the semester started, I was shocked to see the wide array of identities on the campus. The faculty, students, and staff members represented every system on the communication continuum—from fluent ASL to oral only. I also saw many people using hearing aids and cochlear implants. This Gallaudet was not the Gallaudet that I grew up envisioning. That Gallaudet was a radical school that denigrated anybody who used any form of technology and that promoted the “ASL or the highway” philosophy. This image of Gallaudet soon went out the window, and I realized that Gallaudet was not as homogenous as I had thought.
When I arrived in my first class, I was met with an ASL interpreter, and I immediately told her that I would be using ASL and that an interpreter was not necessary. I had relied on an interpreter for 9 years in the academic classroom at Arizona State, so I was quite proud to become “independent” from a third party. The interpreter quickly said, “Oh, Dr. Horejes, I realize that, but I am here to voice interpret for a deaf student.” I was baffled, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, what kind of interpretation does this deaf student need?” The interpreter proceeded to tell me that the student was hard of hearing and that he would rely on voice to understand my lectures.
My world turned completely upside down as I thought, Where the hell am I now within my boundaries? I had assumed that teaching and being immersed at Gallaudet University would solidify my positionality as centered in the deaf world. In addition to the student who needed a voice interpreter, I had students who wore hearing aids, had cochlear implants, were new signers, had attended state deaf schools, had deaf families, and were from other countries. I realized that my boundaries were forever fluid and that I had been looking for my identity in the wrong places. There was never going to be a static and discrete home for my identity as a deaf person. It was a surprising realization to make, especially at Gallaudet.
Embracing and accepting this part of my consciousness, I have since taught various deaf-related courses such as “Sociology of Deaf People” and “Multicultural Perspectives: Contesting Identities in Deaf Education.” Describing my personal experiences with deafness as being fluid, it was my goal to share and help students realize this valuable lesson, which I wish I had learned a long time ago: that being deaf is forever a dynamic and ongoing mediation of boundaries. The constant discussions on what it means to be deaf in my classroom were reflective of realizing that constructions of deafness were fluid. I often would share with my students my emic experiences on what it meant for me to be deaf. I have been told directly by several students that I was not deaf enough because I wore hearing aids (see Hearing Aids Are Not Deaf by R. A. R. Edwards, 2010), but after informing the student that I used hearing aids to help minimize my tinnitus, her perception changed; my choice was no longer a purely attitudinal choice. That recent discussion about my hearing aid was a small reflection of the many different assumptions that deaf people make when discussing identity.