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Women and Deafness:
As a literary and cultural mirror to Whitestone’s image, the same 1994 issue of Deaf Life also provided an exclusive interview with Maureen Yates, who was crowned Miss Deaf America earlier that year. Yates, a lanky, blond, deaf daughter of deaf parents, embodied contemporary Deaf cultural ideals. She attended a Deaf school, had a masterful command of sign language, and participated in Deaf sporting events and clubs. Two months earlier, Yates had posed for the cover of the New York Times Magazine, signing the word freedom for an article entitled “Defiantly Deaf.”44 Eminently comfortable among deaf people, Yates defined “inclusion”—a common term for mainstreaming deaf children into public schools—as “being Deaf in a school for the deaf” and “being Deaf in a Deaf environment.”45 Like Whitestone and all beauty queens, however, Yates accentuated the need for all deaf people to get along, promoting harmony and tolerance.
Deaf people’s current outcry against the vision of deafness embodied by a Heckman or a Whitestone—compliant, oral, and assimilated—signifies an important evolution in projected notions of cultural Deafness. Although the community never fully submitted to the oppressive forces of mainstream society, its strategies and attitudes previously accommodated and incorporated significant common values. That is less true today as Deaf citizens publicly celebrate their separate social-linguistic identity and more forcefully reject acculturation.
Deaf society’s projected notion of gendered deafness has changed little. Although critical assessments of beauty pageants proliferate in mainstream society and burgeon among many ethnic minorities in America, virtually none appear in the Deaf cultural world. Even as the Deaf community celebrates its gains in mainstream society, it still “reflects the most traditional and conservative attitudes our society holds about women, attitudes that are perpetuated by the communication barrier created by deafness.”46 These barriers undermine Deaf women’s status on multiple levels. Deaf and hearing women rarely interact, in large part because of language differences and the related, pervasive misperceptions hearing people have about deafness. Discouraged by inaccessibility, Deaf women frequently do not join mainstream associations, thus limiting the exchange of ideas, experiences, and perspectives on gender and women’s issues in general. Moreover, language barriers affect literacy and education, as several other essays in this collection attest. Often limited by lower reading skills, Deaf women may have greater difficulty accessing the dense feminist critiques that proliferate in academic and activist circles. Likewise, historic inaccessibility to popular media such as radio, television, and film have resulted in Deaf women’s comparatively limited exposure to diverse expressions of gender, power, and identity. Other factors likely undermine internal reassessments of women’s place in the Deaf world. For example, criticism from “outside” the Deaf world is often taken as criticism of the community rather than of a specific issue within the group. This is common for many minority groups, but it may be heightened in this case because of the continued experiences of oppression and discrimination by hearing people. Moreover, those very hearing people have only recently expressed direct recognition and active support for Deaf people’s culture and abilities, first and most visibly in the Deaf President Now! Protest in 1988. Perhaps feminist and similar critiques—originating from the “outside”—still appear too radical, threatening a community that still battles broad discrimination based on their auditory condition.
Deaf men and women historically have rejected perceptions of deaf bodies as defective or dependent, yet Deaf beauty pageants still have yet to incorporate more complex expressions of female cultural Deafness. Immensely popular, folksy, and kitschy, Deaf beauty pageants exemplify the subversive conservatism of this minority culture and the ambiguous and ambivalent place of Deaf women within it.