|Deaf and Disability Studies|
From Disability Studies Quarterly
Susan Burch and Alison Kafer’s Deaf and Disability Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives brings together a series of essays depicting the intersections and divergences between the fields of Deaf Studies and Disability Studies. The fourteen interdisciplinary essays in this collection take a variety of approaches, ranging from narrative to critical race studies to anthropology. The book is organized around three themes: “Identities and Locations,” “Alliances and Activism,” and “Boundaries and Overlaps.”1 Each section examines the complexity, uneasy tension and alliances that underscore the linkage of Deaf and Disability Studies.
As Burch and Kafer write, “Part of our hope with this collection is to highlight moments where these divisions have broken down or proven illusory—where scholars in one field have drawn on insights from the other, for example, or where activists have articulated the need for deaf/disability alliances” (xvii). The field of Deaf Studies traditionally presents deaf culture as a cultural community neatly fitting into the dichotomy of D/deaf identities.2 The Deaf cultural identity is often set as a counterpoint against the medical model of the deaf people. Meanwhile, scholars in Disability Studies, according to Burch and Kafer, have often neglected to incorporate Deaf Studies perspectives. This occurs most prominently in cases where language plays a role in the effects of hearing people as a privileged class that has created a perceived hierarchical relationship. However, Burch and Kafer also note similarities in theoretical standpoints of Deaf and Disability Studies: for example, both fields aim to remove pathologization of impairments through the use of political activism and the social model of identity construction.
The first section, “Identities and Locations,” explores the idea of a D/deaf identity as it is constructed across various geographical and historical settings. Disability Studies usually discusses the social models of identity construction based upon how the body performs to meet socio-economic factors in industrial or agrarian societies. However, the question that has yet to be examined is whether Deaf cultural identity represents something that could only be afforded by privileged countries. This raises questions about the role of economic factors and cultural environment that contribute to the dichotomy of Deaf and disability identities. In Khadijat Rashid’s “Intersecting Reflections,” for example, her own narrative experience as a deaf person from Nigeria conveys that in developing countries, “it simply has not been possible to fully separate disability from culture, or culture from disability” (26). And, Rashid adds, “I don’t view these identities and conditions as in conflict with one another: Being deaf is a disability and, because of language issues, it is a culture at the same time” (26). Another political perspective comes from Lakshmi Fjord’s anthropology fieldwork in Denmark and the United States, “Contested Signs,” which shows that disability and cultural identity can co-exist with national identity. In Fjord’s article, medical and educational institutions promote Denmark Sign Language, and cochlear implants, along with multi-modal approaches, are actually a means of integrating into the Danish cultural identity. But in America, Fjord maintains, medical and educational institutions are competing for Deaf and disability identities as a capitalist commodity rather than a national identity. In her fieldwork, audiologists who “interpreted” neurological studies of American Sign Language users and their cognitive predisposition to language use are in direct competition with spoken English language counterparts for “neurological territory” (69). Fjord presents an interesting point, here: by using the phrase “neurological territory,” she indicates that it is the brain that is transformed into the site of identity construction, rather than the decibel levels perceived by the deaf person. The very idea that the shaping of identity originates from the merging, competing ideologies, technology and capitalism will provide rich potential for expanding research in Deaf Studies and Disability Studies.
The need for research in the blurring of identities and worlds is taken up in “Deaf Matters,” by Kristen Harmon, which gives insight to the sensory experiences of a deaf person in different contexts of the “hearing world.” Tavian Robinson’s “‘We Are of a Different Class’” uses social history research to show how deaf people in the hearing world during the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century incorporated ableist ideology to equate themselves to their hearing counterparts. Michele Friedner’s “Focus on Which (Deaf) Space?” describes her ethnographic research into a social organization for Deaf women in India. Friedner shows how the members of the Delhi Foundation of Deaf Women (DFDW) “travel between [the] domestic sphere and the public sphere, occupying multiple spaces and identities” (54). What Friedner is conveying is that identities do not need compete to fit the role of a given space, be it public or domestic; rather, roles can overlap and identities can be “fluid and noncontesting” (58).
Susan Burch is an associate professor of American Studies and director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Middlebury College.
Alison Kafer is an assistant professor of Feminist Studies at Southwestern University.
Print Edition: ISBN 978-1-56368-464-7, 6 x 9 casebound, 296 pages, tables, references, index
E-Book: ISBN 978-1-56368-465-4
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