|Many Ways to Be Deaf|
From Disability Studies Quarterly
Deaf communities around the world are as diverse as any other communities, but share their primary means of communication as the one commonality: the use of their native Signed Languages. One of the most remarkable examples of human perseverance is the ability of Deaf communities to pass on, throughout time immemorial, the knowledge and use of Sign Language and their cultures in spite of the Aristotelian dictum that those who cannot hear or speak cannot learn. Since the history of civilization has been recorded, learned individuals and those in positions of power continue to be swayed by that line of reasoning despite plentiful evidence disproving that faulty logic.
There was no word for this unique experience faced by Deaf communities until 1975 when Tom Humphries, noted Deaf author and scholar, coined a new word, “audism,” and defined it as a negative or oppressive attitude, or an act of discrimination towards deaf people by either deaf or hearing people, or organizations. The case studies that Monaghan and co-editors present problematize the historical disregard for existential well-being so often practiced against Deaf people by learned people in many societies. That the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, accepted by the United Nations in 1948, never did apply to Deaf people in the accepting countries is telling.
Today, due to quantum leaps in information technology, previously held views are often cast aside for many different reasons, and more people are empowered to be assertive and challenge old beliefs and systems. The movement for recognition of Sign Languages and Deaf Culture often begin at the grassroots level, with Deaf people in leadership positions. The numerous challenges they face are clearly described in the individual chapters, which each represent one of fifteen countries.
Interestingly, the chapter on Brazilian Deaf Community has a paragraph that contains probably one of the best pieces of advice for advocating acceptance of Sign Language and Deaf Culture, which I have yet to find anywhere else. The author, Norine Berenz, summarizes what Ella Lentz, a Deaf American poet, actor, and educator, said: that acceptance can be achieved through artistic means such as National Theater of the Deaf in the United States, rather than official circles, because this would be an opportunity for the general public to learn and realize “the eloquence and sophistication possible in signed discourse” (p. 175). Many Deaf communities around the world continue to advocate and lobby their governments for recognition of Sign Language instead of choosing artistic and cultural endeavors. These other endeavors, however, can effectively educate the general population and thus promote recognition for Sign Language as a language in its own right, which can eventually lead to official recognition by the respective governments.
Most of the chapters are supported by a plentitude and diversity of sources, which reflects the scholarly nature of the tome. Chapter 6, in particular, discusses the challenges and confusion faced by hard-of-hearing people in their attempts to fit into the society, whether as a member of the Deaf community, a member of the hearing community, or somewhere in-between. While the chapter itself is well written by Donald Grushkin, at first glance I felt as if it were inserted into the book as an afterthought because the title of the book, Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities, communicates that it is about Deaf communities and not hard-of-hearing people. Personally, I have categorized hard-of-hearing people into three groups: those who chose to be member of the Deaf community, those who choose to be member of the hearing community, and the un-decideds. However, after reading through the chapter, the author manages to convince me that it fits in because hard-of-hearing people experience life in many ways that parallel Deaf experience. Grushkin does a very good job of comparing experiences faced by both groups, and yet also acknowledges that there are also significant differences.
The title is further reinforced when one reads Chapter 11, which discusses the lack of definite common cultural icons that are identifiable by deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Japan. They do congregate together in their own communities but do not identify themselves as members of singular Deaf community. Furthermore, Karen Nakamura, also an editor of the book, challenges the notion of the concept of uniform Deaf culture in Japan or anywhere in the world, and considers boundaries between hearing and deaf culture to be an artificial reality. My bias notwithstanding, I feel that Nakamura presents a persuasive case not simply for argument’s sake, but for further scholarly discussion.
During the last 50 years the world has witnessed dramatic changes in the social fabric of its different societies. This fact, coupled with increasing acceptance of diversity in some societies, presents us with opportunities for broadening the scope of research and discourse on Deaf Culture and Sign Language. The editors are to be commended for doing a masterful job in working with 24 different authors. Some chapters have single authors and others have multiple authors; while each chapter reflects unique authorship, the editors ensure that the writing remains within a paradigm to enable the readers to focus on the content rather than have to deal with widely varying styles. This is clearly stated in the preface by Leila Monaghan and Constanze Schmaling with this guiding principle: “Commonalities among the authors include that we all work within a Stokoean linguistic paradigm, see signed languages as natural languages…” (p.x). As a final note, it would have been an inspiration to see the use of the phrase “signed language” as a capitalized proper noun.
Leila Monaghan is Lecturer in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.
Constanze Schmaling is a linguist at the Institute of German Sign Language at Hamburg University, Germany.
Karen Nakamura, an anthropologist, teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.
Graham H. Turner is Senior Lecturer in the Deaf Studies program at the University of Central Lancashire, Great Britain.
ISBN 978-1-56368-578-1, 7 x 10 paperback, 338 pages, references, index
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