What are you, Deaf or something?

On Leftwrites, Jeff Sparrow has drawn my attention to an article by Lennard J. Davis, ‘Deafness and the Riddle of Identity’ (The Chronicle Review, January 12, 2007). It raises a number of interesting questions (see below) in relation to notions of identity, community, and (dis)ability; questions made all the more poignant by the recent production of a film, Welcome 2 My Deaf World, (nominated for an AFI Award in 2006 for Best Documentary) which chronicles the lives and experiences of two local deaf youths. (The film had its world premiere at ACMI in February 2006 — G’day James and Jen! — and screened on SBS in September; read Larissa Dubecki’s review.)

Bethany Rose and Scott Masterson are schoolmates, a pair of energetic and charming teenagers who share three things – adolescence, school, and deafness. We (the hearing) might see deafness as a disability to be cured. But to Bethany and Scott, their deaf world is a rich culture of human possibility, with its own language, rules, challenges and inspirations. Welcome 2 My Deaf World follows Bethany and Scott through the last few months of their schooling at the Victorian College for the Deaf (VCD), Australia’s first school [1860] for deaf kids, and now the only school that teaches in sign language from Prep to Year 12. With dreams of creative, sporting and academic success, both teenagers appear eager to move beyond their sheltered lives and enter the wider world. This documentary follows two teenagers on the edge of change, but it is also a story about what it means to be deaf in contemporary Australia. It is an exploration of a culture with its own language and history.

In reflecting on the making of the film (Paul Kalina, Listening in on the lives of deaf teens, The Age, September 7, 2006) the director, Helen Gaynor, says:

…she had never met a deaf person before making the documentary. The experience has prompted her to reassess how members of any mainstream group try, and often fail, to understand those who don’t belong to that group.

“I was shocked at how ignorant I was, and still am, about so-called disabilities. I was shocked at how little I knew about people who are considered disabled by mainstream Melburnians. I think what we can learn is that you need to tread very carefully when you’re interacting with people who come from a background that’s different from your own in terms of assuming that you understand their experience of the world.”

Deafness and the Riddle of Identity

Davis commences his essay by referring to recent (successful) student demonstrations at Gallaudet University — a ‘liberal’ arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington — regarding the unpopular choice of Jane K. Fernandes as President. As a result of their efforts — which culminated in the shutdown of the University, and which Davis writes “evoked in many people’s minds the student revolution of the 60s” — Fernandes was eventually given the arse (while students who participated in the protests face disciplinary actions on the part of University authorities, natch).

One of the issues Davis identifies in relation to the protest is the question of what actually constitutes a ‘deaf identity’; while Fernandes was criticised for a range of alleged failures, not being ‘deaf enough’ was, arguably, one of them.* As such:

…it might be useful to examine what deaf identity might be and how that identity fits in with current notions of other identities based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. Even with all the recent hoopla about deaf issues, most people probably aren’t paying a lot of attention to what goes on within the deaf community. But the discussions there can point the way to a new and better understanding of identity in our postmodern world.

Davis then proceeds to explain the manner in which the deaf — based on a) the establishment of sign as a “genuine language” in the late 1950s and early 60s, and b) the adoption by some deaf of an activist model of community life (drawing on the legacy of the US civil rights movement) — came to constitute a distinct community (and culture). As a result of these and related developments:

The definition of the deaf as a colonized, ethnic, linguistic minority has in turn been widely accepted in deaf circles and taught for more than a decade in deaf-studies programs and at institutions like Gallaudet and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

He further argues that it was this conception, and its related practices — as embodied in institutions such as Gallaudet — that deaf students were defending. And while the existence of such a community brings advantages, it also brings problems: this “minority model of deaf identity is too crude, too rigid, too limiting”; it requires policing, and can lend itself to exclusionary politics and practices. Thus:

If deaf people are defined as only those who are native users of ASL [or its equivalents], you have to define all nonusers of ASL as “other”. That excludes, or at least marginalizes, deaf people who are orally trained… [those who] have cochlear implants; or never had the chance to learn sign language… [and other ‘others’, which in the end] brings us back to some notion of deafness as a biological impairment.

So much for the ‘linguistic model’ (language-centred conception) of deaf identity; but the ‘ethnic model’ (kinship) too, has problems: “In this ethnic-group model, just as in the linguistic model, there is an in-group and an out-group”, and a hierarchy of deafness is established. “Those most ‘in’ are deaf-on-deaf people, that very small percentage (perhaps only 5 percent of all those born deaf) who come from a deaf family, that is, whose parents were born deaf.” The existence of modern, digital communications technology also complicates matters, effacing the divide between the deaf and the non-deaf;** so too, the absence or presence of stereotypical modes of behaviour associated with ‘being deaf’, and the incommensurability of the notion of being deaf as constituting an ethnic group in the absence of an ethnos:

…an ethnos, a people, is the idea of an extended kinship system. People within an ethnic group are related not only by language, history, and culture, but also by a family structure that passes along a genetic inheritance. But the vast majority of deaf people do not come from deaf families.

After noting some of the other, more properly ‘political’ problems with the ethnic model of deaf identity (ones revolving around the law and strategies for securing rights), Davis, appropriately enough, welcomes us to the concept of deaf identity in relation to the existence of a deaf world or culture; however the “problem with [such] terms is that they are too general and too elastic”.

So, where does all this leave us? In conclusion, Davis writes:

I am arguing that defining the deaf or any other social group in terms of ethnicity, minority status, and nationhood (including “deaf world” and “deaf culture”) is outdated, outmoded, imprecise, and strategically risky. We would be better off expanding our current notions of identity by being less Procrustean and more flexible. Rather than trying to force the foot into a glass slipper, why not make a variety of new shoes that actually fit?

In that scenario, for example, people who are “one generation thick” could find commonality. So people with disabilities, deaf people, gay people, and children of deaf adults could say: We represent one potential way out of the dead end of identity politics. We are social groups that are not defined solely by bodily characteristics, genetic qualities, or inherited traits. We are not defined by a single linguistic practice. We need not be defined in advance by an oppressor. We choose to unite ourselves for new purposes. We are not an ethnic or minority group, but something new and different, emerging from the smoke of identity politics and rising like a phoenix of the postmodern age.

Omnia sint communia

    “What we are dealing with on campus is anarchy and terrorism.”

    Jane K. Fernandes in an email to the Gallaudet Board of Trustees, October 2006

In many ways, Davis’ essay is a rehearsal — a valuable one — of several decades of debate regarding the nature of identity; one informed by post-modernist insights, but one taking place on the somewhat unusual stage of contemporary debates in relation to deaf identity and deaf politics. And, in some ways, he ends at the same point at which he starts: inconclusively. Nevertheless, I think that the suggestion that who ‘we’ are is a reflection or a product of the way/s in which “we choose to unite ourselves for new purposes” is a highly productive means by which to examine identity. The political implications of such a perspective are also obviously the subject of much debate, but from my own, broadly anarchist perspective, I think that it points to the centrality of social struggle to the establishment of not only identity — conceived of as being centred on the individual subject — but, moreover, the communities which you-and-I inhabit and, through our individual and collective efforts, attempt to transform according to our perceived needs and desires.

For example, the struggle of students at Gallaudet regarding who is to assume the position of President at their University I find to be an inspirational one, not only because of the degree of political militancy and consciousness it expresses — a factor which hearing students, including those in Australia, could actually learn from, should they choose to open their hearts and minds — but also the manner in which it raises vital questions of democracy and political representation. In that sense, questions regarding who is ‘deaf’ and who is not, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, are ‘political’ not only in the sense that they revolve around ‘identity’ but, moreover, in the sense that they raise questions regarding the political terrain on which they take place: broadly speaking, terrain we might refer to as ‘the commons’:

The commons are the universal heritage of people and all living things. They are everything needed to support healthy life on earth: air, water, food, shelter, health care, energy sources, and our genes. They are what is needed to sustain culture: our multicultural heritages, education, information and the means to disseminate it, essential human services, public spaces, and political space. They are equally the land, its forests, the oceans, and all ecosystems. In sum, the commons are everything that we inherit jointly and freely, and hold in trust for future generations.

And I raise my hands in support.

To be continued…

* Fernandes, according to Davis, learned to sign later in life, and is a user of (American) Pidgin Signed English; a rough equivalent to speaking the English language, but with a thick or heavy accent (think Borat).

** “Further complicating definitions of deafness are all things digital. Deafness ‘disappears’ in cyberspace. While using the Internet or pagers, for example, deaf people do not use language much differently from anyone else. In the blogosphere, we are all bloggers, whether we are deaf or not.”

    See also : DEAF IN THE CITY (Joseph Rainmound) on the Gallaudet protest | Deaf Blogs (Australia) | Rants Of A SlakBasterd [!] | Sound and Fury: 2001 US film by Joseph Aronson exploring the controversy surrounding cochlear implants: “Cochlear implants may provide easier access to the hearing world, but what do the devices mean for a person’s sense of identity with deaf culture?”

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
This entry was posted in Film, State / Politics, Student movement, Television. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to What are you, Deaf or something?

  1. This is an excellent post! Well done Slackbastard. I am a person who was born with a hearing impairment, though to my knowledge, no other members of my family are hearing impaired. Therefore on a personal level this post really resonated and to some extent has tickled my intellectual curiosity on the topic of identity. On an academic level, whilst the article raises a number of important questions pertaining to identity, it also provides a useful insight into deafness.

    The \’deaf community\’ (I use this term loosely as it is impossible to group people in such a manner) are an interesting group. There is indeed an \’in\’ and \’out\’ mentality which is why I have generally not involved myself greatly with organisations who support and advocate for \’people who are deaf\’. I have learned to live with my deafness. In fact I have a great fondness for it. I do not view it as a \’disability\’ but as Davis writes \’something new and different\’. Certainly I have encountered obstacles. Oppression if you like. However this does not define who I am or what I am able to achieve. The system we currently endure is oppressive by its very nature. It needs to be in order for it to survive. I am finding it rather difficult to articulate what I mean in this respect. Perhaps after I have pondered it for a while the words will flow from the fingertips. I hope you have a sense of what I am trying to say and I will attempt to clarify it later on.

    Your assertions regarding the internet and deafness are of course correct. One of the strengths of internet communication (for me in particular) is that my deafness does not obstruct me from being able to fully participate and communicate with other internet users.

    All in all as I said earlier an excellent post.

    Thank you for that little piece of enlightenment. 🙂

    PS I have not gone through this to check spelling. Apologies in advance.

  2. Jeff says:

    I just lost the last post to the spam addition test but shall try again.
    Kinda wish I hadn’t started the thread on LW cos it took me into arguments that I wasn’t really qualified to make. Still, it’s a corollary of blogging and its demand for instant opinions, I guess. 🙁
    Your piece is a nifty bit of writing and very enjoyable to read.
    I do think, though, that it’s oddly apolitical.
    Discussions about identity often veer into conventional liberalism — we all adopt our own identities and interact with each other as discreet individuals in a pluralist society. You are right, IMO, to talk about the centrality of social struggle to the establishment of both identity and ‘community’ (though I think the latter is a horrible phrase beloved of small businesses and real estate agents). But if that’s the case, then the argument really needs to start with an analysis of oppression and — more particularly — an identification of the people responsible for the oppression. Without that, how can you have struggle? Struggle against whom? For what?
    Anyway, your piece is ‘to be continued’ so I look forward to reading more.

  3. Jeff says:

    Oh, and I meant to say: we’re working on a theory that the reason you get caught in the LW spam filter is cos of the nonstandard character. So if you post again, see what happens with a normal a.

  4. Robert says:

    If you haven’t already seen it, you should check out Babel. The story of the deaf-mute girl is excellent. It shows the problems facing deaf people (such as trying to socialise in a night-club) while showing the benefits of new technologies (like text-messaging, or video phones that allow sign-language conversations).

    And the rest of the film is pretty good, too.

  5. @ndy says:

    hi miss p: cheers, glad to read you got something out of it, and look fwd to hearing yr further reflections; maybe when i post some further thoughts of my own? one point: the observations inre internet are actually davis’ — footnote is quote from same essay.

    hi jeff: sorry ’bout that, is v annoying when that happens! (btw, my last comment on lw also disappeared into ether, bugger it.)

    my post is largely summary of davis’ argument, plus some local refs and a few general obs on identity — ‘tbc’ — and revolving around idea of same as product of struggle. (is ‘apolitical’ in sense that i don’t advance particular argument?) agree that discussions inre ‘identity’ can lapse (back) into conventional liberal discourse/s, but, of course, they needn’t. thus notion that “we all adopt our own identities and interact with each other as discreet individuals in a pluralist society” is common, but mistaken; not least because it assumes radical equivalency b/w individuals, esp in terms of social positioning and access to means of political articulation and representation.

    as for notion of ‘community’, like ‘identity’, has many connotations outside of uses to which it is put by capital (‘big’ or ‘small’). as un anarcholoco, am naturally most interested in radical/revolutionary implications. r/ship b/w identity / community and oppression is (also naturally?) complex. will try and articulate my thoughts on subject in secondary post.

    (oh, tried ‘a’ — no go.)

    hi rob: nah, not yet, but planning on it — maybe nxt wk? look fwd to it!


  6. ntennis says:

    I don’t see a Deaf identity as the product of political struggle, as Lennard Davis and Andy suggest. Rather, Deaf communities are formed through the use of a shared sign language as the primary or preferred language of a group of people. Sign languages spontaneously emerge when deaf people share a social space. When brought together in deaf schools for the first time in the 1970s and 80s, kids in Nicaragua began communicating in signs that quickly developed into a complex language — despite being educated orally. It is natural that such communities develop a strong sense of shared identity and maintain their primary social bonds with other signers, especially when their facility with the dominant spoken language is minimal.

    How does Lennard Davis suggest that new social groupings of “people with disabilities, deaf people and gay people” should communicate? And even if social allegiances (or “identities”) could be adopted or disposed of easily in the cultural marketplace of Davis’s fantasy, why would such a grouping be any more useful? Though he doesn’t spell it out, it looks like Davis is gesturing toward a new identity to me, which would surely be fraught with all the complexities of any identity.

    Anyway, Davis may yet get his wish, at least in the industrialised West, where a war against signing Deaf communities has been alive since the 18th century and has recently been gaining ground. With the advent of new medical technologies and mainsteaming in education, at least one prominent authority has suggested that the Deaf community in Australia is in serious decline, and in 50 years time there may not be a population concentrated enough to sustain Australian sign language (Auslan) as a viable language. I wonder how deaf people will fare in such a world?

  7. @ndy says:

    Great comment ntennis — thanks. (Full mainstReaming ahead!)

  8. Wee Jin Suk - (Parkos) says:

    If music continues to be increasingly electrified in all countries over the course of this century both in live settings and through ipods etc then there will be an increasingly large hearing impaired community suffering mainly from tinnitus.

    iPods are limited to 100db in France but only new model iPods in other countries offer optional db limits. So technology and the market will probably ensure that hearing impairment is a fact of life for more people rather than less in the future.

    The impact of new and exciting weapons technology on hearing should also be taken into account.

    Playing or listening to acoustic folk music rather than punk or techno offshoots,
    riding a bicycle rather than driving,
    sailing rather than flying,
    and studying in libraries rather than working on building sites,
    are other ways to reduce tinnitus.

  9. Perhaps ntennis and Davis are both correct. I disagree with ntennis that deaf identity or \’community\’ is purely a result of sign language. I do agree that it plays a part, however one cannot ignore the significant role that political struggle contributes to the formation of both identity and community for people who are deaf.

    In my view being a part of the deaf community is more than using sign language. Of course its importance and relevance cannot and should not be understated. However having said that I cannot see anything inherently evil in \’allowing\’ people who are deaf to attend the local primary or high schoool nor can I see anything wrong in developing technology that will assist the hearing impaired to hear. This is not because I wish to \’undo\’ the [dis]ability but rather to at least give all people an opportunity to hear some of the amazing sounds that the world has to offer.

  10. Dr. Cam says:

    “Playing or listening to acoustic folk music rather than punk … are other ways to reduce tinnitus.”

    You’re crazy, WJS.

  11. Wee Jin Suk says:

    Its absolutely true..

    Electrified forms of music cause more damage to hearing than acoustic music.

    Lucky your opponents are boneheads because you would be in trouble if you battled school canteen ladies instead. Particularly the muthas who run it at Melbourne High School.

    The girl in the photo of this article is strikingly beautiful.. Who is she? Is she vegan?
    Should I bother to read the article and find out? Its all so cut and paste round ear.

  12. Wee Jin Suk says:

    Aha the girl in question is Bethany Rose from country Victoria.

    Beuatiful indded but every Rose has its thor.

    If you look into the archives it is probable that her ancestors were part of the infamous racist Scottish Brigade who genocidally stole the land from the indigenous inhabitants of what is today called Victoria, led by Francis Ormond of Ormond College, unimelb music department and RMIT.

    Why dont you all get on with fighting the fascism that created the state you live in? Rather than abstract interweb games with ex-con Dutch eediots which feature the occasional incident on the other side of the world that you can tie into your semiotic bundle of politech?

  13. @ndy says:

    A warning to all regarding the dangers of listening to too much punk rawk: Beware semiotic bundles of politech!

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