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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

 
Deaf Culture and Language Politics
I've been following the NPR coverage of the student protests at Gallaudet University with interest. For those who haven't, or have no idea why Gallaudet is unique, well, the opening blurb of the most recent story sums it up nicely:
In Washington, at Gallaudet University, the nation's only liberal arts school for the deaf, many students, faculty and alumni continue their protests against Jane Fernandes. She's the woman chosen to be the school's next president. She's deaf, but some protesters don't like that she grew up speaking and reading lips, before she learned sign language. Others resent the tough decisions she's made as a long-time administrator.
The second sentence there is representative of what I find so fascinating about the whole thing, and the Deaf Culture movement in general.

She's deaf, but some protesters don't like that she grew up speaking and reading lips, before she learned sign language.

Deaf Culture, to me, seems to be in a rather unique place, in that it is so inextricably linked to its language. Many Deaf Culture supporters don't just want people to treat deaf people like normal human beings, they want deaf people to accede to and conform to a distinct culture apart from the culture of the hearing. The idea that Fernandes learned to speak vocally and to read lips says to them that she will be a president of the college who will be more willing to bend to pressures from "the outside." Kind of a touchy subject, since the president she is taking over from, I. King Jordan, was the first deaf president of the college, ever. (To be clear, he supports Fernandes and is saddened by the protests.) The use of sign language is to some the only acceptable form of non-written speech, and is often used as the demarcating line in the sand.

When I was briefly able to take an ASL class while in college, I really enjoyed our instructor's explanations of different aspects of Deaf Culture. The positive and affirming aspects of it are excellent, and the sense of community is very empowering. But then I also hear stories about DC advocates who claim that deaf children born to hearing parents should be taken away and placed with DC approved deaf families, so that they might grow up only among "their own kind," and needless to say will always speak through signing.

I thought they also did a really good job of showing the two sides of this struggle several years ago on the TV show ER, when Peter's son was diagnosed deaf and he immediately began considering a cochlear implant. As the explanatory website there states, "An implant does not restore normal hearing. Instead, it can give a deaf person a useful representation of sounds in the environment and help him or her to understand speech."

The doctor he was consulting with about his son, though, was also deaf, and she argued with him convincingly about allowing his son to grow up as deaf, celebrating that part of him, rather than mechanically forcing him to conform to the hearing world's perceived norms.

The NPR commentary report following the Gallaudet story was an interesting look at how such disability acceptance and disability culture movements are moving beyond the deaf community: Limbaugh, Not Fox, Has His Priorities Wrong*

*And it makes Rush Limbaugh look like the idiot he is, which is always a bonus.

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