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Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood

Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood

by Paddy Ladd

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This book presents a ‘Traveller’s Guide’ to Deaf Culture, starting from the premise that Deaf cultures have an important contribution to make to other academic disciplines, and human lives in general. Within and outside Deaf communities, there is a need for an account of the new concept of Deaf culture, which enables readers to assess its place


This book presents a ‘Traveller’s Guide’ to Deaf Culture, starting from the premise that Deaf cultures have an important contribution to make to other academic disciplines, and human lives in general. Within and outside Deaf communities, there is a need for an account of the new concept of Deaf culture, which enables readers to assess its place alongside work on other minority cultures and multilingual discourses. The book aims to assess the concepts of culture, on their own terms and in their many guises and to apply these to Deaf communities. The author illustrates the pitfalls which have been created for those communities by the medical concept of ‘deafness’ and contrasts this with his new concept of “Deafhood”, a process by which every Deaf child, family and adult implicitly explains their existence in the world to themselves and each other.

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Multilingual Matters Ltd.
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Understanding Deaf Culture

In Search of Deafhood

By Paddy Ladd

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2003 Paddy Ladd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85359-546-2


Deaf Communities

Anthropologists have a number of advantages when addressing the general public, one of them being that hardly anyone in their audience has much in the way of independent knowledge of the supposed facts being retailed. This allows one to get away with a great deal. But it is, as most things, something of a disadvantage. If a literary critic discourses on King Lear, a philosopher on Kant, or a historian on Gibbon he [sic] can begin more or less with the presentation of his views, quoting only here and there to drive matters home. He need not inform them who Gloucester is, what epistemology is about, or where and when the Roman Empire was. This is usually not the case for the anthropologist, who is faced with the unattractive choice of boring his audiences with a great deal of exotic information, or attempting to make his argument in an empirical vaccuum.

(Clifford Geertz, 1983: 36)


This first chapter presents an overview of Deaf communities and is one of the first sustained 'insider readings' of these communities. It incorporates the perceived priorities of those communities in respect of the Deaf domains selected for presentation. Likewise, the terminology and the language registers used reflect the strong and positive self-image these communities embody, as well as illustrating the scale by which they measure some of the damage that has been wrought upon them. Thus, all told, the reading represents the beginnings of a Deaf counter-narrative, established here to counterbalance the medical and social welfare narratives which have served to 'explain' those communities to others for so many centuries.

Because the chapter serves as an introduction for those new to Deaf issues, and because it has to generalise across different nation states, the presentation is kept at a relatively simple level. Likewise, because of the radical differences in Deaf realities across the planet, and because my primary audience is a Western one, this counter-narrative is focused on the Deaf communities of the Western world. Although examples are drawn from across those nations, the 'baseline' accounts are of the UK and USA Deaf communities. This enables those from other countries to make comparisons and identify important differences that can be used to develop a more sophisticated overall narrative.

What did you do in the Deaf Wars, Daddy?

From our vantage point here at the beginning of the 21st century, most of us will have noticed that over the past 20 years, Deaf people themselves have become more visible. Those who have not known a Deaf person, or had a Deaf friend at some point in their lives, will nonetheless be aware of the existence of sign-language-using Deaf people from the television media. Many will have said to themselves at some point 'It's nice to see that they're doing more for those people nowadays' and consigned the matter to the back of their minds, assuming that their taxes or charity donations had paid for some distant, well-meaning people to look after and do their best for 'them'.

But others, attracted by some indefinable quality in the languages of sign, will have taken courses to learn them. In the UK, British Sign Language (BSL) is the second most popular course at Further Education level. In the USA, American Sign Language (ASL) is now estimated to be the third most widely-used language in the country (after English and Spanish). And through the process of learning these languages, many of these novitiates have now begun to realise that behind this 'mask of benevolence' (Lane, 1993a) lies another tale entirely.

But still the traces of our early indoctrination remain – when we think about what we call 'physical handicap', we assume benign intent. Black and First Nation peoples' struggles, feminism, Gay and Lesbian issues even environment and animal rights issues, all have taken on new forms during the last 30 years, are acknowledged as political issues, and admitted to the liberal and Left pantheon of 'causes'. Indeed, possessing a degree of awareness of them has, in some quarters, become a badge of hipness. Nobody would now suggest that support for these causes was based on ideas about charitability or kindness.

For Deaf and disabled people, however, a long march still lies ahead. The blindfold of benevolence still informs perceptions that these cannot really be political issues. There has been some progress made towards acceptance of the existence of a disability movement. But that there could be a Deaf movement, with a radically different agenda, and with something of its own to offer and enhance one's own world? This still seems a bridge too far and too rickety to cross with a blindfold on.

This perception is perhaps understandable. Looking back through the literature on deafness, I arrive at the mid-1970s. In the writings there I findus, Deaf and hearing alike, timorously suggesting as if for the first time, that such a thing as a 'Deaf community' exists. Trying to prove it, with an air of daring in the enterprise. I smile at the recollection of how far we have come since then, the many years of duelling with the labels of 'extremism' and what a long strange trip it has all been.

For back in 1974, Deaf people were in the grip of a system of education known to us as Oralism, which outlawed the use of sign language and Deaf educators (who had once constituted up to 40% of the teaching staff). Although it had been steadily encroaching for decades, this system was formally instituted at the Congress of Milan in 1880, whose proceedings were closely followed day-by-day by the London Times, and who at the end pronounced the extraordinary message 'Deafness is Abolished'. Oralism then proceeded to hold sway across the entire planet for almost a century. In stark contrast to that early media attention, the actual results of Oralism's practices were then discreetly ignored. In the ensuing century and across the entire world, they were never subjected to professional research on a national scale by anybody, whether inside or outside the profession – an extraordinary wall of silence.

Unknown to us in 1974, a research team from Oxford University led by Reuben Conrad begin to consider undertaking just this project. Hints of their findings began to seep out over the next few years, before their eventual publication literally a century after Milan, producing a spectrum of reactions – shock from well-meaning liberals and a grim 'we've told you so for a hundred years' from Deaf people.

The English literacy level of the profoundly Deaf school-leaver was 8 3/4 years, enough to comprehend a tabloid headline, but little more. In most cases, their speech – the very raison d'être of Oralism – was unintelligible to all but their teachers and families. Even their ability to lipread was found to be no better than that of hearing people who had never been exposed to it before. The study did not examine mental or psychological health, but it did not take much imagination to envisage the scale of the damage wreaked on that score alone. These results were published in 1979 – to a deafening media silence.

But at least the 'truth was out there somewhere' – and not in a file marked 'X'. And in the years following Conrad, surveys in other countries revealed uncannily almost exactly the same 'achievement' thresholds. Deaf people's growing anger at the worldwide nature of these figures saw them begin to describe Oralism as a 'Deaf Holocaust'. This 'larger' language, stemming from growing global awareness among Deaf communities, scan-dalised numbers of people, as much for its use of political vocabulary as for its comparison with the incomparable. To this came a Deaf response – 'One destroyed bodies; the other destroyed minds'.

The exchanges between these two discourses is of great importance if we are to understand what Deaf communities really are, and over the course of this book we will come to see how the Deaf response is actually a reasonable one, however much we might end up edging it with qualifications. At this point, two issues must be clarified. In the last 300 years, the Western sectors of the human race have carried out other widesweeping policies which have resulted in other holocausts – enslavement which, it is often forgotten, brought estimated millions of African deaths in the 'Middle Passage', witchburning, with the death of half a million women, and virtual extermination of several First Nations. All these can fairly be considered holocausts – if the meaning of the word is understood as a sense of scale and magnitude – and each deserves equal recognition, which is as yet not the case.

It would appear that holocausting is something at which certain groups of humans are rather good. So if we look into the mirror, we might grimly concede that there might be others which we have perpetuated which might not have been brought to our unwilling attention. And each time, through tiny cracks in the media, new stories emerge, usually the result of lone journalists persevering in the face of decades of refusal. Each time we see the words 'Armenia', East Timor', 'South Africa', 'Rwanda', 'Bosnia', we flinch. How much more might we have to acknowledge in that mirror? How much of what is occurring now between Israel and Palestine is also of our own making? To paraphrase Faulkner, 'the past isn't past – it hasn't even ended yet'.

Deaf peoples' mirrors contain these images too, though with minimal access to the media they might be forgiven in not comprehending the magnitude of some of these revelations. But in that mirror they also see, reflected back at them, the faces of other Deaf people, of all colours, races and ages. They know that in every country in the world, in every tribe in the farthest-flung Amazonian rainforests, there are people like themselves. They know that if they met any of those people, they could, despite their very different sign languages, fall into conversation and learn about each others' cultures and ways of life, as viewed from the inside outwards. This self-image is not always as rosy as it seems. In everyday life, Deaf people are as prone to discriminatory thoughts and practices as anyone else. But in some deep, almost unfathomable way, they are linked to each other as citizens of a global Deaf community, that is now coming to style itself as a global Deaf Nation.

It is from this vista of awareness that Deaf people come to take a global perspective of the scale and magnitude of what has been visited upon them. They see, indeed they know all too well from their own experiences, exactly what it feels like for a Deaf person in Russia, the United States, Australia, Japan, Argentina, South Africa, India and China to have undergone this experience. They count up the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, (who is keeping records anyway?) subjected to the oralist regime over that 100 years. And from that standpoint, they assert holocaust status.

This book could have been written without mentioning in any depth these two polarising positions – this global citizenship and the scale of the damage wreaked upon it. It would have been all too easy to do so, judging from the discourses on deafness that do get published, and the limited dimensions and terms in which even the most liberal of writers confine themselves to. But whether or not I had written so overtly, every word of the book would nevertheless have been seeped in that unspoken knowledge. Every word from every Deaf informant or conversationalist, and most of the quotations from Deaf people of past centuries too, is likewise suffused by a sense of one or both of these two realities. It is time, once and for all, to render them visible.

Silence, cunning and exile

Let us move forward in time now to 1999, skipping past 25 years of the Deaf Resurgence. Something which is now so bold as to call itself the 'British Deaf Community' has undertaken its first-ever political march. Initiated and led by the newly formed radical group, the Federation of Deaf People, (FDP), 4000 Deaf and hearing people have marched to Trafalgar Square. Stopping off at Downing Street (now there's a delicious irony),young Deaf children deliver 30,000 petitions calling for official government recognition of BSL, the language of that community. In the speeches given at the Square, once more the call goes up for the return of that language in education, and an end to Oralism and the artificial sign systems which are its offshoots.

Yet, as we shall learn in the next two chapters, despite all the gains made in Deaf-related domains, despite the numerous appearances of sign language on television, despite the beginnings of bicultural education movements, Oralism is alive and continuing to be visited upon Deaf children and their parents right across the globe. Only in Scandinavian countries has the rebellion become a revolution, and bilingualism installed at the heart of (sign) language-planning policies and education.

In the days that follow, the marchers find out just how pervasive the mask of benevolence is. In vain, they search the media for film or printed evidence of the historical nature of their achievement. Instead they are confronted with the same media images they have had to tolerate on almost a daily basis for the last 10 years. 'New Miracle Cure for Deaf Baby' they read. 'Wonder Cochlear Implant Operation Abolishes Deafness.' But unlike the 1880 Milan Congress, now it is not only the London Times which broadcasts these tidings, but every other news publication. Once again Deaf stomachs churn with the anger of knowing that their own point of view on these implants (that these are actually medical experiments on non-consenting Deaf children, that the true results are hidden from public view, and that funding to expose these facts is systematically rejected by those who, also hidden from sight, control the public purse strings), will never be seriously admitted to media discourses. Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it, the saying goes. It does not mention that those who ignore history also condemn its victims to repeat it.

It is one of the premises of this book that the lay person, brought face to face with the truth of what is visited on Deaf communities, has and will continue to be shocked by these revelations. There is enough evidence of a change of heart for one to feel a small degree of optimism. It is what does not happen that gives one pause for thought. Shock is not carried over into political action. We know that changes in the apartheid system owe much to white support, boycotts and actions. We know that other political struggles of necessity involve the concepts of alliance and coalition. Yet somewhere the mask of benevolence still holds us back from applying those concepts to Deaf struggles and campaigns. 'Surely', we seem to think, 'This can't all be a deliberate policy'.

Yet passivity of this kind does not, in the end, excuse us. Millions of Germans had only a dim idea of what was taking place in their countries, in their name. Millions of Britons like to pretend that something like that could 'never happen here'. Yet millions of Europeans knew a little of what was being enacted across oceans and continents in their name. Millions of Americans had only a partial picture of what was taking place a few hundred miles from where they lived. But all that vague knowledge, hurriedly pushed aside whenever it raised its head, added up to an enabling of what we now shamefacedly recognise as real extremism. For evil to triumph, as the saying goes, it indeed requires only that good men and women do nothing.

Thus it might be understood that Deaf communities view the notion that 'They' will 'make things better for Deaf people' with considerable scepticism. But something else is indubitably awakening across discourses both private and public. Sign languages, if not yet their users, are becoming sexy. Here a former Spice Girl has a number one hit using sign language on national TV (where the whole song is signed, rather than a token chorus). There entities as diverse as Boyzone, U2 and Sinead O'Connor bring sign language to the performing stage. And over there a new American TV serial brings Marlee Marlin as a signing Deaf political professional into the White House itself. Cultural hipness apparently awaits. But political hipness – ah that is not yet in sight.

A few people are aware that this continuing acceptance of benevolence is partly why the gulf between awareness and action exists. Some might fairly say that 'until Deaf organisations take an aggressive political lead and then specifically ask for our support, we do not really know what our place should be in this struggle'. This response is understandable. Optimism among Deaf radicals is situated not least around the public and media response to the events which took place in 1988 at Gallaudet University (the world's only Deaf university), Washington DC. The 2000 students occupied the university in a 10 day long campaign to achieve their first ever 'Deaf President Now'. They gained extensive media coverage, and attracted tremendous public support across the entire spectrum, from being loaned Martin Luther King's 'We Still Have a Dream' banner, to receiving donations from unions, to simply involving hearing volunteers in manning the phones. Clearly lay support can be found – if Deaf communities select the right leadership which will take the 'right' kind of action which will unlock the editorial doors of the media.


Excerpted from Understanding Deaf Culture by Paddy Ladd. Copyright © 2003 Paddy Ladd. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Paddy Ladd is a Lecturer and MSc co-ordinator at the Centre for Deaf Studies in the University of Bristol. He completed his PhD in Deaf Culture at Bristol University in 1998 and has written, edited and contributed to numerous publications in the field. Both his writings and his Deaf activism have received international recognition, and in 1998 he was awarded the Deaf Lifetime Achievement Award by the Federation of Deaf People, for activities which have extended the possibilities for Deaf communities both in the UK and worldwide.

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