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Access and Deaf Culture

Scholars treating issues of access and Deaf culture tell us that with regard to the deaf access has traditionally been framed along Hearing norms and in terms of a deficit model, specifically what the deaf do not have access to (cf. Padden and Humphries 123-44). The deaf-mute label that many deaf people used to refer to themselves prior to the 1950s is indicative of the historical construction of Deaf people as "handicapped, language-less, silent, and dependent" (Humphries 30), collectively and individually, during the first half of the twentieth century. They were seen as having little or no access to [English] language, to [Hearing] culture, to voice, or to their own independence and autonomy. Hearing people's models of deaf people were the models upheld in public discourse even while the deaf held different views of themselves in private. Tom Humphries notes that prior to the 1950s deaf people negotiated two conflicting sets of identities: "on one hand, Deaf people's knowledge that within their own community they were unremarkable, normal, and complete, and on the other hand, their internalization of hearing people's view of them as imperfect, lacking, and exotic in the sense of having surrogate means of communicating (signing instead of speaking)" (31).

However, Humphries notes that after World War II, as many deaf people were moving from working class to middle class, they began to think of themselves, individually and collectively, as a people of language and culture, leading them to distance themselves from the perspectives of others about them. Instead,

Deaf people want[ed] to project into the public world manifestations of their newfound cultural identity. Prominent among these imperatives are an ideal of completeness and a concept of wellness (Humphries 1996). In short, the concept of a malfunctioning or unwell body that formed the basis for all previous views of Deaf people ha[d] to be replaced by a concept of biological intactness and wholeness. (32)

Part of constructing (and accessing) a distinctive Deaf identity and culture included determining alternate ways of seeing themselves and each other as well as repositioning signing (American Sign Language—ASL—as it came to be known) in its relation to dominant English. Primarily this meant that Deaf people distanced themselves from, rather than sought solidarity with, hearing people. No longer were the Deaf trying to gain access to the Hearing world; rather, they were constructing a world of their own to which they would have full access (and, interestingly, a world that the Hearing would not have access to). They grappled with a new set of problems, a new set of questions: "How do we define ourselves now? What words do we use and what do we call ourselves? What do we do with those ideas we used to carry inside ourselves that belong to others? What is our relationship now with hearing people? Even ultimately, who is Deaf now? Who is 'in' Deaf culture and who is not?" (Humphries 31).

The construction of Deaf identity and Deaf culture and the ways Deaf culture would be imparted hung on issues of access. Deaf residential schools were sites where the most intense battles over identity and autonomy played out. In fact, "Scholars of Deaf culture locate the birth of this linguistic minority group in schools... Deaf residential schools offered Deaf people a 'place of their own,' a separate world where deafness was the norm; of equal importance, these schools provided Deaf people with a common sign language" (Burch 59). Yet gaining access to Deaf culture in Deaf residential schools often meant losing degrees of access to other identities and cultures that might be passed on through a child's involvement with his/her family. It is these tensions around access and Deaf culture, Deaf identity, and ASL that the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing literacy narratives in the DALN ground in the nuanced struggles of diverse individuals.

In light of the ways access has been constructed in public discourse around Deaf culture, listener-rhetors coming to this set of narratives might first listen for critical incidents constructed by the contributors themselves. For example, they might listen for specific nuanced instances that get at questions related to Deaf identity, such as: What is the nature of the Deaf self the contributor had access to or wanted access to? How was access to Deaf culture offered or denied or limited for the interviewee? Who decided what counted as Deaf and what didn't? What was the cost of accessing Deaf identity and Deaf culture? To highlight how content from the DALN literacy narratives stand to inform public deliberation on these and similar questions, we turn now to two critical incidents. In the first, one contributor recounts having come to new self-understanding after accessing Deaf Culture; in the second, a contributor dramatizes the literal and cultural distances he traveled as a young boy to attend a school for the deaf.

Access and Deaf Culture Access and Technology Access and Discourse
Jane Fernandes Jane Fernandes Brenda Brueggemann
Christopher Driscoll Warren Francis Anonymous

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