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Access and Discourse

Prior to the emergence of Deaf culture, primarily through Deaf residential schools, arguably the most significant consequence of hearing loss and of a social construction of deafness as a "handicap" was the ways deafness kept Deaf people from accessing Discourses that primarily operated along Hearing norms. Deaf scholars tell us that the problem was not so much with learning the English language but in learning it in the same way and in the same contexts that hearing people learn English (Brueggemann). That is, the problem was not one of language per se, but of Discourse. In any given situation "[...] what is important is language plus being the 'right' who (sort of person) doing the 'right' what (activity). What is important is not the language, and surely not the grammar, but saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations" (Gee 154). For the Deaf in the first half of the twentieth century, performing the "right" combination of things was about being recognized as someone who was hearing. And yet, in the ways that language and literacy competence was equated with speech and/or with reading and writing the English language, Deaf people were persistently kept on the wrong side of Hearing Discourses. Because of the ways hearing people defined the borders of their Discourses and since speech communities of the Deaf (Gumperz and Hymes) overlapped only partially with those of hearing persons, Deaf people were largely unable to put together the "right" sorts of "saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations" to "pass" as part of the dominant [Hearing] culture. They were unable to fully participate in various kinds of dominant discourse communities (Nystrand).

In the 1960s with the more widespread development of a distinctly Deaf culture and the teaching of ASL in Deaf residential schools (Humphries), it seems that a uniquely Deaf Discourse was born, one that presented an alternative to Hearing Discourses that had largely excluded or limited Deaf people's participation and acceptance. Previously, Deaf people had little access to English language on their own terms or to social practices imparted through the English language. James Gee reminds us of the importance and relationship social practices to Discourse: "If you have no access to the social practice, you don't get in the Discourse, you don't have it" (171). Where Hearing Discourses limited Deaf people's access, Deaf residential schools offered Deaf children full access to the language (ASL) and social practices of the Deaf community and, therefore, full access to Deaf Discourse. This shift had implications for Deaf people's acquisition of other Discourses too. While Humphrey explains the tensions of the unique double identity that many Deaf people enacted prior to 1960, Claire Ramsey marks the complications of Discourse that still exist for the Deaf:

In the United States, deaf education presents a more elaborate set of cultural problems, in part because at least two sources of culture exist for deaf children—the culture of their families, and the culture of American Deaf people... Many deaf children become expert border dwellers as they grow up, with the knowledge of their family's cultural ways, as well as those of Deaf people. (47-48)

The borders Deaf people dwell in and cross is complex terrain, in part because of the ways primary and secondary Discourses rub against each other. Gee explains that "Our primary Discourse gives us our initial and enduring sense of self and sets the foundations of our culturally specific vernacular language (our 'everyday language'), the language in which we speak and act as 'everyday' (non-specialized) people, and our culturally specific vernacular identity" (156).

For many deaf people, especially those who attend Deaf residential schools, it seems that their primary Discourse is a Deaf Discourse, but they likely still find themselves having to negotiate other Discourses—perhaps Hearing normative ones—of their families, ethnicities, religions, careers, hobbies, etc. It is along these borders that Deaf people's "Primary Discourses work out over time alignments and allegiances with and against other Discourses, alignments and allegiances that shape them as they, in turn, shape these Discourses" (Gee 15). Crossing cultural borders, as Gloria Anzaldua observes, is a challenge when one culture is considered subordinate to another.

As the next two critical incidents demonstrate, the literacy narratives of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing contributors in the DALN archive mark these complications in interesting and highly situated ways that raise "questions of recognition and being recognized" or—as Brenda Jo Brueggemann puts it, of "passing"—as well as questions and tensions around border dwelling and border crossing between and among Primary and Secondary Discourses.

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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