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Accessing the Deaf Self Through Deaf Culture.

For Jane Fernandes, who was a Deaf professor at Gallaudet University at the time of the DALN interviews, her deafness was defined by a Hearing world; it wasn't until she was in her twenties that she came to embrace her own Deaf identity through the ways other Deaf people invited her into Deaf culture with their use of ASL to tell stories. As she explains in her interview for the DALN, Fernandes grew up among a hearing family and attended public schools. Even though she was deaf, she did not know ASL, was not aware of Deaf culture, and did not grow up thinking of herself as Deaf. It wasn't until her college roommate, who was studying ASL, invited Fernandes to go with her to an event in the local Deaf community that Fernandes felt a "gut-level" connection with other Deaf people. Despite her hearing loss, Fernandes's access, to that point, had primarily been to an identity and culture shaped by the Hearing world she grew up in. However, seeing and interacting with other Deaf people, even though she did not know ASL at the time, revealed a whole world that she had not previously had access to but that she now saw herself being part of. She recalls:

I became very fascinated with American Sign Language and it was a long struggle, probably very deep struggle to understand that American Sign Language probably should have been my native language. Should have been. So I made a choice when I could that I would try to learn it as best I could even though it was already too late. Would learn it as best I could. (part I, 5:20)

Although she did not know it at the time, Fernandes's access to the English language, to public schools, and Hearing Discourses meant that she did not have access to an identity or community grounded in Deafness. Despite her success in the Hearing world, the need for self-definition was a strong one for Fernandes and one that the Hearing world could not completely account for or fulfill. Instead, she found her cultural and linguistic voice through the discourse of ASL and Deaf culture, which she gained access to in the homes and through the stories of Iowa Deaf people:

So Iowa Deaf people invited me; almost every weekend I would go to different towns in Iowa. I would get on the greyhound bus and go to Sioux City, Cedar Falls, Council Bluffs, Aims, Waterloo, different places and different Deaf people would have me in their homes. [... T]he best way to learn any language is with the people who speak that language so that's how I learned sign language. And eventually I incorporated that into my PhD studies. I studied the storytelling traditions of Deaf people in ASL in Iowa. I really dropped everything that I had been doing, studying—French poetry, modern poetry, Renaissance and baroque drama in England, France, Italy. I just dropped it and went into ASL and trying to show that it was a non-written storytelling tradition that could be considered a literature. A literature. That's what I worked on. (part 2, 7:04)

So dramatizing ways in which Deaf culture allowed her to access, name, understand, and situate her Deaf self, Fernandes's DALN interview speaks to—in fact, works to frame—a public issue. As she puts it, gaining access to Deaf culture and to ASL and constructing her own Deaf identity meant, in part, resisting the Hearing world in which she had participated for much of her life. She sought to redefine literature, culture, and her own identity in ways that valued Deafness.

The personal risk and cost embedded in Fernandes's treatment of identity politics are particularly striking to us. As English-studies types, we know firsthand the cultural capital associated with the career in literature studies that Fernandes had been training for ("French poetry, modern poetry, Renaissance and baroque drama in England, France, Italy"). How marvelous the promise of both contributing to (through her dissertation in Deaf storytelling) and affiliating with Deaf culture must have been for Fernandes to give up her sizeable personal investment in a long-standing academic discipline.

And yet this is only a portion of what Fernandes's critical incident stands to teach us. As teachers designing curricula to draw upon critical incidents that take seriously issues such as cultural identity politics, we are both humbled and inspired by the serendipity of discovery that awaits committed engagement. For instance, in researching Fernandes's current institutional affiliation for the purposes of this article, we conducted a Web search that immediately brought us to blogs about a recent controversy at Gallaudet University at which both Fernandes and identity politics were front and center. In question was whether Fernandes, because she grew up in Hearing culture and didn't affiliate with Deaf culture until adulthood, was Deaf enough to serve as the university's president. On the one hand, the controversy is a testament to the hard-won political efficiency of Deaf culture—that students at Gallaudet were able to organize a protest of such force that it was able to block a high-level administrative decision. On the other hand, we can't help but wonder whether the protest came at acute personal and public cost and pain to Fernandes (even as she, perhaps, appreciated the energy and commitment behind the political mobility), for the protest questioned her ability to serve as an effective leader and spokesperson for Gallaudet's Deaf community due to factors outside her control and quite despite her notable credentials.

We linger some now over the juxtaposition between Fernandes's literacy narrative for the DALN and the 2006 presidency controversy at Gallaudet University because the juxtaposition suggests that the identity politics that Fernandes raises as personal ones in the context of literacy learning as a doctoral candidate are still being negotiated. That is, identity politics that Fernandes names in her literacy narrative are still public and contentious, asking, who gets to decide who's in and who's out, who's Deaf enough? Do you get to name yourself as Deaf, or does someone else get to name you? What does access to Deaf culture afford? For whom?

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

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