New Ethnography: The Deaf People - A Forgotten Cultural Minority
It is insufficient to understand deaf people as disabled. Most deaf people rather see themselves as members of a cultural and linguistic minority. They are proud of their culture. And they face identity obstacles similar to those faced by many other minority members. Therefore is it important to change the attitudes from the medical definitions and into an understanding of the deaf as a linguistic cultural group. These are some of the main findings in a new book by Norwegian anthropologist Jan-Kåre Breivik called Deaf Identities in the Making. Local Lives, Transnational Connections.
As deaf-activist Asbjørn puts it:
"Why fix healthy deaf children through CI surgery? We do not need that. What we need are more hearing people that want to play on our team - as we are - as Deaf people. we need more people willing to use the key to our culture - the sign language."
See among others this quote by one of Breiviks informants - it might have been told by Native Indians, black people, Saami people etc:
"I did not accept myself as deaf. My family and the local environment did not give me the means to appreciate that side of my self. I was the only local deaf person and what I head about deaf persons was almost exclusively negative. The "deaf and dumb" stereotype was around me and became part of my own experience. I was constantly trying to be part of my hearing environment, but of course I couldn't pass as a hearing person. I was constantly frustrated, never getting access to what the others were speaking about.
At the age of eighteen, (...) I stated to visit the deaf club. Here I also found a new friend. I began to accept my deafness, and gradually I aquired a sense of pride for being deaf.
I felt as if I had been given a new life, when I began accepting myself as deaf. I got more out of life and the companionship with other deaf persons. We shared the same identity, the same culture, that we were facing the same problems of communication and language in society.
Deaf people's identity politics also resemble those of other minority groups. To create a collective identity, borders have to be drawn. But where? This is of course an widely debated issue. There is some kind of hierarchy: Some people are regarded as "more deaf" than others according to Breivik:
Within the Deaf signing community, deafened people are often viewed as suspect figures. This is because they are not accepted as being really deaf, and they are often accused of being too willing to pass as hearing people.
An informant says:
"In the United States, there are extremely deaf conscious, and where you must be second- or third-generation deaf to be counted as a real deaf person."
Many informants fear for sharper boundaries between the deaf and the hearing world. One of them says:
"Deaf Power can be compared to being proud to be from Norway, and be extremely conscious of that. Such self-consciousness can turn into nationalism. This scares me, and I experience this constantly. At each youth camp, there are always some extreme types. Their messages do not differ from other extreme nationalists. It is always us vs. them."
Many deaf people live transnational lives: They travel a lot in order to meet other deaf people. In contrast to many hearing people, deaf people don't link equality and sameness, Breivik found out:
One of the key lessons I have learned, as a hearing person who has been immersed in deaf life through my anthropological research, is that the phrase "being at home among strangers" (Schein 1989) goes to the heart of the identity question. This is about deaf people's frequent departure from biological roots and the hearing, settled world, and their search for "equals" in distant places.
Their language - the sign language is of great help. It is much more suitable for transnational lives than spoken languages. It's quite easy to learn foreign sign languages. Albertine from Norway tells about her time in the USA:
"I was present one month before school started up, and by that time I was able to make myself understood and I could capture most of what they told me. After three months, I was almost fluent in American Sign Language."
Japanese, she tells, is totally incomprehensible. Nevertheless she's convinced that she would have managed Japanese "after a few weeks."
Deaf people embrace the new communication technologies like internet and email. For many of them, the Net is a window toward the world, several informants met their husbands/wives there. On the internet, they are able to communicate with strangers freely without any consideration of hearing status.
I'm halfway-through the book that actually qualifies to become one of my favorite anthropology books. It describes a - for hearing people - totally unknown world and turns some of our assumptions upside down. The book is also an example for good anthropological writing!
'I hoped our baby would be deaf' Most parents would be distressed to learn that their child had been born unable to hear. But for Paula Garfield and Tomato Lichy, it means daughter Molly can share their special culture (The Guardian, 21.3.06)