Deaf History: An Aid to Understanding a Culture?

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Something that is becoming apparent to me during my Ph.D study is that you can link through to almost any discipline when you have a question you’re aiming to answer. The question spawning from that is: where do you draw the line?

One of the biggest challenges I can foresee within my research will be my status as a hearing person. This is tricky territory, not because all d/Deaf people loathe hearing people or vice-versa, but due to the cultural differences that being part of one community or the other entails. Perhaps this could be a benefit, as I have very few preconceived ideas about the Deaf community, but the question of being accepted into said community will also present its own challenges. I remember one of my BSL teachers from a few years ago telling me about how he was asked how he misses music. His reply, “How can I miss it if I’ve never heard it?” has stuck with me, and when you think about it, it demonstrates just one of the many aspects of how different Deaf culture* can be.

My knowledge of BSL sign linguistics isn’t too bad. It’s not on a par with the greats, but it’s not rudimentary, either. The question I’m aiming to answer for my Ph.D, while requiring knowledge of the linguistics of BSL, delves into other realms that can be linked with the subject, such as culture, technology, legislation… you name it, I can think of a (tenuous) link to it!

So how do I combine these questions of cultural acceptance, related topics and drawing the line? My first attempt has created this – a very brief timeline of events that have shaped Deaf culture:

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This based upon a book by Paddy Ladd called “Understanding Deaf Culture – In Search of Deafhood” and I would highly recommend it to anyone who has even the slightest interest in Deaf culture. It’s not extensive, but I don’t intend for it to be. This presents an overview of why Deaf culture is the way it is today, why BSL was only recognised officially in 2003, and why advances in one area (e.g. science) can be detrimental to others (e.g. culture).

Importantly, it also allows me to access this culture a little more. Not only do I now understand the chain of events leading up to what is known and experienced today, but it allows me to empathise (as much as a hearing person can) with the highs and lows of a culture that, had I not done any of this work, I would have struggled to connect with on a level other than linguistically.

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*Yes, I’m aware of the intricacies of defining a “culture” and how many pitfalls I could be letting myself in for, but I’m using it here for brevity!

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3 thoughts on “Deaf History: An Aid to Understanding a Culture?

  1. I’m a hearing woman newly studying ASL (one class so far). I’ve kind of fallen in love with it, but like you, I also question what my place in Deaf culture can be. I’ve enjoyed some of your posts and plan to poke about more on your blog. Thanks for the thoughtful, informative posts. I’ve requested Paddy Ladd’s book from my local library!

    • lukear

      That’s great! ASL is next on my list of sign languages, but I need to improve my BSL a little further first! Ladd (2003) is a bit of a heavy read at first, but you can learn so much from it! I heard that he might be publishing a new book soon, but it’s all gone a bit quiet on that front…

      • I bet having spacial grammar down will make learning ASL easier. Have you read Margalit Fox’s Talking Hands? Linguists studying an emerging sign language in a Bedouin community, a statistically huge % of whom are deaf, interspersed with linguistic analysis of manual languages as a whole. Fascinating. Taught me a whole lot about spacial grammar too! Although maybe you don’t need that. (:

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