Reaction to Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture
With their book Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture, Carol Padden and Tom Humphries have crafted an insightful, deeply personal examination of Deaf culture, revealing how the development of ASL (American Sign Language) has reshaped traditional thinking in regards to Deaf people.
Padden and Humphries (1988) contend that Deaf people have “established patterns of cultural transmission and a common language … all basic ingredients for a rich and inventive culture,” yet they argue that little to nothing has been known about Deaf culture itself (p. 9).
Reaction to Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture Essay Example
The first chapter features anecdotes about growing up Deaf and the popular misconceptions that surround it. The chapter overturns a lot of conventional wisdom regarding what it “means” to be Deaf, with the authors examining false notions such as “Deaf children [not being able] to hear, thus perhaps they do not appreciate the ability of others to perceive sound” (p. 14).
The chapter effectively sets up the rest of the book, in that the authors qualify terms that society takes for granted, such as “hearing” and “talking,” and challenge popular, albeit uninformed thought.
Different people share their stories about being deaf, providing the reader a context through which to understand how Deaf culture developed. In discussing how Deaf children’s lives are marked with periods of “adjustments,” the authors work hard to establish that Deaf culture is a genuine culture unto itself, as cultures are “highly specific systems that both explain things and constrain how things can be known” (p. 24).
In the next chapter, Deaf culture is examined with a cultural and historical perspective. It is an interesting look at not just how Deaf culture is treated in other countries’ storytelling and such, but what Deaf stories mean to the culture at large. The authors first dispel the story of Epée inventing French Sign Language, but use the story to show how the story itself has been galvanized into an important touchstone for French Deaf people, symbolizing a shift from Deaf people’s isolation to the rise of a real community. In this case, the community is more important than the truth behind the language’s development.
As it turns out, there are similar stories—across the world—of Deaf communities coming together through language. In fact, the authors point out that the stories are “active ways of affirming basic beliefs of the group” (p. 33). The stories are vital to the communities, as they point toward the past as well as informing the present. Deaf culture reflects on these stories to see how far they have come, emerging as a socially distinct group.
Sadly, the chapter notes that other countries, including Germany and France, experienced reforms that “snatched [sign language] from their schools” (p. 34), which is tantamount to silencing an entire culture. Padden and Humphries use this story as a cautionary tale for Americans, contending the American deaf community could be silenced in the same way if similar reforms came through. If nothing else, the stories also serve to paint an alarming portrait—the dismantling of an entire culture—to people who are not Deaf.
“A Different Center,” the third chapter, distinguishes between the terms “Hearing,” “Hard-of-Hearing,” and “Deaf.” The authors claim that all three have very “‘backward definitions’” (p. 41), which stem from the label “Deaf.” They posit that the definitions should come from “Hearing” instead, shifting the paradigm so that it is inclusive of everyone; in other words, it would start with the majority instead of marginalizing the minority.
The authors claim that these labels hurt the Deaf community in that they imply lesser status. Interestingly, the authors admit that “Deaf people have a history, albeit an uneasy one, of alignment with other disabled groups” (p. 44). This chapter, more than the previous two, succeeds in exploring two distinct worlds: Deaf and Hearing, and demonstrating how a culture’s self-identity is cultivated. The author’s criticism of conventional wisdom charges society with making Deafness an issue of class and ability, not an element of culture.
The history of signed languages is traced in the book’s fourth chapter, wherein the authors further discuss notions of otherness and how living “within the world of others” impacts self-identity. From a documentary to a play to a popular newsletter distributed to Deaf people, the authors examine the ways in which these examples contribute to misconceptions about sign language—chiefly, how sign language is often portrayed as “lifesaving,” “personal,” or “romantic” (p. 69).
Fascinatingly, the authors subtly ask whether these notions exists are true because Deaf people are “dependent” upon sign language, or if Deaf people are ultimately defined by their signed language.
In the fifth chapter, Padden and Humphries discuss how signed language is thought of much differently than it was in the past. In fact, the authors claim that “signed languages are human languages with the potential for rich expression” (p. 73). Deaf culture has experienced a dramatic shift in the way they think of signed language—“a new self-consciousness”—and the authors go about examining performances in which sign language is used. The idea of signing-as-performance is fascinating; it undoes conventional ideas of what acting/performance is “supposed” to be, challenging long-held ideas.
There is an artistry and a beauty to it all, it seems, with early signed-language performers of plays and poetry demonstrating “a detailed awareness of how signs are assembled and the relationship of structure to meaning” (p. 84). The authors argue that these performances lead to a new science of the self—the language takes on a personal, rather than a functional, character. It further demonstrates that signed language is so deeply textured that it can be a source of genuine art.
The sixth chapter begins with another popular misconception: that, without sound, Deaf people cannot “know the world directly” (p. 92). This introduces the notion of barriers, established by sound, blocking Deaf people from fully understanding the world around them. The authors immediately dispel this idea, arguing that sound should be thought of differently: sound “does not have an inherent meaning” so much as it is interpreted in different ways. How we perceive sound is shaped and conditioned, not automatic.
Deaf people, the authors maintain, have a full concept of sound and that it plays a vital role in their world, despite the physical absence of it. The chapter is interesting in its exploration of the nature of sound as well as Deaf people’s relationship to it. Sound helps Deaf people “organize experience” (p. 108) and helps to shape their environment, in concert with movement and form. A Deaf person’s world is not silent so much as it is free of easy interpretations and culturally-generated perceptions.
The final chapter speaks to the entire book itself, contending that the “biological characteristic” (p. 110) of not hearing is inextricably linked to Deaf culture. The authors suggest that the world shift their thinking to a more historical perspective—one that accounts for the fact that the world of Deafness is a world occupied by otherness. Deafness is not an affliction; it is a condition that “leads to a longing … to live lives designed by themselves rather than imposed by others.” Deaf in America calls for a grand shift in perspective from the hearing world, asking them to think of Deaf culture as a distinct group, unbound by class and common ideas of disability.
Deaf culture has given rise to a rich, highly personal language and a tightly-knit community that is as developed and defined as any in the world. The authors claim that if the Deaf are denied access to a history of established language and social practices, they are doomed to endure the barriers and criticism that Deaf culture has managed to overcome. Deaf culture needs to be protected, as it defines itself through a shared language and forges a collective identity through community.
- Padden, Carol & Humphries, Tom. (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture.
- Cambridge : Massachusetts.