This book looks at the Deaf-World culture in depth. In the process, the authors consider many practical, legal, educational, medical and social issues facing those in the Deaf-World. While the book covers many technical issues in detail, the underpinning for all of it is that the Deaf-World is its own unique culture with its own unique language, and is every bit as much of a subculture as it is to be African-American or some branch of Hispanic.
The authors work hard to establish the Deaf-World as a legitimate subculture. They point out that although most minority groups can point to a geographic location they're from, the Deaf-World is bound by language and experience but not geography. So while Mexican-Americans can point to Mexico on the map, those of the Deaf-World cannot do that.
Throughout the course of the book, the authors demonstrate that often the beliefs of people in the Deaf-World about their culture and language are challenged by people charged with helping them: educators, psychologists, audiologists, social workers, and others all tend to think of hearing loss as a disability. Those in the Deaf-World see it as a cultural difference with a different language. They do not like having the core of how they see themselves characterized as something that needs to be changed or fixed, and are particularly upset by the possibility that genetic engineering or other medical interventions, such as cochlear implants, might eliminate deaf people.
At the core of what makes the Deaf-World its own subculture is its language - American Sign Language (ASL). The authors note that ASL has been harshly criticized for centuries but that current research doesn't support the bias against using sign language.
One of the most persuasive criticisms of ASL came from people translating ASL into spoken English without understanding the particular syntax of ASL, which is entirely different than the syntax used for spoken English. On p. 44, the authors gave this example: A mother would sign:
ME MOTHER RESPONSIBLE CHILDREN ME TAKE-CARE-OF FEED CLEAN LIST." (When ASL is written out, it's done in all caps, and the hyphens indicate specific ways of communicating.)
When looked at as a literal translation, ASL looks like a wholly inadequate language, lacking in detailed vocabulary, adequate grammar and syntax, and complexity. However, one has to know and understand ASL to translate it well. A skilled translator would have translated the signs thus:
I'm a mother, which means I have a lot of responsibilities. I must take care of the children, feed them, clean them up -- there's a whole list."
The first translation represented broken, fractured, and inadequate language. The second one communicated very well. People in the Deaf-World get the second kind of meaning, not the first.
The authors gave a detailed history of sign language as used by the Deaf-World. Use of sign language was first systematically documented in France in 1779. As one teacher of the deaf trained other teachers, they gradually spread through the countryside, so that eventually there was a single sign language dialect used throughout France. However, the type of misunderstanding about the substance and richness of sign language, as demonstrated previously, happened in France. People who did not understand sign language concluded that spoken language was so superior that sign language put deaf children at risk of developing very weak spoken and/or written language skills. They tried to force French grammar, such as word endings, on to the sign language, to make the literal translation from sign language to French more accurate. It didn't work, because the two languages were markedly different.
In the process of trying to change French sign language, experts realized that sign language was a legitimate language in its own right. When France passed a law that all citizens must be taught in French and in no other language, they meant sign language as well.
This sort of attitude went along with the "oralist" movement, where experts decided that deaf people must learn to speak as clearly as possible and to master as much spoken language as possible, because the rest of the world wasn't going to learn sign language. During a French conference on the education of the deaf in 1878, the conference found that the superiority of spoken language over sign language was "incontestable," a view held by many people to this day.
Many people in the Deaf-World object to this view. They know the richness of their language and understand its cultural significance, which the authors broke out into several sections. They note that ASL is a symbol of identity for people in the Deaf-World. In addition, it is the only language they can use to communicate with each other. It binds them together. One fear the Deaf-World has is that forced oral communication will undermine their culture, because it will force deaf people with no sign language skills to talk only with non-deaf people.
Deaf-World members also argue that as a legitimate subculture, they have their own values and customs. For instance, ASL is remarkably frank. The authors give examples of people using names for themselves that outside ASL might seem cruel, such as a person identifying himself with reference to a scar on his face, or the man who used a sign indicating that he was significantly overweight, which he was. People who speak English would not give people names such as "Fatty." It would be considered insensitive, aggressive and rude, but such self-given names are common in ASL.
The authors work hard to give the reader as clear an understanding as possible of what the Deaf-World culture is like. They point out that over one third of those in the Deaf-World also belong to another minority: they are either Black or one of the Hispanic heritages in our country (various South American and Central American countries, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, as well as Mexico). These children have to deal with the double difficulties of being a minority based on their birth as well as a minority based on their deafness.
The authors gave an extensive explanation of how ASL is used for communication, demonstrating that literal word-for-word translations are completely inadequate. The movements made between words, how high or low they are made, the rhythm with which they are made, and even body posture and facial expression all add meaning to the actual words or concepts being signed. This explanation makes a powerful argument for viewing ASL as a legitimate language of its own and for the Deaf-World being its own very distinct subculture.
The issue of what the Deaf-World culture is, how valid it is, and whether or not it needs sign language as an important and integral part of it, is an issue that surfaces throughout the book. Those in the Deaf-World have been aware of the problem for decades if not centuries. Olof Hanson, who was President of the National Association of the Deaf from 1910 to 1913, said that "the Deaf are foreigners among a people whose language they never learn."
Of course, this was exactly the reason oralists give for insisting that all deaf children learn to speak, just as we try to make sure that all children who come to school speaking only Russian, or Polish, or Spanish, master English, so they can benefit fully from their education and fit better into the larger English-speaking society. But because educational leaders often insist that deaf children learn the oralist way only and not sign language as well, the Deaf-World sees this stance as discriminatory and oppressive against their culture. Virtually all of the specialists the parents of deaf children work with are from the speaking culture, not the Deaf-World.
The last chapters of the book talk about the culture clash they call the "Hearing Agenda" - what people in power who are not part of the Deaf-World think is best for people with significant hearing loss. They illustrate through many examples that often this "hearing agenda" is diametrically opposed to what those of the Deaf-World believe to be best for them and their children.
They point out that most deaf children in this country have hearing parents. Those parents are unfamiliar with the Deaf-World. They usually don't realize that much of what is believed by the hearing world about deafness and about the use of sign language is markedly incorrect. Most if not all of the experts who consult with the parents will also be hearing, not deaf or hard of hearing. Most of this help comes from hospitals and schools, two institutions that commonly dismiss the concern about the Deaf-World on these issues.
Those in the Deaf-World seem to have valid concerns. The authors give details about the educational outcomes for deaf children. They say, "....the majority of Deaf students leave school ill-informed, illiterate, and increasingly unprepared for the technological work place...Deaf people are notoriously underemployed and only a tiny fraction complete higher education." (p. 365) They also point out that deaf children born…