Doing Deaf Studies in Theory and Everyday Life

This post was originally published on May 1, 2018 under a different site.

The title of this blog is borrowed from Tanya Titchkosky’s disability studies course (which, regretfully, I have never taken). I was inspired by my winter 2018 Introduction to Deaf Studies course, which I attempted to revamp to a greater degree than in the six previous years when I have taught the course. I still included my usual readings and lectures about Deaf Gain, ASL and early intervention, and inclusive deaf education. What was different was how I tried to seize what felt like harder issues, with classes focused directly on sign language vitality and cochlear implant discourses. But I also availed myself of new people and sources that offered themselves to me: Robert Sirvage talking about deaf epistemology, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke’s online resources about bioethics, Annelies Kusters’ generous production of Ishaare: Gestures and Signs in Mumbai and related documents. In having the privilege of including these resources, I felt that was in part able to further theorize Deaf Studies and bring it into everyday life in a way that felt new.

I say “in part” because the success of my class also depended on having its largest ever cohort (35 students!) In a class of this size, there was new diversity and new perspectives to draw on as my mostly hearing (but also deaf) students addressed and engaged with Deaf Studies in their own way. As one student put it in their annotated bibliography, the class began to view Deaf Studies not (just) as a fringe anomaly or a tired series of tropes about an imaginary, romanticized, self-contained “Deaf culture,” but “as a manner of life.”

I am still taken by one student’s final paper about intersectionality. My student wrote about the experiences of African-American students at Gallaudet that were “made invisible” by white students’ agendas: “when discussing inclusion programs it is unproductive to view the issue with a binary standard. In other words, analyzing an inclusion program should not be merely based on either including minorities-with-intersecting-identities or white deaf students; it is not one or the other.” This student’s paper helped me to see how Deaf Studies can relate to everyday life: “social injustice is a concern due to the fact that it drastically impacts those in society’s margins but also because it is the basis of many of society’s institutions and systems. Thus, concerns of inclusivity go beyond the institutions in which a student is enrolled in, rather, it is a major part of the real world and its outside affairs, thus it is important knowledge that should be disseminated in education.”

Reading this paper made me feel that Deaf Studies can offer something, despite the extreme low incidence of signing deaf people that leaves us, in Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’ words, “more or less outside the rights system in most or all countries.”[1] Teaching Deaf Studies as a standalone course completely outside of sign language interpreter or teacher of the deaf training programs (which don’t exist at my university) or even ASL classes (which do exist at my university), it is my challenge to make my issues relevant to my students as others who often have no vested interest to draw on aside from an opening in their schedules and a credit to fill. We (not I) do so in relationship with each other.

[1] Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2002). Marvelous human rights rhetoric and grim realities: Language rights in education. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 1(3), 179-205. http://https//doi.org/10.1207/S15327701JLIE0103_2