The Last Generation

This post was originally published on October 31, 2017 under a different site.

During a gathering of deaf academics last week, I had a conversation with a Danish scholar about deaf education in Denmark, which had previously been on the vanguard of the bilingual bicultural education for deaf children movement from roughly the late 1980s to the early 2000s. This movement proposed the still-radical, still-heretical idea that deaf children can be taught in a (national) signed language and learn the written (and sometimes spoken) language(s) of their country. Now, the scholar told me, bilingual bicultural education in Denmark was all but extinct as cochlear implants have become mandatory for all deaf children (under threat of removal from their parents’ care if they decline), and sign language in education is repudiated. She told me about a respected elder Danish deaf leader who had led the bilingual bicultural education movement in his country but has since come to renounce his views. This leader had recently published his memoirs with a final chapter proclaiming that the last generation of bilingual Danish deaf children had come and gone.

Like George Veditz, I believe that as long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs. However, in the post-anthropocentric age that is now upon us, I recognize that who and what it means to be a deaf person has changed (and has been changing before our eyes all along). Audism is seemingly a manifestation of the Enlightenment ideal of humanism, which defines the human as “a perfectly functional physical body, modeled upon ideals of white masculinity, normativity, youth, and health … All other modes of embodiment are cast out of the subject position.” But being deaf (or Deaf) in the West as it has been understood in more recent history (i.e., as a “nationalistic category”) may also be a manifestation of humanism. It is this latter twentieth-century humanistic understanding of deaf (or Deaf) people that may be declining before our eyes, even as it gathers momentum to transform itself.

In 1989, Paddy Ladd asked, “Could it be that in 50 years time, Deaf people will look back on us and say, ‘They merely copied the hearing. They were not true Deaf culture-based people?’” In so doing, he may have predicted the posthumanist turn where the “categorical boundary-keepers of the subject of Humanism have evolved into fully fledged autonomous models of the human subject.” This model of Deafhood is “a situated and accountable perspective. It embraces a new political and ethical project, … reviving tolerance as a tool for social justice.”

As we come to realize that our language practices were translanguaging all along, that our social identities have always been multiple and intersectional, and that the diversities in deaf communities today (however these are understood) are “productive events,” it may be that the struggles in deaf education can lead to “alternate visions and projects.” If we are forced to reconfigure our understandings of ourselves as limited by previously held conceptions of the deaf (or Deaf) subject, then maybe we can glimpse “untapped possibilities for bonding, community building, and empowerment” by undertaking “a leap forward into the complexities and paradoxes of our times.”