Eckert, R C, ‘Toward a Theory of Deaf Ethnos: Deafnicity’, Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 2010, 317-33
Should ethnicity be used to interpret relations between the Deaf community and the hearing people? Recent scholarship questioning the merits of Deaf ethnicity suggests a need to reexamine the use of ethnicity when describing Deaf identity and culture.
Stokoe’s (1960/2005) recognition of sign language, Woodward’s (1972)1 distinguishing cultural constructions (Deaf) from medical circumstance (deaf), and Humphries’ (1977) coinage of the term ‘‘audism’’ imply or infer Deaf ethnicity.2 However, recognition of the ethnic processes of constructing, maintaining, and reorganizing Deaf identity boundaries is relatively recent (Erting, 1978; Markowicz & Woodward, 1982). Lane, Pillard, & Hedberg (in press), Lane (2005), and Eckert (2005) argue the merits of Deaf ethnicity using modified versions of Smith’s (1986) dimensions of ethnie. Lane et al. (in press) and Lane (2005) rely on
historical comparative data to demonstrate the presence of all six dimensions in the Deaf community.
Eckert (2005) hypothesized a nationalized concept of Deaf American ethnicity, or what he called Deafnicity, as a counter hegemonic response to audism.
Sabatello (2005) argues, ‘‘The Deaf community is arguably a linguistic minority based on fluency in sign
language that is different from the majority language, or alternatively, an ethnic minority based predominantly on common history and culture’’ (p. 1036). Sabatello asserts a need to differentiate ‘‘between those who are legally recognized as ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities, and other sorts of ‘life-styles cleavages, social movements and voluntary associations,’ notwithstanding their internal claims for shared linguistic and cultural systems’’ (pp. 1048–1049). The arguments of Sabatello highlight the importance of establishing the Deaf community as an ethnic community.
Tucker (2004) argues that Deaf identity, in the context of a deviant medical minority, needs to be rehabilitated and conform to the cultural hegemonic goals of the dominant hearing majority. Tucker argues,
‘‘deaf people with cochlear implants, particularly children, have a wealth of opportunities and potential life experiences available to them’’ (p. 186). Tucker goes on to say, ‘‘To deny such opportunities based on theories of segregation is indeed illogical’’ (p. 186). Tucker’s argument is framed first by identifying Deaf people as second-class citizens using a Washington Post article3 as proof of second-class citizenship and then claiming that cochlear implant technology will ‘‘alleviate the ramifications of deafness’’ (p. 186).
Davis, Sabatello, and Tucker each express major misunderstandings of Deaf identity and culture.
Another important contribution to the study of race and ethnicity was conducted by Myrdal (1944).
The cycle of prejudice and violence described by Myrdal (see Figure 1) is important for understanding
the Deaf experience as a subordinated minority population. During initial contact, many healthcare providers identify Deaf Americans as medically deviant. For example, Harmer (1999) notes, ‘‘Doctors tend to view disabilities as deviations from the mainstream norm that should be corrected if possible’’ (p. 90). According to Harmer, physicians ‘‘tend to medicalize deaf patients in a way that can be interpreted as paternalistic’’ (p. 91). Harmer notes, ‘‘Many of these professionals will focus on the child’s ‘broken ears,’ and few are likely to give much thought to a child as a whole’’ (p. 85).
The ascription of an inferior status gives the non-Deaf public, including hard-of-hearing individuals,
a false consciousness of having a superior status. This is similar to Goffman’s (1963) observations of hard-ofhearing people stratifying themselves above those who are deaf (p. 107). This false consciousness is prejudicial and reinforces non-Deaf observations of perceived Deaf inferior status. This leads to increased levels of discrimination. Deaf people are then denied access to opportunity structures. The denial is discriminatory. This discrimination reinforces non-Deaf people’s perceptions of Deaf people having an inferior status. This
creates a need for specialists to further define the inferior status.
- D/deaf is used in the Deafnicity model rather than d/Deaf to convey that the signing Deaf population is part of the entire deaf population. The use of D/deaf is not meant to contend with Woodward’s (1972) distinction. It is not used to represent
a hierarchy of Deaf identity.
- See Humphries (1977), Lane (1992/1999), and Bauman (2004). Also see Gertz’s (2008) description of dysconscious
audism. Although an unpublished 1975 paper by Humphries is often cited for the coinage of the term audism, I prefer to cite his 1977 dissertation that should be a little more accessible for interested readers.
- See Ward (1997).