McIlroy, G & Storbeck, C, ‘Development of Deaf Identity: An Ethnographic Study’, 2011, Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, pp494-511
In the context of Deaf studies, identity has traditionally been defined around the disability-difference
binary (Davis, 2002). From this perspective, identity is constructed as either a ‘‘disabled deaf person or as a Deaf person with a difference’’ (Davis, 2002, p. 9), either of which ‘‘always implies being deaf is a secondclass identity’’ (Davis, 2002, p. 88). The assumption has been that only two identities are possible for deaf persons, namely deaf or Deaf, and that all deaf persons fit into one category or the other. Therefore, ontology is a valuable starting point into the later discussion of how deaf identities are constructed beyond this traditional identity of being deaf or Deaf.
Traditionally, the identity journey can take a deaf person to one of two possible sites of identity. The first option is to strive to be as much like a hearing person as possible in order to blend into the oral language world (Leigh, 1999, 2009). This entails constructing their identity around their hearing impairment which is seen as something to be overcome, as framed by the medical model. The second option is to define themselves primarily as a member of a socio-linguistic minority in recognition of Deaf rights; this option is portrayed by the social model (Gesser, 2007; Padden & Humphries, 2005; Reagan, 1995; Shakespeare, 1996; Shakespeare & Watson, 2002). These two choices illustrate the long-standing antagonism between the medical and social models’ construction of the identity of deaf persons (Reagan, 2002; Skelton & Valentine, 2003). The maintenance of these rigid cultural boundaries is characteristic of what has been called the ‘‘firstwave deaf identity politics’’ (Davis, 2002), where an essentialist binary forces the choice between oral or sign modes of communication. Davis (2002) also observed that this binary has dominated the politics around Deaf education over the past 130 years.
As postmodernists theorists contend, there is no single best way to communicate and understand the
world (Hylnka & Yeama, 1992). This philosophical shift has great significance for the education of deaf
children especially since the postmodern perspective challenges deaf and hearing communities to redefine
identity as a fluidly constructed ontology (Corker, 1996; Leigh, 2009; Wrigley, 1996). Instead of a fixed
state of identity, the postmodern self-concept offers people a multiplicity of identities in which they may coexist. A whole range of identities in terms of nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, languages, social status, and other dimensions becomes available. Thus, as Foster (2001) concludes, one’s disability remains an important and integral part in the fluid construction of deaf identity (see also Shakespeare, 2002). In the case of deaf persons, being deaf would be construed or held onto as being a core element of identity (Leigh, 2009). Nonetheless, a person is not defined essentially and rigidly by his or her disability as tends to occur within the medical model (Reagan, 1995) and also, ironically, within the social model, despite its ardent pursuit of social and political emancipation from an audist discourse.
The postmodern approach thus provides an important departure from the medical and social models’ insistence on defining identity fundamentally in terms of disability via either the acceptance or the rejection thereof. Hence, there is an increase or decrease of dignity according to the presence of internal dignity and tolerance of oneself as a deaf person. At the same time, the identity crisis between dignity (trust) and gap or void (distrust) as ‘‘the representation of the self ’’ (Baumeister, 1997) is negotiated anew in each situation as they go through their lives.
We propose to place and rename this postmodern ontological framework within Deaf studies with the more concise title of the ‘‘dialogue model.’’ The essence of the dialogue model is reconciliation through
critical self-reflective bicultural dialogue, which embraces postmodern tensions between contradictory
identities. This model is developed in the remainder of this paper.
The increasing awareness and understanding of what it means to be deaf, which extends beyond the outdated ‘‘first-wave of identity politics’’ (Davis,
2002), is far more nuanced than the medical/social model. The newer approach allows for an appreciation
of the complexity and range of deaf ontology. The dialogue model is in alignment with the current shift
into the ‘‘second-wave deaf identity politics’’ (Davis, 2002) in its celebration of marginal discourses (Corker, 2000) through a fluid network of identities. According to Ladd (2003), this concept of second-wave deaf identity politics refers to a greater tolerance and acceptance of diversity within and across deaf and hearing communities. We add that this is a significant shift away from the first-wave deaf/Deaf binary with only medical and cultural perspectives of deafness. The second wave serves as a platform for discussing the bicultural identity.
This approach also fits well with the postcolonial perspective of reconciliation and dialogue between former oppressor and victim (Geertsema, 2004). It is significant for Deaf studies that Shakespeare (2000)
suggests that a feature of oppression is the ‘‘loss of voice,’’ which has also been a feature of deaf identity politics (Wrigley, 1996). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa provided a symbolic and public platform on which previously voiceless victims had the opportunity to retell their stories in their own words, of their shame, oppression and human right abuses and experiences (Allen, 2006). It is this cathartic retelling that, as Thornton (2005) suggests, often provides evocative narratives of dissent against authority and ‘‘unfreedom’’ (p. 7). This narrative process provides rich data for ethnographic research.
Taking this point further, Taylor (1992, p. 51) argues that
“… if Deaf persons were to believe that they are disabled, it is because they experience contempt and shame before others (hearing) in the public space especially at school, and therefore their dignity is compromised.”
This example foregrounds the theme of the dialogue model’s stance of reconciliation through constructive
dialogue. This attitude of tolerating difference fosters the (re)claiming of dignity and is of considerable value to minorities such as deaf and Deaf persons.
It needs to be emphasized that the dialogue model is not positioning itself as a metatheory to explain deaf identity in its entirety. Rather, it serves as an interpretative model for theorizing how the world is experienced by deaf people in a way that extends beyond the static medical/social binary. The dialogue model is particularly useful in understanding the struggles of minority groups such as deaf persons, who fall through the gaps between the medical and social models. It is also a useful research tool for understanding how deaf persons make sense of the ‘‘disconnections and displacements’’ (Breivik, 2005) in their lives through their narratives (Leigh, 2009). Furthermore, Leigh (2009) noted that deaf persons generally used the standard labels typical of first-wave medical and social model rhetoric that is deaf, hard of hearing, or Deaf.
In discussing how bicultural identities may be understood, Ladd (2003) defines Deafhood as a process
of claiming one’s Deaf identity with dignity.