Corker, Mairian, “Deaf Transitions: Images and Origins of Deaf Families, Deaf Communities and Deaf Identities”, 1996, Jessica Kingsley Publishers
The insidious focus on deaf people’s difference in a negative way, not only by hearing people in general but also by significant others and those in their immediate socio-cultural group, is the single most common factor that leads my clients to seek counselling. Their family and socio-cultural environments, which should be places of safety, have become unpredictable and uncontrollable to such an extent that their ability to grow has become blocked and they feel totally misunderstood.
In fact, whichever way we look at it, all the categories which are put forward as definitive statements about the nature of deafness and being deaf tend to be promoted as universal truths or norms against which deaf people are compared and by which they may be judged.
We will explore some of the difficulties in making distinctions between personal identity and social identity, how the boundaries between them are blurred and how they might therefore come into conflict with each other when what the individuals want for themselves is different from what society wants from them.
In Britain, the Deaf community is a very small and highly socialised community, with people travelling long distances to maintain contacts and to preserve its culture and language1. As with many small communities there is a tendency for everyone to know everyone else, if not directly, then through someone else, and in such circumstances, there is a lot of room for both a lack of privacy and for distorted views of individuals within the community.
This is partially because Deaf people may be cut off from full access to formal, mainstream information channels, and a lot of social activities are taken up with the exchange of information about people and events in their community. Social expectations and customs mean it is quite difficult for a Deaf person to have a private self. The main channels of communication are through rumour or general hearsay, and gossip.
Carty (1994, pp 41), writing from an Australian perspective, concurs that this [narrators being concerned that they might become a talking point or be judged by the community] is an issue, and points to its origins:
Studying how Deaf identity develops is especially challenging because 90 per cent of Deaf people do not learn the essential characteristics of this identity from their families, and because the development of this identity is actively discouraged by the educational system that most Deaf people grow up in. A further difficulty in exploring the development of this identity is that many Deaf people have effectively blocked out some of the painful experiences that have shaped their identities. Recalling these experiences may be seen as risking loss of acceptance by the larger Deaf community. (Italics added)
Both of these images, for me, are something about self and identity. On the one hand there is a centredness which is solid and radiates outwards and beyond – ‘a sea which is boundless and measureness’2, and on the other hand there is a panicky out-of-control feeling of this centeredness being uprooted and drained of its influence and its energy as it gets caught up in the eddies of external forces. On the one hand there is calm and wholeness, on the other, there is conflict and division.
It echoes some of the attempts to describe how people, including deaf people, experience and face the transitions in their lives as a result of the relationships they form with others and the influence this has on their inner worlds. Most individuals are suspended in a system which has many layers. They are party of a family, or a community and of a society and have inherited images of who they are, their belief and value blueprints and the patterns of relationships they choose from all levels of the system.
This systems perspective, as it relates to identity development, is represented in Figure 1.2.
The Emergence of Self and Identity
Many authors suggest that the self precedes the identity in the developmental cycle and probably lies deepest within the personality – ‘a solid sense of self is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for identity’3.
Another means of differentiating them is that the self is something that stays essentially the same whereas identity, as the link between the self and others, may be subject to reorganisations, redefinitions, and reconstructions which will depend on the stage in the developmental cycle and the kinds of relationships that are encountered.
Many definitions of identity are based on a sense of something ‘which remains the same despite changes’, or to quote Kluckhohn in Erikson (1956): ‘man [sic] is like all other men, like some men and like no other man’, which brings identity closer to a sense of self:
Compare the example of a fruit tree during the four seasons: In winter it has no leaves, in spring it blossoms and produces new green leaves, in summer it bears fruit, and in autumn its leaves turn red and ultimately fall off. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that it remains the same tree. Or take a human being: Despite the tremendous changes between conception and death, it remains the same unique person. However, despite these self-evident examples it is not at all clear what exactly the identity of the tree or that person is. And, on second thought, there is a paradox in the sense that something cannot change if it does not, in a certain respect remain the same4.
In placing the individual in the context of their environment and ‘the tremendous changes between conception and death’, an implicit distinction is made between self and othersd and, hence, between personal and social identity, though the two are ultimately linked:
Identity is a constellation by which a person is known. What he or she actually is, is the self. Identity … in a psychological sense, is a person’s sense of self … With respect to identity and identification, a person’s identification is how he is known to others. His identity is how he is known to himself, what he thinks and feels about himself … Identity is built from multiple identifications. 5.
Self and Identity in Deaf People
Lane (1992) in a recent and extensive review of the literature on the personality characteristics of deaf people, points out that the list of labels associated with deaf people makes dismaying reading. We have been confronted with terms such as antisocial, dependent, immature, submissive, egocentric, naive, unintelligent, androgynous, impulsive, stubborn, depressive, neurotic, paranoid and so on.
Different sections of the deaf community also have their own labels, which, as Padden and Humphries (1988) suggest with respect to the Deaf community, are not always used to establish commonality but to marginalise people who are seen to be of lesser status or undesirable.
The Development of Identity in the Social Context
Rangell’s distinctions between self, identity and identification fits with distinction between personal or self-identity and social identity originally proposed by Erikson (1959, p 102).
The term identity expresses a mutual relation in that it connotes both a persistent sameness within oneself (self-sameness) and a persistent sharing of some kind of essential character with others … At one time it will appear to refer to a conscious sense of individual identity; at another, to an unconscious striving for a continuity of personal character; at a third, as a criterion of the silent doings of ego-synthesis; and finally, as a maintenance of inner solidarity with the group’s ideals and identity.
According to Erikson’s psychosocial theory (1963), identity develops through a progressive resolution of conflicts between needs and social demands.
Marcia (1966, 1980) proposed that the process of identity formation has two parts – a crisis, or what he later (1994) called exploration, and a commitment.
Exploration is a period of decision-making when old choices and values are reexamined, and it can occur either gradually or abruptly. It usually involves challenging childhood positions and some withdrawal from them.
The outcome of this process is often a commitment to a specific role or a specific set of beliefs and values, or both.
A genuine commitment is one which individuals have made for themselves and which would be abandoned by them with the greatest of reluctance.
Oppressed individuals or groups may experience additional conflicts, and therefore additional development tasks which specifically relate to their status as oppressed:
Not all cultures, or even subcultures within a particular society, however, have identical values. Those goals that are seen as worth achieving therefore vary to a greater or lesser extent across cultural and ethnic groups and even within these groups. The differences in cultural values and attitudes between deaf and hearing populations, for example, might result in deaf children having somewhat different goals and desires than hearing peers … When considering the possibility of divergence in the achievement orientations of deaf and hearing children, we must therefore consider differences in values, differences in standards, and differences in who are seen as the ‘significant others’ worth pleasing6.
This may cause oppressed individuals to be faced with unhealthy choices and conflicts where there is an exacerbated dissonance between what they would like to be and who they think they are on the one hand and who society thinks they ‘ought’ to be and who they are perceived to be on the other.
Exploring Notions of Deaf Identity
Much of the debate around ‘deaf identity’ has focused on social or cultural identity and identification as opposed to personal identity. This is particularly true in respect of Deaf people, for whom social identity is ‘a powerful tool’7.
The word ‘debate’ is the operative word in such descriptions because the field is fraught with assumptions and judgments both about identity and about deafness which create their own images of how deaf people ‘ought’ to be and who they are.
Some interesting and searching questions about deaf people’s personal and society identiyy can be subsumed in equally fascinating discussions about the nature of Deaf and ‘hearing’ culture. For example, Kannapell (1994) suggests that deaf people’s cultural identity is made up of how they view themselves in terms of language identity, personal identity and social identity (which she calls identity types), all of which are strongly interrelated.
The need to make this three-way distinction reflects the predominance of the issue of language in discussion about deaf people.
However, the three identity types are defined by reference only to Deaf and hearing communities and the languages English and sign language. There is also a strange paradox in the author’s definition of language identity as ‘the language in which a person is most at home, or, in some cases, the language in which a person chooses to be most at home’ (p 46), and the parallel assertions that, in the realm of deaf education ‘there is much more question as to whether Deaf people really have a choice in using either ASL or English to reinforce their identity’, and ‘… deafened people or oralists who prefer to use English with each other’.
These assertions are in keeping with the common tendency to regard potential sign language users as having little choice and English users as having a choice which, at times when mainstream education is on the increase and the degree of ‘teacher approval’ associated with particular languages is still something of a hot potato, are unhelpful.
Words such as ‘deaf’, ‘deafened’, ‘hard-of-hearing’, ‘hearing-impaired’, ‘hearing loss’, ‘hearing, and signs such as DEAF, STRONG-DEAF, ORAL, ORALIST, HIGH-SIGN, HEARING, can be of limited use in exploring personal structures of meaning, in much the same way that any language is limited.
The point is that it is you that is doing the identifying, and the identity you confer has more to do with your purposes than the ‘nature’ of the thing itself. The same applies to the things that make up human identities, such as masculinity/femininity, hetero-/homosexual, sane/insane, black/white, working-/middle-class and so on – these may be seen as socially bestowed identities rather than essences of the person8.
Without an understanding of this and because of the tendency to stereotype, it is not always easy nor is it necessarily desirable to compare different people’s description of identity in terms of deaf-related labels. For example, Carty (1994, p 40, italics added), says:
Identity is a very complicated concept, and most sign languages have signs for different aspects of it. For example, the sign for ‘identifying with a group’ is often an emphasised form of JOIN. many of the
terms Deaf people in Australia use to describe themselves and others are about identity rather than about hearing level.
In the same volume, Stone and Stirling (1994, p 50, italics added) look at the development and definition of identity in deaf children of deaf parents and of hearing parents:
Deaf people may define deafness in a different way from those outside of the sociocultural group, who tend to define deafness in oral/aural terms. WE expected that as a reuslt of their home and school experiences, the distinctions between deaf, hard of hearing, hearing impaired and hearing might be viewed differently by deaf children of deaf parents and deaf children of hearing parents … The children were first asked to define the word ‘deaf’. 68% of the deaf children of deaf parents and 44% of those with hearing parents responded that ‘deaf” meant ‘cannot hear’. Almost all of the children with deaf parents were able to define the term, but six of the 29 children with hearing parents could not … 50% of the deaf children with deaf parents mentioned degree of hearing loss as the basis for their choice of identity label … Deaf children of hearing parents appeared to have less understanding of the terms ‘deaf’, ‘hard of hearing’, ‘hearing impaired’ and ‘hearing’ than those with deaf parents. Neither group was familiar with the term ‘hearing impaired’ however.
Kannapell (1994, p 46, italics added) adds another perspective:
In recent years, however, more and more young deaf people have been identifying themselves as hearing impaired. Deaf people did not use this term ten years ago. Why is it accepted and used today? Even though the term has been imposed on deaf people by hearing people who apparently wish to define them by a characteristic they lack – hearing – rather than be one they have – deafness – many young deaf people seem to regard it as an acceptable term to describe their identity.
whereas Gregory et al (1995, p 22), in a British study, says that:
At the beginning we suggested that people might be concerned with identification with the hearing world or with the deaf world. In fact these strong identifications have emerged rarely. Most of the deaf young people lived in both and took a moderate position on this. While most accepted they were deaf and many saw it as an integral part of their identity, few talked about being proud to be deaf and strongly identifying with the Deaf community, although a significant number spent most of their social life with deaf people.
I feel particularly concerned about the affect of this on deaf people who are in the process of becoming or who are outsiders9 and are caught between two or more worlds because they struggle for an identity which reflects accurately who they are. They are often marginalised or treated as an anomaly when they don’t fit easily into a given category or have composite identities, when in fact this is true of most people, particularly when we consider personal identity.
Kannapell’s (1994) discussion on personal identity is disappointingly confined to the deaf-related terms that have been used to describe deaf people and this appears to make the assumption that deaf people always regard deafness as a dominant aspect of their personal identity. I have no doubt that deafness is important, but my experience in counselling deaf people is that the degree of importance or dominance of ‘deaf identity’ is often socially constructed and may vary at different stages in the developmental cycle and under the influence of different environmental stressors.
If we look at the functions of language – self-exploration, self-expression, social interaction with others and a conveyor of information about the environment, it seems that language must act as a bridge between personal and social identity rather than exist as a distinct identity type.
Generally, within the deaf community, language is seen as inextricably linked to social identity as the language or languages that deaf people are able to use or feel comfortable using will often determine the dominant social affiliations that they make.
If we view language as an identity type, we are in effect saying that it is possible, at least in theory, for someone to be Deaf and oral. Though there may well be individuals who would choose to exist in this state of personal identity, it may represent a conflict between their personal identity and their social identifications.
Some of our recent understanding of the development of ‘deaf identity’ parallels more closely what we know of identity development in other minority groups, and it is encouraging to see a more flexible and judgment-free view emerging.
For example, David Moorhead (1995, p 85), in his sensitive analysis of the experience of deafness, suggests that identity development is organised around two dominant themes, which he calls struggle and challenge:
Running through the accounts of deaf people and professionals are stories of their struggle to find and hang on to their sense of who they are, and to be free to retain that sense through the various circumstances in which they move at different times of their lives. This liberty, and the struggle to attain it, derives from people’s wish to control the circumstances of their lives, and their continual challenge to the people, institutions, understandings and attitudes that restrict their ability to do this … It seems clear that people who are deaf – and those who work with them or share their lives – struggle continually against the meanings that others impose on their experience, and the way that this separates them from others. They struggle for acknowledgement of the the way they see their lives and wish to live them, and aspire to connection with other people, to share and belong.
Moorhead’s analysis is supported by Carty (1994) in her discussions with Australian Deaf adults about the stages of identity development. She proposes a framework for the development of Deaf identity which in many ways parallels that in Figure 1.6 and includes element of both Lee’s framework for coming to terms with stigma and loss and Phinney and Rosenthal’s ethnic identity search.
Although Carty puts this forward as a framework for the development of Deaf identity, it might equally be a valid framework for integrating deafness into personal and social identity in other ways which do not result in becoming Deaf.
Deaf children from deaf families do not experience the second stage in the early years, and may become aware of their difference only when they engage in sustained contacts with hearing people either individually or as part of a group of deaf people. They will be in a completely different situation to deaf people from hearing families or families of different ethnic origin who may be made aware of their deafness as a source of difference right from the start, albeit implicitly.
Deaf people who live predominantly within the hearing community and who have been cut off from information about Deaf culture, sign language and Deaf history or have experienced stigma in relation to their deafness may face more limited self-identity choices at the exploration stage.
Hearing parents of deaf children may ‘shy away from manual methods of communication’ (p 69) because they fear a ‘cultural split in the family’ if their child joins the Deaf community, and it, in effect, becomes their family of choice. This, as described earlier, would have possible implications for the vertical relationships formed by deaf children, and the outcome of their search for social identity and a comfortable language.
Another important point, which is a direct result of membership of Deaf and hearing communities being conditional, is that self-identity options may demand an element of ‘passing’ behaviour in order to gain social acceptance and counteract stigma. Passing behaviour has been described in deaf people who become accepted by the hearing community by attempting to pass as hearing. But it has only been implicitly referred to in deaf people, such as those who have grown up in the hearing community and have found it wanting, and who then attempt to join the Deaf community10 in order to be socially accepted as a member of a supportive group.
If ‘passing’ is not an option, and it often is a very difficult option because joining the Deaf community is not easy11, then the individual’s self-image (personal and social identity) may be further stigmatised, spoiled and discredited12.
Having a political identity is one way in which stigmatised individuals and groups resolve the remaining psychosocial conflicts after the identity-role confusion crisis has passed, as it is part of how they establish group loyalties and exercise generativity. At present, however,
- the sharply defined group boundaries of the Deaf community and the limitations to movement between Deaf and hearing communities,
- the lack of availability of a cohesive existential view of deafness, hearingness and the Deaf and hearing communities,
- the fact that ‘deaf’ and ‘hearing’ are both terms which tend to be ascribed by others and are not always self-ascribed by deaf and hearing people themselves, and
- the conditions placed on membership of both Deaf and hearing communities as the two extremes between which many deaf people move in relation to their deafness,
imply that many deaf people fail to make a clear commitment.
They have no option but to adopt a self-constructed identity which, as we saw earlier, will probably not be their final identity because it has not been conferred on them. Their search for personal and social meaning may be long and tortuous.
Identity Development – Creating the Ideal Environment
An honest sense of personal identity results in a congruent, satisfying and competence-based social identity to share and to enjoy with others, and this can be translated into relationships in the real world.
As I learn more about deaf people through their own eyes, I can see how the social constructionist emphasis on the processes of ‘identification’ and the development of ‘social identity’ can act as a barrier to self-understanding and the achievement of personal identity in exactly the same way that a pathological view of deafness can, because the direction that these processes takes may be at odds with the person’s structure of meaning.
But there is a second view of society or community as a place where we, as individual deaf people, feel comfortable and ‘at home’ with ourselves and which to a large extent reflects who we are and embraces our fundamental values. In such a community we are more able to establish a mutuality between ourselve and our world13.
Identity in Relation to Deafness
I view identity as something which is dynamic rather than static, and because, to a certain extent, it defines the boundary between self and others, it must be fluid, adaptable and constantly evolving over time. This gives me an image of identity as being similar to a solar system, which consists of a core planet around which orbit a number of other planets.