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Review of  Understanding Deaf Culture

Reviewer: Michael W Morgan
Book Title: Understanding Deaf Culture
Book Author: Paddy Ladd
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Sign Language
Issue Number: 14.2752

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Date: Mon, 13 Oct 2003 03:13:19 +0900
From: Mike Morgan
Subject: Understanding Deaf Culture

Ladd, Paddy (2003) Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood,
Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Michael W. Morgan, Kobe City University of Foreign Studies

Over the past forty years, ever since American Sign Language (and
mutatis mutandis, other sign languages) was acknowledged to be a true
language, Deaf culture has been the focus of numerous works. This is
particularly true of North America (for example, Stokoe, et al. 1976
[1965]; Benderly 1980; Padden & Humphries 1988). Similar studies have
also been undertaken for other countries, for example, Japan (Gendai-
Sisou 1996). The work being reviewed undertakes the study of Deaf
culture in the U.K., and is intended for anyone, Deaf or hearing,
undertaking or planning research of the Deaf and Deaf culture. The
approach taken is Post-colonialist, and it is asserted that Deaf
culture Studies can make a contribution to related academic
disciplines, such as Multi-Cultural Studies, Minority Studies, Women's
Studies, Black Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, etc., and to human life
in general, especially the life of the lay person (as has arguably been
the case in the pre-Oralist past).The present work is the first in a
series of projected volumes, including a volume focusing on presenting
the interviews upon which the present work is based, and a DVD in Sign
Language, for Deaf researchers and potential researchers for whom
English is a second language.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of Deaf Cultural Studies and
outlining the contents of the chapters, Ladd also uses the Introduction
to introduce seven key concepts which he uses in his study:
1) Lay people, their position in society and in Deaf issues, and the
importance of Deaf Cultural Studies to diverse audiences
2) Deafhood, as opposed to deafness (mere hearing loss), as a
potential, or state of becoming culturally Deaf
3) Culturo-linguistic model, as opposed to the medical or disability
4) Colonialism, especially Linguistic Colonialism, as a prime factor in
Deaf community experiences
5) Minority cultures, and their experiences as opposed to those of
members of the majority cultures
6) Deaf epistemologies, or the existence of a 'Deaf Way' or ways of
viewing the world
7) Subaltern and subaltern researcher, with his/her position as a Deaf
culture grass-roots insider.

Chapter 1 presents an overview of Deaf communities, from an insider
perspective. Such an overview moves beyond the medical and disability-
related criteria of deafness (loss of hearing, 'need' for various forms
of rehabilitation, etc.) to a cultural definition of the community as
made up of Deaf with their own language (sign language), their own
membership criteria (endogamous marriage, socialization in special
residential schools, etc), their own community practices (further
socialization in Deaf clubs, Deaf sports, etc.). Ladd then goes on to
discuss such complications of the overview as the participation of
minority Deaf in the majority culture (at work, in higher education,
etc.), the presence of Deaf minority groups, and Deaf organization and
political activities. In closing the Introduction Ladd once again
emphasizes that the features of Deaf communities resemble most closely
the colonial situation.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Deaf and Hearing Discourses about d/Deaf in
history (Chapter 2) and in the twentieth century (Chapter 3). "The
beauty of discourse theory," writes Ladd, "is not only that it renders
power relationships visible and identifies cultural patterns behind
supposed social 'givens', but that in itself it is an egalitarian term.
All sets of dialogue ... are of equal intrinsic merit" (77).
Examination of the majority, ruling discourses must be seen in terms of
hegemony and colonialism. These are opposed to the discourses of the
subalterns, those denied access to 'hegemonic' power. Ladd identifies a
series of majority cultural discourses about the d/Deaf that have taken
place throughout Western history, ranging from surdophobic to
surdophilic. He shows that surdophobic discourse tends to originate in
a view of d/Deaf as individual, cut off from the majority culture,
while surdophilic discourse tends to originate in a view of d/Deaf as
part of a collectivity, characterized most notably by the common
possession of sign language. Ladd gives special prominence to the
positive aspects of lay discourse on d/Deaf, and lay valuation of Deaf
gesture, d/Deaf artists, societies like Martha's Vineyard where
'Everybody here spoke sign language,' etc. In modern times, however,
surdophobic discourse won out: Oralist discourses within the colonial
educational community, various medical discourses aiming to 'cure'
deafness with the rise of scientism, social welfare and charity
discourses resulting in created dependency. Only in the last twenty
years of the twentieth century has a Deaf resurgence, with an emerging
prestige of sign language users and Deaf families, the rise of
subaltern Deaf professionals, etc. has the colonialist model been

In Chapter 4 Ladd introduces various traditional, sociological,
anthropological definitions of culture: culture as totality, culture as
adaptive system, culture as ideational construct, culture as competence
and performance, etc. He also examines the fields Cultural Studies,
Post-Modernist Studies, Post-Colonialist Studies, Diaspora theories,
Minority Studies, Sub-cultural, Bicultural and Multicultural theories,
Ethnicity Studies, etc. for their relevance to the study of Deaf

In Chapter 5 Ladd examines discourses and definitions of Deaf culture.
These include English-generated definitions ('Deaf Culture,' appearing
in British Sign Language only in the mid 1980s) and sign language-
generated definitions ('DEAF WORLD,' probably going back over a
century). He examines a series of perspectives on Deaf culture:
membership perspectives, normative perspectives, symbolist
perspectives, linguistic perspectives, structuralist perspectives,
ethnicity perspectives, biological perspectives, political
perspectives, and anthropological perspectives. Of particular interest
to this reviewer are the introduction here (and use elsewhere in the
book) of the contrasts: individualist vs. collectivist cultures, low
context vs. high context cultures, monochronic vs. polychronic
cultures, all Hall's cultural clusters (Hall 1976 & 1983). In each case
Deaf culture fits into the latter of each pair. Ladd then addresses
reactions to the Deaf culture trope in semi-academic and academic
discourse, as well as re-evaluating certain problematic aspects of Deaf
culture (e.g. ethnicity issues, cultural geography, etc.). Such re-
assessment of the discourse strands from Chapters 1 and 2 is used to
indicate the direction the study should take. Ladd chooses a
'bricolage' approach, including methodologies which affirm
introspection as a member of subaltern Deaf culture, with 'thick
description' to give the reader a better sense of the community.

Chapter 6 discusses the problems of subaltern researcher methodologies.
Ladd argues for critical ethnography, respondent validation,
triangulation, reflexive subjectivity and transparency, typicality,
judgement sampling, and catalytic validity (where "the praxis and
results of the research study ... have positive effects for the group
studied." (274). Ladd proceeds to situate himself as subaltern
researcher within the study, in order to fulfill needs of maximal
transparency. He then describes the various stages and strategies used
in the study: participant-observer involvement of the author, open-
ended interviews with members of the Deaf community, discussion forums
to examine typicality of the views elicited in the interviews, further
interviews of older Deaf to gain a historical perspective and of Deaf
with 'strong Deaf' views (a group whose views had never been recorded
before), and finally testing the emerging data by facilitating
discussions of the data to be fed back into the study. He then
discusses some of the issues that arose in the course of the study.

Chapters 7 examines the roots of Deaf Culture as manifest in
residential Deaf schools. The Deaf school was the domain, prior to
Oralism, where the community language was learned, where aspects of
socialization into the Deaf community occurred, and where instruction
in how to conduct oneself in the larger majority society by adult Deaf
models took place. With Oralism, at best these occurred covertly; with
the elimination of Deaf teachers, the latter ceased entirely. Still,
even under Oralism the Deaf school remained an active force in Deaf
life: a source of community and identity, a primary family, etc. Ladd
provides detailed accounts from his interviewees of experiences under
Oralism. Prominent in this and the next chapter is the idea of '1001
small victories': finding situations and ways to resist (and survive)
the Oralist strictures: devising strategies and situations to sign to
each other, humor, resistance and rebellion, etc. Even under Oralism,
deaf children had access to Deaf influences: in the form of Deaf
visitors to the Deaf school, Deaf children with Deaf families, etc.
Despite Oralism, d/Deaf managed to develop a Deaf identity. Still
Oralism at Deaf schools had a manifest negative effect on Deaf culture:
it created a sense of fear and submission, a sense of fatalism and a
lack of self-confidence, possibly neurological damage, retardation of
opinion formation, horizontal violence, damage to sign language
expressiveness, enforced impotence, self-division.

Chapter 8 continues the examination of the roots of Deaf culture in
Deaf Clubs. In the UK this meant the Missionary tradition, where the
Deaf were 'ministered' to by the 'Missions to the Deaf', which took
over control of existing Deaf clubs and established others. Deaf clubs
were (and are) dominated by 'class' differences: a 'middle' class
making up perhaps 25% of the club and the remaining working class. Ladd
uses the data of his interviews to describe the inter-group
characteristics of Deaf clubs. The first he deals with is speech
ability, a talent which could be used to benefit the entire community.
Next he deals with class patterns, class attitudes (towards the
missioner, towards the other class in the Deaf club, and towards lay
people). In these attitudes, Deaf culture had absorbed colonialist
values which were internalized as Deaf cultural values. In Deaf clubs
the result was usually submission (to the missioner, to the middle
class Deaf), learned helplessness (reliance on the missioner or those
with greater access to majority culture, namely the middle class Deaf),
etc.. However, in addition to class which serves to divide the
community, there are activities which serve for cultural unity: Deaf
sports, club outings, national Deaf consciousness, sign language, and

Chapter 9 deals with the phenomenon of subaltern Deaf rebels and the
emerging concept of Deafhood. In many cases these rebels were
influenced by Deaf elders -- particularly those who had been educated
prior to the complete domination of Oralism in the schools. The
'culture shock' of seeing these elders' impressive signing AND
fingerspelling (i.e., English) skills, impressed on these mostly young
(generation of the 1960s) the failures of Oralism. This led many of
them to rebel not only against Oralism, but against the culture of
Oralism which also pervaded the Deaf clubs. This rebellion led to
exclusion from some Deaf clubs, and a flight to the pubs. Here not only
were they able to commune with like minds, but they were able to relink
with the hearing lay people, which Ladd posits has always had a much
more positive discourse attitude towards d/Deaf. The rebellion also led
to the formation of a new Deaf national political culture.

Chapter 10 contains conclusions and implications of the study. First
and foremost is the validation of the 'Deaf culture' concept. Deaf
culture thus can be expected to have its own world-views which are
internally coherent and valid. Again, a central position is occupied by
the Deaf language, sign language, whose status thus must be recognized.
The pathological model of deafness which centered on individualism must
give way to a new 'Deafhood' model acknowledging the collectivity of
Deaf Culture, as exemplified in the data chapters. The recognition of
Deaf culture also has implications for Deaf education, other colonized
domains like social and political policies Deaf community domains, Deaf
television, Deaf Studies itself as an academic discipline, Deaf-related
government agencies, etc. All these spheres must experience a return to
Deaf-centeredness and Deaf control. The concept of Deafhood proposed
also has implications for Deaf Cultural Theory and the study of Deaf
communities. Among other things it provides for a new conceptual
'space,' an alternative to the deafness trope, and a space within which
Deaf cultural beliefs and values can be discussed. Ladd then goes on to
discuss a variety of other implications of the study for wider cultural
theory ... and for the field of Deaf Cultural Studies itself.

In the Afterword, Chapter 11, Ladd presents a set of 'imagined futures'
in which the harms and damages of the colonialist past are rectified.
These involve a thorough reconstructing of Deaf life and the structures
and organizations which regulate Deaf Culture. In the area of Deaf
education the imagined future is one where Oralism is defined as
institutionalized child abuse and reparations are to alleviate the ills
caused by more than a century of Oralism. Other areas where
reconstructing is envisaged include the medical (and medical research)
profession, psychiatry, Deaf communities and Deaf clubs themselves, the
training, administration and funding of sign language interpreters, the
media, academia. In all cases it should be a system of the Deaf, for
the Deaf and by the Deaf.

In this critical evaluation I will limit myself to four issues. The
first involves the 'bricolage' approach that Ladd takes to setting up
the theoretical framework for his study. Chapters 4 and 5 contain more
theories and models than can be easily enumerated. While Ladd's
exposition of each does provide future Deaf culture research with
possible directions and methods, he himself takes almost exclusively a
post-colonialist tact in his analysis of data. Thus it might provide
for a more coherent work if he had restricted himself to only those
theories and models he himself uses in the current work, or else
incorporate the various elements he uses from the other theories and
models into a unified framework. (Since the present work claims to be
the first of a series of studies, the current criticism may be
premature; perhaps in subsequent volumes Ladd will make more use of the
models and theories introduced).

The second criticism has to do with Ladd's drawing attention on several
occasions in the work to the conflict between British (mutatis
mutandis, American) hearing culture and values and British Deaf culture
and values, based on the cultural clusters of high context vs. low
context, and individual vs. collective presented in Hall (1976 & 1983).
While we might well place British (or American) hearing and Deaf
cultures at opposite extremes of each of the cultural cluster, the same
cannot be said of Japanese hearing culture and Japanese Deaf culture.
Both are high context and emphasizing collectivist as opposed to
individualist. However, despite the similar cultural patterns, most of
the problems that exist in British (or American) also exist in Japan.
Thus Ladd's argument does not hold up as well under cross-cultural

Thirdly, as a scholarly work, Understanding Deaf Culture contains a
copious bibliography of works, including all the major works in the
field. The work also contains an index of Authors Cited, which helps to
track down the major works cited. However, when it comes to the Index
much is left to be desired. In a 500-page book, the Index is just
barely over two pages in length, and lacks many important entries. For
example, there is no entry for sign language, or British Sign Language.
The entries that are present are often less than useful, for example,
the entry for 'Oralism and Deaf Culture' lists over forty page
references, with no sub-headings to guide the reader.

Finally, being a linguist, this reviewer would have liked to see more
explicit discussion of sign language as a manifestation of Deaf
culture. As central to the culture-LINGUISTIC model presented for
defining Deaf culture, once would hope that space could be given to the
linguistic as well as the cultural aspects of the question.

All in all, because of the new perspective it presents on Deaf culture,
Understanding Deaf Culture can be heartily recommended to anyone
involved in, or contemplating involvement in the study of the Deaf,
their language, and their culture.

Benderly, Berryl Lieff (1980). Dancing Without Music: Deafness in
America. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Gendai-Sisou. Soutokushuu: Rou-Bunka [Modern Thought: General Special
Issue: Deaf Culture] 1996: 24/05.

Hall, Edward T. (1976). Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books.

Hall, Edward T. (1983). The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time.
New York: Anchor Books.

Padden, Carol & Tom Humphries (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a
Culture. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press.

Stokoe, William C., Dorothy C. Casterline & Carl G. Croneberg
(1976[1965]). A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic
Principles. Silver Springs, MD: Linstok Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Michael W. Morgan has a doctorate in Slavic Linguistics, and currently teaches at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, Kobe, Japan. An Indo-Europeanist by training, he has been involved in sign language research for the past ten years, but continues to research Indo- European languages as well.

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