Not Silent, Invisible: Literature's Chance Encounters with Deaf Heroes and Heroines

Article excerpt

LITERATURE is both a rich resource and a blunt instrument in conveying the complexities of identity, in particular, the elusive deaf identity. The rarity of the fully realized deaf person in memoir and fiction shapes the way readers regard deaf people and throws up fresh challenges in redesigning stories of deafness free of the taint of triumphalism or complaint. Competing but authentic representations of deafness and deaf people's experiences allow readers to variously witness, immerse themselves in, and navigate their way through those experiences. Consequently, establishing universal truths about deaf lives is a risky business and an improbable goal.

How do we learn what we know about deafness? I once asked a group of 20 parents about their experiences of deafness prior to discovering that their children were deaf. Only three people offered up anecdotes. One person recalled seeing a movie with a deaf boy in it, but she could not remember what the movie was about. After some debate, the group speculated that it was Mr. Holland's Opus (1995), the story of a music teacher whose son is deaf; no one in the group had seen Children of a Lesser God, the 1986 film based on Mark Medoff 's play and starring Mariée Matlin, the deaf actor of television's West Wing fame. Another parent said that she had worked in an office with a deaf colleague, and a third parent said that she had had an unrequited teenage crush on a deaf boy at her school. No one could recall reading any books that told positive stories of deafness. All the parents in the group agreed that their experiences of deaf people had been slight and, in fact, continued to be exceptional rather than regular. In nodding their assent, they seemed to consider that this near absence, almost invisibility, of deaf people in their world was a significant reason for their lack of knowledge of deafness and deaf people's lives.

Even though their own children were deaf, these parents did not routinely witness the lives of other deaf people; nor did they seek out, either for themselves or their children, documented stories, fiction or biographical, of deaf people's lives. They continued to rely on the accidental brush with a deaf adult, their children's school environment, and conversations with other parents as their main sources of guidance, knowledge, and hopes about their deaf children's prospects. They were startled when I said, "Me neither. I don't routinely encounter deaf people. I don't know much about deafness either." Just because I was born deaf and was immersed as a little girl in 5 years of oral deaf education, this does not give me a passport into understanding deafness in general or my deaf self in particular. On being transplanted from the deaf school to a regular school as an 8-year-old girl in grade 3, 1 was not thereafter exposed to the intimacies of deaf culture or the lessons of deaf history. I am only now exploring the implications of this absence of other deaf people's stories from my life.

In undertaking my task, I use the word deaf 'by the lights of how I have understood that word ever since I first became aware of my own deafness as a child; that is, it is a state of hearingness that is substantially less than what is understood to be normal hearing. Because I was born deaf ("moderate-severe, sloping to profound, unknown etiology," according to a recent audiological assessment), I define my deafness not as a loss but as an experience. Old as the angels, it is an essential part of my sense of I-am-who-I-am. At the same time, I do not identify myself as a member of the deaf community, upper- or lower-case. If all this sounds oblique or unnecessarily cagey, this is as I intend it to be, because nor do I subscribe to the notion of the fixed deaf identity. Rather, my sense of deaf self expands and contracts in tune with the erratic rhythms of my life's trajectory.

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