"Deaf Theory": What Can We Learn from Feminist Theory?

By Smith, Kendra L.; Bienvenu, M. J. | Multicultural Education, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

"Deaf Theory": What Can We Learn from Feminist Theory?


Smith, Kendra L., Bienvenu, M. J., Multicultural Education


Introduction

"Theory" is defined as a system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena (The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 1996). Facts or observations become meaningful in the context of theories, thus increasing our understanding of the phenomena. To date, no particular theory (or at least none which have been labeled such) has been articulated to delineate the methods by which scholars examine and discuss the cultural experiences of Deaf1 individuals. One reason for this may be that Deaf people make up only a small portion of the world's population.2 Another is the relatively new appearance of the field of Deaf Studies.

In the United States there are only three universities with Deaf Studies programs (Gertz, 2004), all of which were established since the 1990s.3 Britain has one Deaf Studies program at Bristol and, to the authors' knowledge, there are no universities in other countries with organized programs to study Deaf culture. Ladd (2003), in writing about the relative "newness" of Minority Studies theories and their scope for analyzing aspects of Deaf culture, suggests that the current attention to these disciplines (e.g., Women's Studies, Black Studies, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender [LGBT] Studies, Deaf Studies, among others) is exciting and will concomitantly encourage reflexive and reciprocal problematizing and challenging.

This is not to suggest that the dialogue about Deaf culture has not already been occurring in Deaf Studies. Quite the contrary, informal and formal efforts to name and describe the Deaf experience(s) (both by Deaf and hearing people; e.g., Higgins & Nash, 1982; Lane, 1984; Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1999; Ladd, 2003; Padden & Humphries, 1988; Padden & Humphries, 2005) have been undertaken around the world for years.4 In fact, the very development of Deaf Studies itself is, at once, both an important precedent and outcome of these naming/describing processes. In so being, it is evidentiary of the fact that Deaf culture exists, engenders examination, can be and is being named and described, in no small part because of the ongoing political5 transformation of Deaf and hearing scholars' thinking and related knowledge production in this content area.

While there are, as yet, no formal "Deaf theories," Deaf peoples' efforts to name and describe themselves and, in so doing, to end their oppression, while unique, are also akin to parallel efforts made by members of other subordinated groups. (Safarik (2002) refers to the relatively recent academic pursuits of "subordinate" groups, such as feminist theory, critical race theory, queer theory, and so forth, as "emancipatory knowledges.") In fact, the similarities can be striking.

Feminism, as defined by Smith (1982), is the political theory and practice that works to free all women from subjugation. Delmar (1994) further explicates this by defining feminism as a theory that acknowledges "women suffer discrimination because of their sex, that they have specific needs which remain negated and unsatis- fied, and that the satisfaction of these needs would require a radical change...in the social, economic, and political order" (p. 5).6 Substituting "Deaf" for "women" in either definition gives the reader a basic definition of the Deaf liberation movement.

Feminism is rooted in feminist theory; the Deaf movement, however, has yet to fully name and describe its theoretical roots. In further comparing and contrasting these two "emancipatory knowledges," we can begin to gain a better understanding of "Deaf theory" and, more so, contribute to the emergent foregrounding of the Deaf movement's theoretical roots.

So much has been written in feminist theory that the nature and extent of this body of knowledge cannot be wholly represented in the present article. Therefore, this article will focus on two aspects of discussion in feminist theory that are salient to Deaf Studies. …

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