The Politics Of Visual Language: Deafness, Language Choice, And Political Socialization

by James Roots
106 pages,
ISBN: 0886293510

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Signing Away Our Deaf
by Deirdre Baker

“Oralism versus Sign” is an issue that is very much alive for any deaf person in Canada—or, indeed, for any parent of a deaf child—with Sign, the visual language, being the more difficult option to pursue. At the Council of Milan in 1880, Deaf educators voted to suppress Sign entirely in deaf schools, a decision which has dominated attitudes towards deafness and deaf education up until the present day in North America, and particularly in Canada. Only recently has Sign been reintroduced into some programs and schools for the deaf. The contest between oralists and manualists has been ferocious and emotional, driven often not by practical results, but also by ideology. In The Politics of Visual Language, James Roots, the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of the Deaf and a leading figure in the disability rights movement, tries to show some of the practical effects each choice has on the “political socialization” of the deaf. He marshals the evidence of education, employment, and family relations as the contest is played out in deaf adults’ political involvement and sense of power—or lack thereof—in the structures and institutions of the dominant, hearing society. After establishing his terminology, Roots presents various theories and models of political socialization and marginalization, pointing out their inadequacies when it comes to the “disabled” and especially to the deaf, who are distinguished by an insurmountable barrier in communication. He gives a short history of the education of the deaf in North America, followed by a discussion of the unique relation of the deaf to the normal “socializing agencies” of family, school, and peer group. This is the groundwork for the heart of his work: a “comparative group study” based on interviews with eight Signers and eight oral deaf. Roots discovers that, regardless of language choice, both the oral and Signing deaf, whether or not they identify with deaf culture, are marginalized: the oral deaf because they appropriate “hearing society’s values” that “assume and include hearingness”, a physical impossibility; the Signing deaf because of their small numbers and deaf values that hearing society can neither accept nor understand. Both groups “suffer a ‘second degree’ of marginalization”: “the oral deaf... a marginalization of inculcated passivity”; the Signing deaf “a lack of access to the political power structure of society.” Roots concludes that “conventional political socialization processes are inappropriate for children who are prelingually deaf because such socialization assumes the existence of oral-aural language facility and because it assumes that assimilation into the hearing culture is both suitable and (biologically) possible.” Sixteen is a skimpy number on which to base such conclusions; yet there’s little reason to suppose that a study of 1,600 would yield markedly different results. Roots’ argument boils down to the indisputable fact that Canadian society does not deal well with deaf people and we need to change that. At times, Roots’ study has the feel of “dealing with the literature”; however, this seemingly cautious, academic approach will help introduce neophytes to the discussion. This book has the advantage of laying out many of the knotty issues central to deaf education, and pointing out the difficulties in addressing them. Passing references, such as the allusion to a study that shows a family’s “cultural and linguistic adaptation” to a child’s deafness to be crucial in the child’s scholastic success, can be windows into possibilities. Roots’ discussion has a certain bloodless quality, relying as it does on the general conclusions of studies rather than accounts of individuals, of real human beings in the deaf world. Furthermore, being firmly on the side of the Signing Deaf, Roots has a tendency to downplay successful exceptions to a strict Sign education, the failure of Total Communication or SimCom (simultaneous sign and speech) being a case in point. Being the hearing parent of a deaf child, I found myself categorized in certain ways that were not at all reflective of my experience, although I know that others have a different story to tell. Many of Roots’ recommendations read like a utopian dream: mandatory Sign credit courses for schools in which a minimum number of deaf pupils are enrolled, for example. Yet, they are all the more compelling when we acknowledge the inadequacies, and even the failure over the past 115 years, of Canadian approaches to the education and inclusion of the deaf in our society. (A brief reference to a “successful Swedish model” for integration of the deaf is frustratingly vague, a tantalizing promise that things can be better.) One can only applaud Roots’ call that the “adherents of both oralist and manualist philosophies... come together to construct a new paradigm shaped upon the strengths and needs of the deaf child, rather than upon the preferences, wishful thinking, and personal stakes of the adults.” Deirdre Baker is the parent of a deaf, signing child. She teaches English Literature at the University of Toronto and reviews children’s books for The Toronto Star.

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