Book Review - Inside Deaf Culture by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries

Inside Deaf Culture Book Cover

Inside Deaf Culture

@2005 by Carol Padden & Tom Humphries

First Harvard University paperback edition 2006

Reviewed by Steve O'Keefe

Is being deaf being defective?

The obvious answer is no. A lack of hearing is not a disability. A lack of hearing in a culture defined by people who can hear is a hardship, not a disability. The loss of one's hearing can lead to disability. It can also lead to a blissful discovery of a world without sound and kinship with others who successfully navigate the silent life.

"Perhaps this is the true lesson of human cultures and languages, that our common human nature is found not in how we are alike, but in how we are different, and how we have adapted to our differences in very human ways." (p. 162)

To be deaf in America at the beginning of this nation was to be largely alone. You would have most likely lived on a farm among hearing people where you've learned necessary signs and how to read lips and possibly how to vocalize. You likely would not have met another deaf person in your formative years.

You would have had chores and you would excel at some of them, such as separating out produce — something your extraordinary vision would have made simple. You would likely have married a hearing person and found work as a craftsperson or farmer using your keen vision.

A hundred years later, and you would have likely left home as a child and taken up residence in a school for "deaf mutes." Here you would be alone as well, cut off from your family and your neighborhood, supervised by strangers in a strange place.

However, you would meet other people like you and you would learn to use The Sign Language, not just some signs. Over the years, as you learned the joy of sharing this language, you would come to form deep ties with a silent community of people like yourself. You would likely marry someone from that community, and you would then be more than likely to have deaf children.

"Sign language is relevant because it is a supreme human achievement, accomplished over a long history that has accumulated in time and in people, the collective genius of countless human beings. Deep in its structures are clues to the workings of the human brain and the wisdom of social groups that work together to make meaning and find a purpose for living." (p. 76)

If you came up during World War II, your family likely lived in a big city like New York or Akron or Kansas City where you worked industrial jobs for companies that made a special point to accommodate those with hearing loss. You went out with other deaf people, often going to the Deaf Club to watch athletic events or sign language plays.

In some cities, you would have a choice of Deaf Clubs to hang out at. This was the peak of a cohesive Deaf Culture in the U.S., culminating in a National Theater of the Deaf, with sign language plays choreographed and also spoken for both the hearing and the deaf.

Those days are over. Cities faltered, residents moved to the suburbs where there was not enough deaf population to support a separate school system or club. Cities could no longer afford to set up separate schools for the disabled, separating male from female, separating white from "colored," separating oralists from signers. Even the states couldn't afford it. It became cheaper to teach the disabled in their home districts with personal assistants. Cheaper, yes, but not better.

In 1950, there were 12 Deaf Clubs in New York City alone. Today, there are not 12 active Deaf Clubs in the entire United States. (From stats on p. 100)

When Carol Padden and Tom Humphries wrote Inside Deaf Culture, the chances for survival of a Deaf Culture looked bleak. Perceived as a defect, deafness was being "corrected" with cochlear implants "thousands of times a year" in the U.S. while genetic engineering offers the prospect of "correcting" deafness in the womb. Can enough deaf people survive this purge to sustain Deaf Culture?

Yes! While the most recent stats in this book come from the year 2000, there has been a dramatic improvement in Internet technology and assistive technology since then. Today, the deaf may not be living in Deaf Communities and going to Deaf Schools and Deaf Clubs, but they are living online and linking up online with other deaf people all over the world.

Now they are learning and connecting in a way never before possible, providing a community large enough to sustain and advance their extraordinary language while advocating for their needs in a hearing world. A new era is opening for the deaf, one in which their unique capabilities will not be seen as disabilities but as another way to approach reality with much to teach those who can hear.

"There is a final lesson from the history of Deaf people: Without diversity of culture, language, and different ways of seeing the world, we would never have learned what we now know about the different ways that humans live. The linguistic and social lives of Deaf people have provided us with unique and valuable ways of exploring the vast potential for human language and culture." (p. 180)

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