Deaf Culture Essay

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Deaf culture has become fairly well established in academia and to a lesser degree in mainstream public consciousness. However, Holly Elliot offers a unique perspective on Deaf culture and identity in Teach Me To Love Myself. Elliot begins her narrative by sharing her experience as a bicultural person: someone who had straddled the worlds of the hearing and of the Deaf. Her biculturalism allows Elliot to build bridges instead of barriers, engendering cross-cultural communication. As such, Teach Me to Love Myself offers a tremendously valuable contribution to the evolving and nuanced discourse on Deaf culture.

Elliot had been both hearing and Deaf, but made a conscious decision to “move from the hearing to the Deaf world,” (Kindle Edition). The very notion that Elliot could “move” suggests the notion of the liminal in Deaf identity as well as a conflict between the different worlds in which a Deaf individual resides. Elliot’s description of moving between the world of the hearing and the world of the Deaf closely resembles what W.E.B. DuBois describes as “double consciousness” (p. 2). Just as blackness had been presented as a disability, so too had Deafness. The pathology model of Deafness enforces a problematic double consciousness; the cultural model of Deafness allows the individual to “merge the double self into a better and truer self,” (DuBois, 1994, p. 2). Elliot taught herself how to love herself by taking that first crucial step in embracing Deaf culture rather than longing to be counted among the hearing. Once she did so, she ceased to struggle in double consciousness. She reframed Deafness to show that the phonocentric society is guilty of ethnocentrism in more ways than one. Elliot’s book even raises the further question of intersectionality in Deaf culture to show how power and privilege are meted out. In other words, phonocentrism is another form of ethnocentrism.

One of the features of a phonocentric society is hearization. Hearization is the process of privileging one language over another, just as English is privileged over other languages.
Instead of learning sign language(s), the phonocentric person expects the Deaf individual to conform to their system of coding and encoding. The process proves detrimental to psychological and social skills development, which is one of the reasons Elliot gravitated towards a career path dedicated to exposing and eradicating hearization in Deaf education.

Of course, Elliot is not alone among children who had been exposed to hearization in their homes and communities and later realize the importance of shifting their perspective to what could be called Deaf ethnocentrism. Humphries & Humphries (2011) note, “Deaf children from hearing parents may, and frequently do, ‘migrate’ to Deaf communities,” (p. 153). Migrating to a Deaf community might temporarily entail extricating oneself from the hearing, as if in a language immersion course. Plunged into the Deaf culture, Elliot was able for the first time to locate her soul, her true identity that could only be expressed genuinely and authentically through nonverbal means.

Her move to the Deaf community, her embracing of Deaf culture and identity, was prompted by an encounter with a Deaf man at a party who described her as someone who was Deaf but “living like a hearing person,” (Kindle Edition). Moved by the man’s words, which triggered in her a sort of identity crisis, Elliot embarked on a journey of self-discovery. She shares that journey with poignant honesty in Teach Me to Love Myself. Elliot’s journey parallels similar journeys of cultural self-discovery, proceeding through stages like conformity, dissonance, resistance and immersion, introspection, and awareness. Prior to her encounter at the party, Elliot would have been at the conformity stage; the party triggered her dissonance and became a life-changing experience. She then purposefully immersed herself in Deaf culture in a process….....

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DuBois, W.E.B. (1994). The Souls of Black Folk. Mineola, NY: Dover Thrift.

Elliott, H. (2009). Teach Me To Love Myself. White River Junction, VT: White River Press. Digital Edition.

Hoffman, D. & Andrews, J.F. (2016). Why Deaf culture matters in Deaf education. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 21(4): 426-427.

Humphries, T. & Humphries, J. (2011). Deaf in the time of the cochlea. The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 16(2): 153-163.
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