LINGUIST List 14.2752

Sun Oct 12 2003

Review: Applied Ling/Socioling: Ladd (2003)

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  1. Mike Morgan, Understanding Deaf Culture

Message 1: Understanding Deaf Culture

Date: Sun, 12 Oct 2003 16:33:37 +0000
From: Mike Morgan <>
Subject: Understanding Deaf Culture

Ladd, Paddy (2003) Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood,
Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Announced at

Michael W. Morgan, Kobe City University of Foreign Studies


Over the past forty years, ever since American Sign Language (and
mutatis mutandis, other sign languages) was acknowledged to be a true
language, Deaf culture has been the focus of numerous works. This is
particularly true of North America (for example, Stokoe, et al. 1976
[1965]; Benderly 1980; Padden & Humphries 1988). Similar studies have
also been undertaken for other countries, for example, Japan (Gendai-
Sisou 1996). The work being reviewed undertakes the study of Deaf
culture in the U.K., and is intended for anyone, Deaf or hearing,
undertaking or planning research of the Deaf and Deaf culture. The
approach taken is Post-colonialist, and it is asserted that Deaf
culture Studies can make a contribution to related academic
disciplines, such as Multi-Cultural Studies, Minority Studies, Women's
Studies, Black Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, etc., and to human life
in general, especially the life of the lay person (as has arguably
been the case in the pre-Oralist past).The present work is the first
in a series of projected volumes, including a volume focusing on
presenting the interviews upon which the present work is based, and a
DVD in Sign Language, for Deaf researchers and potential researchers
for whom English is a second language.


In addition to emphasizing the importance of Deaf Cultural Studies and
outlining the contents of the chapters, Ladd also uses the
Introduction to introduce seven key concepts which he uses in his
1) Lay people, their position in society and in Deaf issues, and the
importance of Deaf Cultural Studies to diverse audiences
2) Deafhood, as opposed to deafness (mere hearing loss), as a
potential, or state of becoming culturally Deaf
3) Culturo-linguistic model, as opposed to the medical or disability
4) Colonialism, especially Linguistic Colonialism, as a prime factor
in Deaf community experiences
5) Minority cultures, and their experiences as opposed to those of 
members of the majority cultures 
6) Deaf epistemologies, or the existence of a 'Deaf Way' or ways of 
viewing the world 
7) Subaltern and subaltern researcher, with his/her position as a Deaf 
culture grass-roots insider.

Chapter 1 presents an overview of Deaf communities, from an insider
perspective. Such an overview moves beyond the medical and disability-
related criteria of deafness (loss of hearing, 'need' for various
forms of rehabilitation, etc.) to a cultural definition of the
community as made up of Deaf with their own language (sign language),
their own membership criteria (endogamous marriage, socialization in
special residential schools, etc), their own community practices
(further socialization in Deaf clubs, Deaf sports, etc.). Ladd then
goes on to discuss such complications of the overview as the
participation of minority Deaf in the majority culture (at work, in
higher education, etc.), the presence of Deaf minority groups, and
Deaf organization and political activities. In closing the
Introduction Ladd once again emphasizes that the features of Deaf
communities resemble most closely the colonial situation.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Deaf and Hearing Discourses about d/Deaf in
history (Chapter 2) and in the twentieth century (Chapter 3). ''The
beauty of discourse theory,'' writes Ladd, ''is not only that it
renders power relationships visible and identifies cultural patterns
behind supposed social 'givens', but that in itself it is an
egalitarian term. All sets of dialogue ... are of equal intrinsic
merit'' (77). Examination of the majority, ruling discourses must be
seen in terms of hegemony and colonialism. These are opposed to the
discourses of the subalterns, those denied access to 'hegemonic'
power. Ladd identifies a series of majority cultural discourses about
the d/Deaf that have taken place throughout Western history, ranging
from surdophobic to surdophilic. He shows that surdophobic discourse
tends to originate in a view of d/Deaf as individual, cut off from the
majority culture, while surdophilic discourse tends to originate in a
view of d/Deaf as part of a collectivity, characterized most notably
by the common possession of sign language. Ladd gives special
prominence to the positive aspects of lay discourse on d/Deaf, and lay
valuation of Deaf gesture, d/Deaf artists, societies like Martha's
Vineyard where 'Everybody here spoke sign language,' etc. In modern
times, however, surdophobic discourse won out: Oralist discourses
within the colonial educational community, various medical discourses
aiming to 'cure' deafness with the rise of scientism, social welfare
and charity discourses resulting in created dependency. Only in the
last twenty years of the twentieth century has a Deaf resurgence, with
an emerging prestige of sign language users and Deaf families, the
rise of subaltern Deaf professionals, etc. has the colonialist model
been threatened.

In Chapter 4 Ladd introduces various traditional, sociological,
anthropological definitions of culture: culture as totality, culture
as adaptive system, culture as ideational construct, culture as
competence and performance, etc. He also examines the fields Cultural
Studies, Post-Modernist Studies, Post-Colonialist Studies, Diaspora
theories, Minority Studies, Sub-cultural, Bicultural and Multicultural
theories, Ethnicity Studies, etc. for their relevance to the study of
Deaf Culture.

In Chapter 5 Ladd examines discourses and definitions of Deaf culture.
These include English-generated definitions ('Deaf Culture,' appearing
in British Sign Language only in the mid 1980s) and sign language-
generated definitions ('DEAF WORLD,' probably going back over a
century). He examines a series of perspectives on Deaf culture:
membership perspectives, normative perspectives, symbolist
perspectives, linguistic perspectives, structuralist perspectives,
ethnicity perspectives, biological perspectives, political
perspectives, and anthropological perspectives. Of particular interest
to this reviewer are the introduction here (and use elsewhere in the
book) of the contrasts: individualist vs. collectivist cultures, low
context vs. high context cultures, monochronic vs. polychronic
cultures, all Hall's cultural clusters (Hall 1976 & 1983). In each
case Deaf culture fits into the latter of each pair. Ladd then
addresses reactions to the Deaf culture trope in semi-academic and
academic discourse, as well as re-evaluating certain problematic
aspects of Deaf culture (e.g. ethnicity issues, cultural geography,
etc.). Such re- assessment of the discourse strands from Chapters 1
and 2 is used to indicate the direction the study should take. Ladd
chooses a 'bricolage' approach, including methodologies which affirm
introspection as a member of subaltern Deaf culture, with 'thick
description' to give the reader a better sense of the community.

Chapter 6 discusses the problems of subaltern researcher
methodologies. Ladd argues for critical ethnography, respondent
validation, triangulation, reflexive subjectivity and transparency,
typicality, judgement sampling, and catalytic validity (where ''the
praxis and results of the research study ... have positive effects for
the group studied.'' (274). Ladd proceeds to situate himself as
subaltern researcher within the study, in order to fulfill needs of
maximal transparency. He then describes the various stages and
strategies used in the study: participant-observer involvement of the
author, open- ended interviews with members of the Deaf community,
discussion forums to examine typicality of the views elicited in the
interviews, further interviews of older Deaf to gain a historical
perspective and of Deaf with 'strong Deaf' views (a group whose views
had never been recorded before), and finally testing the emerging data
by facilitating discussions of the data to be fed back into the
study. He then discusses some of the issues that arose in the course
of the study.

Chapters 7 examines the roots of Deaf Culture as manifest in
residential Deaf schools. The Deaf school was the domain, prior to
Oralism, where the community language was learned, where aspects of
socialization into the Deaf community occurred, and where instruction
in how to conduct oneself in the larger majority society by adult Deaf
models took place. With Oralism, at best these occurred covertly; with
the elimination of Deaf teachers, the latter ceased entirely. Still,
even under Oralism the Deaf school remained an active force in Deaf
life: a source of community and identity, a primary family, etc. Ladd
provides detailed accounts from his interviewees of experiences under
Oralism. Prominent in this and the next chapter is the idea of '1001
small victories': finding situations and ways to resist (and survive)
the Oralist strictures: devising strategies and situations to sign to
each other, humor, resistance and rebellion, etc. Even under Oralism,
deaf children had access to Deaf influences: in the form of Deaf
visitors to the Deaf school, Deaf children with Deaf families, etc.
Despite Oralism, d/Deaf managed to develop a Deaf identity. Still
Oralism at Deaf schools had a manifest negative effect on Deaf
culture: it created a sense of fear and submission, a sense of
fatalism and a lack of self-confidence, possibly neurological damage,
retardation of opinion formation, horizontal violence, damage to sign
language expressiveness, enforced impotence, self-division.

Chapter 8 continues the examination of the roots of Deaf culture in
Deaf Clubs. In the UK this meant the Missionary tradition, where the
Deaf were 'ministered' to by the 'Missions to the Deaf', which took
over control of existing Deaf clubs and established others. Deaf clubs
were (and are) dominated by 'class' differences: a 'middle' class
making up perhaps 25% of the club and the remaining working
class. Ladd uses the data of his interviews to describe the
inter-group characteristics of Deaf clubs. The first he deals with is
speech ability, a talent which could be used to benefit the entire
community. Next he deals with class patterns, class attitudes
(towards the missioner, towards the other class in the Deaf club, and
towards lay people). In these attitudes, Deaf culture had absorbed
colonialist values which were internalized as Deaf cultural values. In
Deaf clubs the result was usually submission (to the missioner, to the
middle class Deaf), learned helplessness (reliance on the missioner or
those with greater access to majority culture, namely the middle class
Deaf), etc.. However, in addition to class which serves to divide the
community, there are activities which serve for cultural unity: Deaf
sports, club outings, national Deaf consciousness, sign language, and

Chapter 9 deals with the phenomenon of subaltern Deaf rebels and the
emerging concept of Deafhood. In many cases these rebels were
influenced by Deaf elders -- particularly those who had been educated
prior to the complete domination of Oralism in the schools. The
'culture shock' of seeing these elders' impressive signing AND
fingerspelling (i.e., English) skills, impressed on these mostly young
(generation of the 1960s) the failures of Oralism. This led many of
them to rebel not only against Oralism, but against the culture of
Oralism which also pervaded the Deaf clubs. This rebellion led to
exclusion from some Deaf clubs, and a flight to the pubs. Here not
only were they able to commune with like minds, but they were able to
relink with the hearing lay people, which Ladd posits has always had a
much more positive discourse attitude towards d/Deaf. The rebellion
also led to the formation of a new Deaf national political culture.

Chapter 10 contains conclusions and implications of the study. First
and foremost is the validation of the 'Deaf culture' concept. Deaf
culture thus can be expected to have its own world-views which are
internally coherent and valid. Again, a central position is occupied
by the Deaf language, sign language, whose status thus must be
recognized. The pathological model of deafness which centered on
individualism must give way to a new 'Deafhood' model acknowledging
the collectivity of Deaf Culture, as exemplified in the data
chapters. The recognition of Deaf culture also has implications for
Deaf education, other colonized domains like social and political
policies Deaf community domains, Deaf television, Deaf Studies itself
as an academic discipline, Deaf-related government agencies, etc. All
these spheres must experience a return to Deaf-centeredness and Deaf
control. The concept of Deafhood proposed also has implications for
Deaf Cultural Theory and the study of Deaf communities. Among other
things it provides for a new conceptual 'space,' an alternative to the
deafness trope, and a space within which Deaf cultural beliefs and
values can be discussed. Ladd then goes on to discuss a variety of
other implications of the study for wider cultural theory ... and for
the field of Deaf Cultural Studies itself.

In the Afterword, Chapter 11, Ladd presents a set of 'imagined
futures' in which the harms and damages of the colonialist past are
rectified. These involve a thorough reconstructing of Deaf life and
the structures and organizations which regulate Deaf Culture. In the
area of Deaf education the imagined future is one where Oralism is
defined as institutionalized child abuse and reparations are to
alleviate the ills caused by more than a century of Oralism. Other
areas where reconstructing is envisaged include the medical (and
medical research) profession, psychiatry, Deaf communities and Deaf
clubs themselves, the training, administration and funding of sign
language interpreters, the media, academia. In all cases it should be
a system of the Deaf, for the Deaf and by the Deaf.


In this critical evaluation I will limit myself to four issues. The
first involves the 'bricolage' approach that Ladd takes to setting up
the theoretical framework for his study. Chapters 4 and 5 contain more
theories and models than can be easily enumerated. While Ladd's
exposition of each does provide future Deaf culture research with
possible directions and methods, he himself takes almost exclusively a
post-colonialist tact in his analysis of data. Thus it might provide
for a more coherent work if he had restricted himself to only those
theories and models he himself uses in the current work, or else
incorporate the various elements he uses from the other theories and
models into a unified framework. (Since the present work claims to be
the first of a series of studies, the current criticism may be
premature; perhaps in subsequent volumes Ladd will make more use of
the models and theories introduced).

The second criticism has to do with Ladd's drawing attention on
several occasions in the work to the conflict between British (mutatis
mutandis, American) hearing culture and values and British Deaf
culture and values, based on the cultural clusters of high context
vs. low context, and individual vs. collective presented in Hall (1976
& 1983). While we might well place British (or American) hearing and
Deaf cultures at opposite extremes of each of the cultural cluster,
the same cannot be said of Japanese hearing culture and Japanese Deaf
culture. Both are high context and emphasizing collectivist as
opposed to individualist. However, despite the similar cultural
patterns, most of the problems that exist in British (or American)
also exist in Japan. Thus Ladd's argument does not hold up as well
under cross-cultural scrutiny.

Thirdly, as a scholarly work, Understanding Deaf Culture contains a
copious bibliography of works, including all the major works in the
field. The work also contains an index of Authors Cited, which helps
to track down the major works cited. However, when it comes to the
Index much is left to be desired. In a 500-page book, the Index is
just barely over two pages in length, and lacks many important
entries. For example, there is no entry for sign language, or British
Sign Language. The entries that are present are often less than
useful, for example, the entry for 'Oralism and Deaf Culture' lists
over forty page references, with no sub-headings to guide the reader.

Finally, being a linguist, this reviewer would have liked to see more
explicit discussion of sign language as a manifestation of Deaf
culture. As central to the culture-LINGUISTIC model presented for
defining Deaf culture, once would hope that space could be given to
the linguistic as well as the cultural aspects of the question.

All in all, because of the new perspective it presents on Deaf
culture, Understanding Deaf Culture can be heartily recommended to
anyone involved in, or contemplating involvement in the study of the
Deaf, their language, and their culture.


Benderly, Berryl Lieff (1980). Dancing Without Music: Deafness in
America. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Gendai-Sisou. Soutokushuu: Rou-Bunka [Modern Thought: General Special
Issue: Deaf Culture] 1996: 24/05.

Hall, Edward T. (1976). Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books. 

Hall, Edward T. (1983). The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of
Time. New York: Anchor Books.

Padden, Carol & Tom Humphries (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a
Culture. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press.

Stokoe, William C., Dorothy C. Casterline & Carl G. Croneberg
(1976[1965]). A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic
Principles. Silver Springs, MD: Linstok Press.


Michael W. Morgan has a doctorate in Slavic Linguistics, and currently
teaches at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, Kobe, Japan. An
Indo-Europeanist by training, he has been involved in sign language
research for the past ten years, but continues to research Indo-
European languages as well.
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