Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, the authors of the book, “Deaf in America: voices from a culture”, state their intent in writing the book as that of presenting the culture of Deaf people in America. Carol A. Padden was born deaf and both her parents are deaf. She also has one deaf older brother and some of her relatives (including grandparents) are deaf. Tom L. Humphries became deaf in early childhood.
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The authors state that their intent is to write about the knowledge, art forms, languages, beliefs, and the everyday lives of deaf people from a purist angle of deaf people, devoid of the label of deafness as a ‘disability’. They present interesting facts about the differences in sign language amongst different countries that reflect different historical, political, and geographical origins of deaf people.
The authors present the accounts of different deaf people concerning different topical issues throughout, which make the book captivating. In the first chapter ‘Learning to be deaf’, an account that I found to be most poignant is that of Sam, who relates an occurrence in childhood (Padden and Humphries 12-25). Being deaf (and thus uses sign language to communicate), Sam finds the habit of his playmate of communicating by the ‘odd’ movement of her mouth most shocking.
In his mind, young Sam feels his friend is acting oddly. This simple incident reflects the supreme importance of perspective – that deafness as a disability is a simple matter of perspective, and deaf people do not necessarily need pity because in their own unique way, they see themselves as wholesome beings, as shown by that incident. According to the authors, children present some of the most profound analysis of occurrences in the world.
The book states that there are various categories of deaf people in the deaf community. There are even distinctions within the descriptive term “deaf”, with a lower-case ‘d’ used when describing the physical state of not being able to hear, and an Upper-case “D” used for defining a collection of deaf people sharing a culture and a common language (sign language).
Chapter Three of the book gives the dynamics of this kind of labeling in Deaf culture, a labeling which I found reflecting the labeling that we also as people of hearing engage in.
For instance, a student newly arrived in college is labeled a ‘freshman’, a new person in a school might be labeled a “newbie’ or a ‘newcomer’. Similarly, in Deaf culture, there are different labels for a person whose hearing is wholesome but has recently learnt the sign language, persons who are not hard of hearing but have deaf parents, and other such distinctions.
It is interesting to note that Deaf people also have their own separate lifestyles and subcultures amongst various metropolitan areas in the US based on profession, race, ethnicity, and even social class. These distinctions, not different from those found in the rest of our society, are not an indicator of a culture of biasness, but in my view, affirm the notion that there is nothing culturally different between deaf people and those whose hearing is not impaired.
On the American Sign Language (ASL) itself, the book analyses the richness in different expressive verb forms that are available in sign language and not found in English, leading the authors to state that ASL is independent of the English language. This indicates the development of sign language to a wholesome language like any other language in the world, only expressed differently.
In my view this development elevates not only the status of sign language, but also that of deaf people, because the prevalent view has been that sign language is only a combination of crude gestures incapable of capturing various elements present in written and spoken languages.
Padden, Carol, and Humphries, Tom. Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988.