It seems these days that every time I watch an ASL news program or Deaf vlog, there’s another call to protest the closing of a school for the Deaf somewhere in the US. Last year two residential schools for the Deaf faced possible closings in my home state of North Carolina, and now the Iowa School for the Deaf, in the state where I attended law school, is at risk of closing. While there’s no inherent reason that a recession should lead to mainstreaming Deaf students in hearing schools, states are jumping to that strategy in a climate of heavy budget cuts.
Many who are uninformed about Deaf culture, education, and language would assume that mainstreaming is a good idea because Deaf people will have to live in the hearing world as adults and should learn to adapt as best they can. For some students, mainstreaming IS the right choice. I would never argue that Deaf students and their families shouldn’t have this option. But as with many questions we ask ourselves as feminists, this one relates to choice, as well as to the autonomy of a marginalized group and the importance of community formation as a means of resistance to structural inequality.
The ASL sign for a school for the Deaf translates to “institution.” These schools are in fact the primary community institution for those who participate in Deaf culture and primarily use ASL to communicate. Deaf communities spring up around these schools and the first question in a small talk conversation between two Deaf folks is often “where did you go to school?” When those who favor mainstreaming for all Deaf students argue that Deaf schools are isolating, that Deaf people need to communicate in the “real world,” I question this “real world” premise. Are Deaf communities not real? Is ASL not a real language?
I encourage you to consider this issue as feminists when your state is proposing closing a Deaf school. If feminism centers on opposition to patriarchy, thus incorporating opposition to gender norms imposed from on high, to structural racism, to cultural appropriation, clearly it should take up the cause against those who would impose a particular language and way of communicating upon a marginalized group.
Those who want to get rid of schools for the Deaf often are relying on the medical model of disability, which says that people with disability need to be medically “fixed” and that funding should go to medical research. The social model, on the other hand, centers people with disabilities’ experience and says that it’s the world around us that needs to change by meeting our access needs. Just as feminists imagine a world without structural misogyny, racism, and classism, the social model of disability encourages us to imagine a world that is built for people with disabilities. In that world, ASL would be recognized as an equally valid form of communication when compared with spoken language, and learning to speak would be an option, not a mandate. Deaf schools would be recognized in such a world as vital for community building, and rather than encouraging all Deaf children to “adapt to the hearing world,” hearing people would adapt their world to be more inclusive.
There are many ways that feminist and Deaf communities can work in solidarity. To get involved, contact your closest Deaf school or community center. Consider learning basic ASL at www.lifeprint.com to communicate with Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing feminists alike.
Avory Faucette is a queer trans femme-inist writer and activist. Zie is particularly interested in identity formation, trans feminism, and intersections between our myriad identities. Zie celebrates the word “radical” and reclaims it regularly at hir personal blog, Radically Queer.