Fracturing the Gallaudet utopia?

A recent article by Daniel de Vise in the Washington Post highlights changes that are occurring at Gallaudet, with the inclusion of so many more students from largely hearing, or mainstream backgrounds.

To quote:

Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington was always a place where students could speak the unspoken language of deaf America and be understood.

That is no longer so true. For the first time in living memory, significant numbers of freshmen at the nation’s premiere university for the deaf and hard of hearing arrive lacking proficiency in American Sign Language and experience with deaf culture.

These newcomers are not only deaf, but also hearing people arriving to be trained as interpreters.

So what impact for Deaf space there?

I guess initially two things spring to mind.

The first is that this is bound to have an impact on the DEAF spaces produced to this point on the GU campus. I can’t imagine that those who took-for-granted the knowledges that they perform in producing a ‘DEAF=like us’ space before will continue to be able to do so in the same way with so many non-DEAF=like us people around.

Will that lead to enclaves, hybrid spaces, hybrid identities, a new definition of DEAF, a series of parallel cultures? All of the above? I guess we’ll have to wait and watch.

The second is that, like it or not, what’s happening at GU seems to mirror larger debates within the Deaf community and of the spaces that they produce and inhabit; debates which many have suggested represent a move towards a more descriptive way of talking about a much wider range of those who are, or might be, characterised as ‘Deaf’ or who might be involved with the Deaf community in some significant way: ‘DEAF’ (Gulliver 2009), Sign Language Peoples (Batterbury et al 2007?), Deafhood (Ladd 2003), Post-deaf (Davis 2008?), Deafnicity (Eckert 2010).

The root of all of these ‘new’ (in fact very old – read the 19th century Deaf press to see how little the modern identity-political ‘Deaf’ has in common with longer-term vision of a signing, visual community) debates appears to derive from a fracturing of a polar ‘Deaf/hearing’ identity imposed by the colonisation of Oralism, an opening up of a number of taboo areas (discussions about deaf bodies, for example (Kelly 2003) and a recentring of identity in the individual, and in individual performances of capability and belonging. Essentially, a spatial turn in Deaf Studies, that pursues wider Deaf realities from a starting point in spaces of/from the body – and then moves to the production of social, cultural, linguistic, political, ethnic (the list goes on) spaces of being.

Given that the individual is not fixed, and that the flux of individuals through groups leaves those groups un-fixed, it’s hard to see how DEAF/Deaf/deaf – or any other space – can remain fixed, except as a snapshot, or a limited utopian vision.

And yet, that’s what Gallaudet appears to represent in many people’s minds… a utopia, a Deafspace haven in the midst of a hearing world.

So what happens as the contestatory nature of that Deafspace/hearing-world dichotomy begins to break down within the boundaries of Gallaudet itself. How does the imagination of a culture cope with the reality (like it or not – that’s not the question here) of staunchly post-modern performances of Deaf (or Signing people) identities?

I don’t know – but we might find out soon enough.