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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 316-321
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Deafness and Autobiography
Brenda Jo Brueggemann
A Forum on Disability and Self-Representation
Not much is written about deaf "writing." Or rather: not much is written about deaf writing that celebrates its achievements or critically addresses its strengths and weaknesses, its absences and presences, on its own terms. Instead, deaf writing typically presents a problem--perplexing us profoundly to think beyond the oral/aural-based comprehension of our cultural conceptions about writing and indeed beyond almost all of our western ideas about what language is, does, can be. 1 Deaf writing undoes. And studies of deaf literacy--littered particularly throughout the field of education--attest, over and over again, to what deaf people, especially deaf people writing and reading, cannot do. What's more, when it comes time to discuss why they "can't do," the burden lies almost always and all in their laps, due to their lack. 2
For these reasons I was all the more pleased to read G. Thomas Couser's remarkable chapter about deaf autobiography, "Signs of Life," in his most recent book, Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing. 3 I was struck not only by the comprehensive range of texts Tom discusses in that chapter--considering CODA (children of deaf adults), late-deafened, parent (of deaf children), and even the very few of what we call big "D" Deaf (written by members of Deaf culture) memoirs--but by the captivating and comprehensive coverage with which he attends to the issues of deaf autobiography. That deaf autobiography occupies thin space on the life writing shelves--even in [End Page 316] comparison to other "disability" memoirs--did not pass him by. First, he recognizes that there is little cultural value in the Deaf world writing their stories, let alone writing them for the hearing world. Second, he dwells on the persistent literacy problems of deaf people, their well-documented difficulty reading and writing in the dominant language--and how this difficulty often prevents them from taking up too many ISBN numbers. Remarkably, though, he does not deal with this difficulty in terms of what they lack but rather in terms of how current frames for autobiographical writing may in fact limit both the "reading" and "writing" of this form in d/Deaf and h/Hearing worlds simultaneously. And third, he discusses how daunting differences--cultural, linguistic, and even cognitive--between the two modalities of sign language and print-bounded but also orally-grounded English often make deaf life writing, well, lifeless.
But I would like to argue that it does not have to be that way. What I am interested in focusing on briefly here is the promise not only for deaf autobiography but for deaf writing, writ larger, that I see bright on the horizon. This promise, I want to suggest, has been made possible by a number of things going on not only in the Deaf world, but in the hearing one as well--and, too, within the literary and academic worlds.
It is perhaps still not "the best of times" to be deaf or hard-of-hearing . . . but it is not so bad either. As Irving King Jordan, Gallaudet University's deaf president, remarked to me last November after he delivered a keynote address at a social work conference on my campus at Ohio State: "It's a good time to be deaf." We had been talking about recent developments at Gallaudet University Press, my own ability to teach and work at a university like OSU, and the remarkable communication potpourri that scented the auditorium we were standing in: real-time captioning had back-dropped his speech, the words projected on a giant screen behind him; he himself had delivered his speech in a contact signing pidgin known as SimCom that attempts to incorporate both speech and sign; one pair of interpreters occupied the stage facing the audience while another pair was posted in the front row, aiding the understanding of me and the other two hard of hearing panelists who were charged with responding to King...