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  • The Postgraduate Deaf Experience
  • Guy McIlroy

When I started studying toward a master’s degree in Deaf education, I had reached an important point in my identity development as a Deaf person. The process of self-discovery of a Deaf identity had begun by virtue of my self-acknowledgment of myself as a Deaf person, where previously I had naively attempted to pass as a hearing person in the hearing-dominated world. I had reached the point where my prior self-construction as a hearing [End Page 503] person was being challenged, and I wanted to take this transition further; I joined the Center for Deaf Studies and started on my master’s degree research.

Being a Deaf researcher introduced a number of new and unique challenges and successes. The most significant issue was the introduction of myself as an auto-ethnographic participant in this research by virtue of being Deaf. Initially, and for a long period of the time I spent doing research, I maintained an objective distance from the study. However, I was struck by the intensely personal and intimate nature of the scrutiny of identity, as well as the acceptance in academic literature (particularly in anthropology) of the idea of the researcher as a research subject embedded in the study constituting both a valid and valuable source of data. This conceptual shift emerged with the self-acknowledgment of myself as an oral Deaf person whose identity was undergoing a radical transition. This identity shift provided me with a template as a researcher with an insider’s perspective for developing a greater understanding of a range of Deaf identities.

But with this frame of reference as an insider came a deep sense of unease about the orthodox binary medical model/social model construction of Deaf identity. Increasingly, as my own journey into understanding Deaf identity took shape, I found that the current identity discourses did not match my own experiences and those of other Deaf persons in a postmodern worldview in which Deaf persons like myself did not fit into either of the conventional structures. I realized that I had moved away from the “Deaf and culturally hearing” sphere of influence, and although I both appreciated and became immersed in the Deaf community by adopting sign language as my preferred language, I came to the realization that sign language was not my first language. Thus, I could not fully embrace the Deaf identity. Consequently, I discovered that other Deaf persons and I occupy an alternative territory that had not been adequately explained or explored—hence the theorizing and auto-ethnographic exploration of bicultural Deaf identity (McIlroy, 2008). Once this barrier had been breached, I became more sensitized to the richness and diversity of the “voices” of Deaf persons.

To me as a master’s candidate, finding my own voice became an important skill through letting go of the need as an oral Deaf person to fit into the hearing community by pretending or bluffing. This activity is an ongoing process of actively acknowledging to people around me that it is acceptable to say, “Please say that again, I missed it, I am Deaf,” rather than fooling people into believing that I understand what they say in order to fit in. This statement became a mantra of liberation for me at meetings and with administrative and support staff. Using an interpreter made even more visible the point that I had communication needs as a Deaf person. Fundamentally, my need to communicate and understand now takes precedence over the previous survival mode of placidly going along with the speaker by pretending, which was a denial of being Deaf.

To graduate with distinction was an especially satisfying experience. This was an opportunity to look back at the (5 years) of change in myself as a Deaf person into an oral Deaf academic.


McIlroy, G. (2008). A narrative exploration of educational experiences on Deaf identity. Unpublished master’s dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

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