Citizenship and the Deaf in America: Part 1

In class there has been discussion about citizenship and the struggle to obtain such status within American history. Like my other classmates, I combine my own experiences  with what I learn in class. However, I find myself coming to a different conclusion than many others when looking at American citizenship. Not everyone wants to become a complete American citizen, and give up a piece of their identity and culture in the pursuit. I look to the deaf community, and I look to my two deaf grandparents. I remember efforts of past Michigan governors like John Engler to integrate deaf students into hearing districts throughout Michigan. I see and read about the anger that so many deaf young men deal with, caused by those who confuse deaf with dumb. The truth is that deaf people need each other for support, just like when we depend on members of our own community when times are difficult. This doesn’t mean that those who are hearing cannot be valued friends or family members, this just means that the deaf have their own language, values, and culture. The preservation of deaf culture is usually a silent struggle but one of great importance.

Many people who are hearing do not realize that the deaf actually have their own college, and quite a prestigious one at that.


Gallaudet University was founded in 1864 as a college built for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, right in the heart of Washington, DC. Boasting 1,800 students and over 18,000 alumnae, Gallaudet University is a good sized college with over 39 majors. I look at Gallaudet as an example of a deaf student succeeding within their own community. When I was at U of M – Flint, in many of my classes we had a single deaf girl who would have an interpreter follow her around to all of her classes so she could understand what the professor was lecturing. She always seemed out of place, and despite performing well in her classes I have no doubt in my mind that she would have preferred an academic environment where the classes were built with her in mind, surrounded by other intelligent students that she could talk and study with. I felt sorry for her, and I could tell how relived she would be when her deaf friends would come pick her up after classes to head over to the Deaf Club for drinks.

The Flint Association for the Deaf has been around for at least 3 generations. My dad (who is hearing) still talks to me about all the great times that he had there with my family. This isn’t some boring old place. This club has a fully stocked bar, eight or nine televisions that usually have sports on, and the general decor of a sports bar. My grandparents generation would rock this place when they were younger. They even have a jukebox! The feeling of a loving and understanding community is present all throughout the club, but when I visited last weekend I noticed something was missing. My generation was nearly absent. I noticed very few men and women in their 20’s. When I asked some of the older men about it, they told me that younger people are not as interested in the club, and with fewer deaf students going to the Michigan School for the Deaf the creation of a unique deaf community was starting to falter.

I have been thinking about this a lot the past few days, especially when it comes to citizenship within America. What does the deaf population want? Do deaf citizens my age want to become a part of mainstream America, or do they want the tight-knit community that prior deaf generations have created? At my grandfather’s funeral last weekend, none of my grandmother’s friends were in attendance. Instead, they were back at the Deaf Club, preparing an incredible meal for everyone after the funeral. My grandmother has played cards with these women forever (one said 30 years, one said 48 years, one said since high school, which would end up being well over 60 years!). This also brings up thoughts regarding classical liberalism and civic republicanism, specifically as to whether or not individuals or communities are the fundamental units of a society. It might be that while the older crowd would believe that community is essential, the younger generation may think that individualism is key.

I look forward to picking this up next week, where I plan to talk about controversy surrounding the presidency at Gallaudet University, and to really come to a conclusion about whether or not the deaf in America are a part of two completely separate cultures. I certainly think they are. Check this out, they even have their own competition for Miss Deaf America! Well, ’till next time.

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6 Responses to Citizenship and the Deaf in America: Part 1

  1. arlaurin says:

    I am interest to hear what you have to say in your next post. I think a problem in our society, at least in Michigan is that we are not very aware of the deaf community. So not one what they want, but literally that the exist. I have lived in MI since I was three, in the Metro Detroit Area, and I have never heard of the Michigan School for the Deaf. I believe awareness is the first step and if the community learns more about the program (and even the one in Washington), then the deaf may feel better about going to the wonderful organizations. I have no idea about this presidency controversy, so I will be on the lookout for your next post!

  2. mkay2209 says:

    This article intrigued me because my high school friend’s mom is actually the principal for the Michigan School for the Deaf, but also because I wonder how Shklar would fit them into her opinion of citizenship as standing. Deaf citizens do have the right to vote, but what if they cannot earn due to their impairment? The deaf that I know have been able to have jobs and earn for their families, but what if those college graduates from Gallaudet University can’t compete in the market place due to their impairment because employers are discriminating against them compared to hearing college graduates? Would Shklar say they don’t have the standing to be citizens? Personally, I think Shklar has it all wrong because in her eyes, the deaf who can’t earn, stay at home moms, and our famous Frederick Douglass would not be citizens. I think by pointing to the deaf community is a great way to show why Shklar is incorrect.

  3. kmuth0307 says:

    I am taking ASL to fulfill my foreign language requirement and am currently in a Deaf Culture class where these topics are raised frequently, as these controversies are exactly what the class is about. YES, Deaf are citizens of the U.S. and YES they want to be citizens as much as any of us. Just because they have the desire to be in the polity and involved in American political life, does not mean they want to “fit in” to mainstream society. They are a subculture, similar to Polish Americans or Jewish Americans. They have their own culture, language, and ‘Deaf Agenda’ made up of political and social goals they would like to achieve. I do not blame the commentor who stated they thought Deaf awareness should be raised, however it does show a bit of naivity. The Deaf culture, though it is a subculture, is very much a part of society. It has particularly risen in public attention since the 1980’s, with the Gallaudet Revolution, which was covered by mainstream news networks. Most televisions are equipped with subtext to enable Deaf to watch T.V. and movies without a special version. Gallaudet College, though it may be the most well- known school for the Deaf, is not the only school. In fact almost every state has at least one Deaf school for higher education.

    The issues that face the Deaf world are discrimination in the work force, inadequate education, and the hearing world’s view that they are handicapped. DEAF ARE NOT HANDICAPPED. They function as well as you or I in society, when given adequate education, and the ability to learn their native language. They do not need help and can do a job as well as the next person. The problem is that the hearing world labels them as handicapped and tries to make up for their deficiency. For over a century, Deaf were required to learn how to lipread, learn how to ‘speak’ based on all sorts of ridiculous exercises, and learn how to use English as their first language. The movement of oralism took the world by a sweep through the 20th century and all institutions required the use of speech and the abolition of any signed communication. Students were actually PUNISHED if caught using sign. However, this wasted a lot of time in the education process because instead of concentrating on educational material, like math and science, students spent years ‘learning’ how to lipread. No wonder test scores were so low, they weren’t learning any actual material. It also doesn’t help that the tests are in ENGLISH. For those of you who have never taken French, let’s test your IQ in French written language and see how well you do!

    Mainstreaming was something that the Individuals with Disabilities Act mandated in the 70’s that stated all handicapped should be in the least restrictive learning environment and demanded closure of all institutions for the handicapped. This may have been excellent for the children with Down Syndrome, but for the Deaf, it was devastating. Deaf Schools were a place where they met other children who communicated as they did and Deaf culture and values were imparted to them. Deaf Schools were cultural hubs that allowed children to come into their own. In public schools they were surrounded by children who only stared at them and socialization was minimal.

    This issue has since changed and the past twenty years have seen an increase in Deaf rights and culture. However, the issue is, do the Deaf insist on being called a subculture rather than a handicapped group, but risk losing support from the Individuals with Disabilities Act (now goes by another name)? To pronounce themselves as a minority in the government’s eyes would mean the discontinuation of employment protection, paid education, and benefit checks.

    Shklar would probably put Deaf in the disenfranchised category. These individuals are discriminated against, especially in the workforce, making the right to earn difficult. They also are disenfranchised at the polls, if they do not read English. However, they need to be viewed as a language and culture minority, not as handicapped. If they were seen as a minority, they would be treated the way Spanish speakers are treated, with the right to an educated interpreter and a different version of almost every text presented.

    Regarding the question on civic republicanism or classic liberalism, I believe that the dominant culture in America is concerned for individualism in Classic Liberalism, because they do not see a need to ban together. However subcultures and minorities, like the Deaf Culture, are definitely more geared towards Civic Republicansim in an emphasis on community and group needs.

  4. palaie says:

    I found this post very interesting because it is based on a topic that does not come up very often. I too, like the writer of the first comment, have never heard of such a school in Michigan. However, it makes me glad that we do have such an opportunity for deaf students. I think providing such resources is exactly what the government should be doing in order to ensure that people are not excluded from citizenship. We focus so much on race, ethnicity, and gender discrimination and create laws to equalize the rights of different groups, but neglect less obvious groups like the deaf students and citizens. When Shklar said that we must ask those who are outside of the circle of citizenship for their definition of citizenship, she was definitely including the deaf in this category. I am glad that you brought this topic up and made us think of a group that we otherwise might have neglected.

  5. beneikey says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for all the great comments. This really excites me as I get ready to write my second part this week.

  6. Nicole Y says:

    Thanks so much for your insightful post! My great grandmother was also deaf and studied at a school specifically for the deaf. Like your grandparents, my great grandmother had an amazing experience there and maintained long-lasting friendships with her classmates and fellow deaf students. I had not thought of this before, but I believe those really were her only friends that I can remember. Certainly, she was very old during my lifetime (in her 80s and 90s), but she still went to get lunch with some of these friends at least once a week. I think that your analysis here might be on to something interesting for certain parts of the population. Great post.

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