To what extent could “coming out” be a useful analogy for the process of coming to identify as Deaf? In episode 44, Laura Mauldin from the University of Connecticut discusses her research into this question as detailed in her open-access article “‘Coming out’ rhetoric in disability studies: Exploring its fit with the Deaf experience” published in the Spring 2018 issue of Disability Studies Quarterly.
Websites and other resources
- Laura’s 2016 book Made to Hear
- Laura’s Human Development and Family Studies page at UConn
- Laura’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies page at UConn
- Michele Friedner
- Tom Humphries
- Emily Ladau
- Lawrence Carter Long
- Signed Exact English (SEE)
- Douglas Hofstadter’s Surfaces and Essences
- “Cochlear Implants and Deaf Children” (interview)
Patrons of Parsing Science gain exclusive access to bonus clips from all our episodes and can also download mp3s of every individual episode.
Patrons can access bonus content here.
Hosts / Producers
Ryan Watkins & Doug Leigh
How to Cite
Watkins, R., Leigh, D., & Mauldin, L.. (2019, March 6). Parsing Science – Becoming Deaf. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.7817966
What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers
Laura Mauldin: He would talk about switching and say “oh, I had to become hard-of-hearing again, and then when I left I could become Deaf again.”
Doug Leigh: This is Parsing Science. The unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Doug Leigh…
Ryan Watkins: And I’m Ryan Watkins. Douglas Hofstadter argues in his 2013 book, Surfaces and Essences, that categorization and analogy making endow us with the ability to discern resemblances between the present situation and ones that we’ve encountered before. But – just as not all categories are valid – some analogies can be misleading or even mistaken. Today, in episode 44 of Parsing Science we talked with Laura Mauldin from the University of Connecticut about her research into the limits of “coming out” as an analogy of the Deaf experience.
Watkins: Here’s Laura Mauldin.
Mauldin: Hello! I’m Laura Mauldin and I’m currently assistant professor at the University of Connecticut in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies as well as Human Development and Family Studies. So I was in college at the University of Texas at Austin and I was studying linguistics, and it took me a long time to get to linguistics. I was a very lost college student but I came into college with the fluency in American Sign Language. I grew up in Texas and my school district happened to be where all of the deaf kids in that region were sent to school and a deaf education program. So I came into college just knowing sign language and that just being a part of who I was, I had no intention whatsoever of ever doing anything with it per se. As I went through college and I was a bit lost and didn’t know what I was doing, people sort of said well why don’t you do something with this language that you know. So I ended up with a degree in linguistics which of course I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with that, and someone said oh why don’t you be an interpreter! So I went to interpreting school for a bit and while I was in interpreting school, the director of that program encouraged me to enroll at Gallaudet University in Washington DC which is the only liberal arts university for the deaf in the world. And at that time they had set up for the first time, it was the first year that the program was in existence, and it was a master’s degree in Deaf Studies, and it was open to deaf and hearing people. And I had this really amazing experience of being really immersed in the Deaf community, and feeling like I needed more tools to understand that world. I needed to understand how this fit in society in general and that’s when I decided to pursue a PhD in sociology. And that’s how I ended up at the City University of New York, the Graduate Center in Manhattan. So then I became a sociologist.
Interest in people’s identification as Deaf
Leigh: While we’re accustomed to the phrase “coming out” used in relation to LGBT people’s self-disclosure of their sexual orientation or gender identity, Laura wondered if it might also be used to describe the process of becoming to identify as Deaf. We began our conversation by asking her how she became interested in the topic.
Mauldin: I’m a queer person myself, so I came out mostly in the 90s at which in Texas which was not easy. So I became sort of steeped in the gay community and coming out with something that we all talked about. And then once I got to Gallaudet and I was in this Deaf world and I started working with my advisor on my thesis, he was pointing me to Disability Studies which is an academic field that studies disability as a broad social category. So I started reading Disability Studies and noticed that what might be considered some canonical academic texts in the field. We’re making the argument for disability as a social category by analogizing, by saying we are like gay people because we have an identity that’s been pathologized, and so we’re coming out now, we are adopting this stance of pride around our disability identity. So we have come out as proud disabled people. And so I continually kept seeing this sort of co-opting or this borrowing of “coming out” discourse to apply to disability as a broad category which I thought was really fascinating, and that’s what really, you know, later spurred the paper. Because I kept going back to this idea that disability as a broad category is absolutely a social category and an identity category, and in efforts to legitimize that claim they have had to pull from the discourse of another movement, and to say we’re gonna borrow this kind of discourse to talk about our own to convey the sense of pushback against being pathologized. So that’s how the “coming out” discourse kind of appeared in the work. Both personally and academically, I kept encountering this, and I wanted to look at whether or not this was true for all the Deaf people that I knew.
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Watkins: Since the early 1970s, some in the deaf community distinguish capital-D Deaf from the lower-cased word. Laura explains these conventions early in her article. So Doug and I were curious about both what each term can face, as well as how well established the boundaries of these distinctions are.
Mauldin: There’s a anthropologist named Michele Friedner and I’m just gonna spell it which is M I C H E L E, Michele, Friedner, F R I E D N E R, that’s the interpreter in me spelling names so that whoever is interpreting or transcribing can accurately capture Michele’s name. She actually has a piece where she talks about that the distinctions between these two categories are actually really fuzzy, and one must depend on the other. In other words, you have to be deaf in order to be capital-D Deaf. And she talks about the ways in which these categories are sometimes useful but if we want to dig deep into the sort of philosophical differences – here which I’m not sure we want to that – there isn’t a whole lot of difference. But as a sociologist I think there is a difference, in terms of sociologically speaking, what the work that each of those words does is different. So there’s a deaf scholar named Tom Humphries, H U M P H R I E S, and he started talking about the difference between deaf, lowercase d, and capital D Deaf, and he was articulating it as one is the description of an audiological status which was that lowercase d, and the other describes an identity that one has taken on through the adoption of American Sign Language. And that American Sign Language is actually the key, the gateway, this is the opening by which people enter into this capital-D Deafness. And one of the most recent articles that I published was on a generation of folks that didn’t get access to American Sign Language until, you know, some of them were four or five years old. So capital-D Deafness really came out of a recognition that you can’t have a language without a culture, a culture can’t exist without a language, that they’re so intertwined that they can’t exist without one another. So where you have a language you have a culture, and the capital-D function is supposed to convey that, supposed to sort of encompass this identity category that shaped, not just by a bodily characteristic but also the adoption of a language.
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Leigh: Identity formation can be understood as both a sociological group process as well as an individual in psychological one. So Ryan and I followed up by asking Laura how capital D Deaf identity can emerge.
Mauldin: When you talk about a capital-D Deaf identity, you’re talking about the deployment of a term that gives not just meaning, but conveys power, conveys a sense of pride about one’s bodily characteristic if we’re gonna take deafness as an example. The world may tell you very differently that your deafness means something quote-unquote bad or that it should be fixed, but there are communities of people that create an alternate definition of this and that capital-D Deafness is a function of that community. And so this might be a way that people communicate that they have pride, that they recognize that this quality or characteristics of themselves is positive, is a positive attribute rather than a negative one. So in that sense identity might be working in a psychological way so that a person can feel good about who they are. But there’s also more to it sociologically in that we might think about how collectively this kind of identity work might be deployed in order to advance the interests of a social movement organized around an identity category. So we might then talk about a Deaf cultural movement where demands might mean made for recognition of that identity, for recognition of the language that undergirds that identity, recognition of the need for interpreters, right? Other kinds of accommodations the acceptance of difference. So the way that identity gets made is not just an individual phenomenon but it’s also a collector of social phenomenon.
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Watkins: A study’s inclusion criteria refers to various characteristics of the people whom a researcher hopes to collect data from, which they predefined in advance of recruiting participants. The criteria for inclusion into Laura’s study were: first that the participant had to be over the age of 18, and second that they identified as capital-D Deaf. In addition, since her interest was in exploring “coming out” as an analogy of the Deaf experience, participants also had to identify as members of the LGBT community. Lastly, Laura limited her study to participants who had hearing parents rather than deaf ones since just 10% of deaf children are born to deaf parents. Doug and I wondered why it was that she was interested in speaking with this population rather than the less common group of people whose parents are also deaf.
Mauldin: When deaf children are born to deaf parents they’re born into a ready-made culture and language that they are already a part of, and they grow up from the start having a sense of who they are through that community, through that interaction, and through that language. So it’s built in. But for deaf people that are born to hearing parents, most hearing people have zero knowledge of deaf people or Deaf communities, and even if they do have some knowledge of it they most likely don’t know American Sign Language. So I wanted to talk to people who had to forge their own way. I wanted to know what was the trajectory, how did you get access to this language and this community in the sense of self. Because it didn’t come built-in through the family. So how was that found, and so that’s why I wanted to talk to only those people.
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Disability Studies and Deaf Studies
Leigh: Laura’s primary area of teaching and research at the University of Connecticut concerns Disability Studies. So we were interested in her thoughts about the similarities and differences between it and Deaf Studies which was her academic major while being at Gallaudet.
Mauldin: Disability Studies is very much about the broad umbrella inclusive category of disabilities, meaning we could be talking sensory disability, like deafness or blindness, we could be talking about physical disabilities, but we could also be talking about mental illness, and other types of invisible disabilities. So it’s a huge, you know, umbrella category, and deafness is very much part of their scope of interest, and scope of advocacy. The interesting bit is that in my experience – so I’m only speaking as, you know, in my experience as a person who knows a lot of deaf people and has been in the deaf community for a long time – my observation is that deaf people often say oh I’m not disabled, I’m just deaf, I just use a different language. And there’s a framing of capital-D Deaf as a linguistic minority, and that’s it, period. Just a different language that disability is not in the picture. But of course legally – you know from the International structures and policy in the U.S. – deaf people are categorized as disabled, they’re captured within that legal framework, and interpreters are guaranteed through the Americans with Disabilities Act. And what I find so perpetually fascinating about the issue of the deaf community is that they straddle two different worlds, because no other disability has its own language and it does create a bit of a special case. Now one of the things I talk about in my book and I do get pushback from this from some deaf people is that I argue that deaf people saying they’re not disabled is actually ablest, that it is something that they themselves are perpetuating a devaluation of disability by saying oh I’m not one of those people, I’m not that, we aren’t disabled, as though there is something wrong with that. And I see the work of Disability Studies actually doing the same work that Deaf Studies is often trying to do. Deaf Studies is trying to redefine deafness as something that is okay, that it’s not a pathology, and that it constitutes a culture, and an identity. And Disability Studies is saying the same thing about disability, that it’s not solely a medical problem. Sometimes there are medical issues that’s not being denied but the identity piece and the culture piece is something that Disability Studies more broadly is really interested in pushing and really fights back on the narrative of disability as this tragic, sad, pathological thing. And I think Deaf Studies is doing the same thing, and it’s interesting to me that they often disavowed disability, or distance themselves from it, and I feel like there’s something happening there that I am uncomfortable, with that devaluation of disability more broadly, I’m uncomfortable with that. So not all deaf people agree with me and I’m engaged in conversations with lots of deaf people. I know about this and have been over a long period of time.
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Watkins: Laura’s comments got us wondering what might distinguish people who they claim to their identity by saying who “I am” versus those who do so through that “I am like” language of analogy. We’ll hear what she had to say after this short break.
Watkins: Here again is Laura Mauldin.
Mauldin: You know, one of the things that I talk about in the paper is that analogy is problematic, because if we’re talking about Disability Studies more broadly, and how before I was saying the use that language of “coming out,” the thing is that it erases disabled people who are also queer. Like it’s not that disabled people are like queer people, it’s that is a Venn diagram that there are also disabled queer people. So when you analogize, you lose the people that occupy those multiple categories, and the same thing happens when you’re talking about deaf people going oh I’m not disabled, I’m not that. That leaves out all of the deaf people that also have additional disabilities. So it’s not as though those things are mutually exclusive and, you know, one has to be really I think sensitive to the history of deaf people and sign language in the world. And that’s been one of persistent attempts to eradicate language. That’s why they are so fiercely protective of the language, and so adamant about being a linguistic minority. Because the attempts to oppress the deaf people have been around preventing them from having access to sign language, that is where it happens, that’s where their oppression is located. So it makes sense to me that they would hold fast to a claim of being a linguistic minority. There are historical political reasons for that stance that make very much good sense to me.
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Leigh: University of Alaska linguist Alice Taff defines language oppression as the enforcement of language clause by physical, mental, social, and spiritual coercion. So Ryan and I followed up by asking if any of the participants Laura interviewed discussed experiencing similar kinds of discrimination in their own lives.
Mauldin: Yes, they did. So in around the 1970s, people started to think that they just needed to take these signs that deaf people used and put them into English word order, and modify them to match English conjugation. For example, there would be a sign for the word “go” and in order to convey in English we might say “I am going to the store.” What these educators did was basically take signs from American Sign Language so maybe the sign for “store” and the sign for “go,” and then the rest would be modified. So they would take a sign that this is hard to describe verbally but the sign that translates as “I” would be changed from the index finger pointing to the chest and they would change it to the letter “I,” you would make the letter “I” of the American Sign Language alphabet and put it on the chest to convey I the subject that corresponds with English. And then they made up a sign for “am” and then they also would take the sign go and make up this little thing that they would add to the end of it to make it into “ing,” “go ing,” and then they had a sign that they made up for “to the,” and then they would use the ASL sign for “store.” All this to say there’s some role blending that’s happening here and efforts to take signs from a language that is intact and has its own syntax, its own grammar, it is a full language, and to take pieces of that and then change it up and put it in English word order and make it look like English; that was something that was done in the United States starting around the 1970s. So what ended up happening was that a lot of students including some of the people in my interviews learned this kind of signing system, and I’m saying signing system very deliberately here because it’s not a language, it’s like a manual coding of English on the hands. So that’s what they might have been exposed to, and this is where what we might talk about as a crossover where people may talk about how they learned that there was an actual language American Sign Language, and then there was a system which is often referred to as signed exact English or SEE. So some of my participants talked about oh I realized that there was this SEE system and then there was this ASL thing, and I had only known about SEE and then I finally met other deaf people and discovered there’s this whole actual real language that’s separate from that, and that was the sort of the gateway into this understanding of both language and culture that accompanied that.
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Watkins: In episode 21 of Parsing Science, we spoke with Phil Zimbardo about how social modeling can influence people’s likelihood of obeying unjust authority. This led us to ask Laura whether the participants in her study might have shared stories with her of deciding to stand up to oppression.
Mauldin: I don’t ever want to, you know, make it sound as though I’m speaking for deaf people because I’m certainly not. But one of my participants is sort of we might say audiologically categorized more as hard-of-hearing but identifies as capital-D Deaf and lives primarily voice-off signing, and he did mention something about there were times in which he would go back home and he would say: oh and I had to become hard-of-hearing again, where I would use my voice, and use what hearing I do have to kind of get along. He would talk about switching and say: oh I had to become hard-of-hearing again, and then when I left I could become Deaf again, which I thought was really interesting. And he also, you know, talked about the exhaustion of that process and the exhaustion of using his voice and using his residual hearing, that was something that he found to be really difficult and to involve a lot of work, and that it was the signing deaf world that he felt like he could move very easily and effortlessly. And so he did talk about that switch like: I became Deaf in this context and then I would go back to this other context and become hard-of-hearing in that context. But as they grew into this capital-D Deaf identity and gained more knowledge of ASL and Deaf culture and Deaf history, the more they grew into this the less willing they were to use their voice with other people anymore. And I in fact had one of my participants say: I went back to my family and I said no more, you have to accommodate me now. And it was a very interesting shift and that the greater that Deaf cultural identity grew the less willing they were to accommodate hearing people by using their voice to the best of their ability or trying to maybe communicate in ways that didn’t involve sign language. And as they grew into this identity the less willing they were to do that, and the more they requested their parents and family members to not require them to use their voice, and to maybe learn sign language, or you know will write back and forth, or you know find other ways to communicate: but I’m not going to do this for you anymore, which was I thought a really interesting pattern.
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Being both Deaf and LGBT
Leigh: Despite the earlier assertions of academic theorists, Laura found that the analogy of “coming out” as Deaf didn’t resonate with the participants in her study. This led us to wonder if she believes that the concept wasn’t salient because of her participants’ dual identification is both Deaf and LGBT.
Mauldin: Yes, I think the dual identification is one part to it and I think the other piece is that Disability Studies largely operates in spoken English. And so Disability Studies borrowing a spoken English turn of phrase might make sense. But if we’re talking about the deaf community specifically as a subset of the larger category of disability, and they don’t use English as their main mode of communication, this doesn’t make sense as a discursive tactic, this is not some that’s happening. None of the people in my study used the sign for “coming out” and there is a sign for “coming out,” and it is only attributed to “coming out” as LGBTQ. It is not used in other ways specifically to convey coming into a Deaf identity. And in fact there’s instead another phrase in ASL that is used to talk about that which is roughly translated into English as “becoming Deaf,” or there’s another I saw another phrase of “immerse Deaf.” So there’s different ways of sort of talking about it in ASL where it’s specific to that community. And I think what’s really important is to make sure that we take the Deaf community’s own conveyance of how they want to talk about this and acknowledge that, and say: we’re not gonna put, I’m not gonna borrow this other analogy that might work for some other people and say that it’s like being Deaf. Because if you talk to Deaf people themselves that’s not actually the case, and I think that’s really important that we sort of check our assumptions.
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Theory vs. practice
Watkins: As the “coming out” analogy was initially proposed by academics, we asked Laura her thoughts about the extent to which researchers might sometimes contrive the phenomena they want to investigate, even though those constructs may not be naturally experienced as part of the people’s everyday realities.
Mauldin: I mean I think that’s one of the reasons why I did the work that I did because I found it in the academic literature, and I thought “huh, this doesn’t really reflect what I’m seeing on the ground.” And I think that we all as researchers have to constantly be vigilant about, you know, what are we seeing in the academic literature and is it claiming to be describing something that’s happening and does that line up with what our actual experiences are. And I think a lot of times the people whose experiences that academics might be describing, are the very people that might be disenfranchised or marginalized in academia in the first place. And so what ends up happening then is that academics speak for other groups, and it may not be this like intensional thing, but I think particularly around disability and deafness those are people that are very underrepresented in academia, and their voices aren’t heard. You know, there’s a phrase and the disability rights movement and the phrase is nothing about us without us. And so I very much in my work adhere to this really important sort of mantra where I try not to do any work that is about deaf people or disabled people without consulting with or involving them in the process at some point, and I think that’s really important.
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Deaf and disability rights
Leigh: The Australian theologian James Sidlow Baxter once wrote that “a pessimist is one who sees difficulty in every opportunity whereas an optimist sees an opportunity in every difficulty.” So we closed out our conversation by asking what it is that Laura’s hopeful about regarding deaf and disability rights.
Mauldin: I do a lot of work within sociology and at the National American Sociological Association. I’ve been involved in having more panels that talk about disability, and pushing the organization to be more accessible when designing the conference. Now I’m not the first person at all, this has been going on for decades. But what’s happening is that there’s beginning to be a critical mass of the scholars that have been doing this for a long time and more younger scholars coming in with a disability consciousness. And to me, I am seeing an exciting expansion of work in disability at our national conference and in other journals in sociology. I’m co-editing a special issue of a journal that comes out in February. The journal is “Gender and Society.” It’s the top ranked gender studies journal in sociology, and it’s a whole entire special issue on disability and intersectionality. So there are some really exciting things happening where I’m seeing a lot of brand-new fresh PhDs and graduate students doing exciting disability work. I’m seeing more of a response from sociology as a discipline. Now, there’s still a long way to go but I’m really optimistic about this.
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Links to article, bonus audio and other materials
Watkins: That was Laura Mauldin discussing her article, “‘Coming Out’ rhetoric and disability studies: Exploring the limits of analogy by looking at its fit with the Deaf experience,” which she published in the spring 2018 issue of Disability Studies Quarterly. You’ll find a link to her paper at parsingscience.org/e44, along with bonus audio and other materials we discussed during the episode.
Leigh: If you’re not yet a patron of Parsing Science, you just might be in luck. We’re currently running a giveaway in which you could get free access to our archive of bonus clips from previous guests as well as those from future episodes for all of 2019. To enter, just email before our next episode is released, or subscribe to our newsletter at parsingscience.org/newsletter before episode 45 airs, and we’ll count it as two entries.
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Preview of next episode
Watkins: Next time, in episode 45 of Parsing Science, we’ll be joined by Liz MacDonald from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. She’ll talk with us about her research into Steve – a previously undocumented atmospheric phenomenon discovered by citizen scientists in late 2016 – which appears as a ribbon of flickering purple and green light in the night sky.
Liz MacDonald: There was a really strong flow of particles – like a big spike of particles – because the satellites fly through this STEVE event which is this narrow east-west ribbon satellites fly north-south. So they’re kind of cutting straight across it really quickly.
Watkins: We hope that you will join us again.
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