A Deaf Knowingness





deaf, deafness, deaf identity, deaf knowing, ways of knowing, epistemology, journal issue,


How to Cite

McDonald, D., & Ferrier, L. (2010). A Deaf Knowingness. M/C Journal, 13(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.272
Vol. 13 No. 3 (2010): deaf
Published 2010-06-28

Introduction: How Do We Learn What We Know?

“Deaf.” How do we learn what we know about being deaf and about deafness? What’s the difference between “being deaf” and “deafness” as a particular kind of (non) hearing? Which would you rather be, deaf or blind: children commonly ask this question as they make their early forays into imagining the lives of people different from them. Hearing people cannot know what it is like to be deaf, just as deaf people cannot know what it is like to hear ... or can they? Finally, how can we tell fresh and authentic stories of “being deaf” and the state of “deafness” that disrupt our familiar—perhaps even caricatured—patterns of understanding?

In this special “deaf” edition of M/C Journal we wanted to create a body of work in which deaf writers and thinkers would have their say. Mindful that "Deaf history may be characterized as a struggle for Deaf individuals to 'speak' for themselves rather than to be spoken about in medical and educational discourses" (Bauman 47), we were particularly keen to place the contributions of deaf writers and thinkers alongside the mainstream hearing culture. This is why we have chosen not to identify each writer in this edition as deaf or hearing, preferring to leave that biographical auditory detail to the writers themselves.

We already knew that "there isn't a large body of literature about the deaf by the deaf" (Henry Kisor 3). Thomas Couser writes that "this should not be surprising, for a number of factors militate against deaf autobiography ... making them unlikely and rare entities" (226). And so we welcomed the diversity of topics and range of genres to this edition: they included a playful ficto-critical exploration of deafness; personal reflections on deafness (ranging from regarding it as a condition of hearing loss to a state of being); poetry; a filmography; and several fresh analyses of representations of deafness, hearing technology and deaf people’s lives in theatre, film and television (this was a particularly popular theme); the poetics of embodiment (indeed, embodiment was a recurring theme across many of the submissions); a commentary on the role of interpreters in deaf-hearing relationships; and an analysis of the role of the Web 2.0 and other technology in deaf people’s communications.

However, we noted that most of the uncommissioned submissions in response to our call for papers came from hearing people. We had to seek out contributions from deaf writers and thinkers and wondered why this was so. Mainstream publication avenues for writing by deaf people on the topic of deafness are rare in Australia: perhaps deaf writers lack the necessary confidence or belief that they would be read? In this edition, they certainly reveal that they have much to say ... and inspire us to lean in and think carefully about their words.

A Deaf Knowingness

In writing her poem “The Triton”, Sandra Hoopman was inspired by her frequent visits to her deaf grandmother at her old Lambert Street, Kangaroo Point home, where she had a huge triton on her wrought iron veranda. Her grandmother would put the triton up to her ear and show Sandra how to 'listen' to it so that she could ‘hear’ the sea. Her poetry recalls to mind Robert Panara's most-quoted poem, “On His Deafness”, in which he imagined that he might even hear 'the rustle of a star!'

Following Sandra Hoopman’s poem, we are pleased to feature the essay “Body Language” by Jessica White, shortlisted for the ABR 2010 Calibre Prize, and Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist for 2008 for her first novel A Curious Intimacy (Penguin 2008). In her essay, Jessica playfully explores the idea of not having a singular fixed identity by traversing a dialogue between the imagination and the character of Jessica, showing different selves at play and in conversation, and again in conversation with others at the ficto-critical room and with the ideas articulated by different authors. As with post-structuralist explorations, the essay emphasises the active and formative nature of language, story and ideas, which help us to deconstruct and reformulate versions of our lives and its possibilities. Play is a device that enables people to move beyond the confines of the social world.

The joyful spirit of White’s essay is signalled when she writes:

For example, there are still immense possibilities thrown up by theorising a jouissance, or pleasure, in the disabled body. As Susan Wendell points out, “paraplegics and quadriplegics have revolutionary things to teach us about the possibilities of sexuality which contradict patriarchal culture’s obsessions with the genitals” (120). Thus if there were more of a focus on the positive aspects of disability and on promoting the understanding that disability is not about lack, people could see how it fosters creativity and imagination.

White’s essay is a ‘picaresque’, following a traveller who narrates her adventures and encounters. It is a wonderful model for narratives of difference as it departs, refreshingly, from mainstream Hollywood-style plot conventions, i.e of progress through conflict towards a climax and resolution. Instead, the picaresque allows for a variety of roles, settings and pathways for the wanderer, multiple characters and illuminating dialogues. It demonstrates literally as well as figuratively, productive encounters with the Other, jolting us into new understandings, ways of knowing and possibilities of being. 

In this way, White’s essay “Body Language” sets a thematically rich tone for this special “deaf” issue of M/C Journal. Through her essay and the following narratives, commentaries, articles and essays, we are immersed in the theme of the importance (and liberating possibilities) of contesting fixed and limited images, disrupting the representations and labels that are so readily assigned to the deaf or deafness. Different strategies and styles are employed, from figurative creative writing or life narrative to the critical essay or media analysis. Yet all contributions emphasise shifting perceptions, commence from a position of not being comfortable with the given representations or ideas that surround deaf identity. The personal narratives and essays assert a strong sense of disjuncture between deaf reality and common representations and ideas of deafness. Reading these contributions, we gain an acute sense of not being at one with the image or idea of a deaf person, not being at one with the social world, not being any one thing but rather many different and varying things and roles.

The conditions of possibility are touched upon in the personal reflective pieces, resonating with the critical essays in their exploration of the possibilities of destabilizing hegemonic representations. For example, in “Becoming Deaf”, Karen McQuigg’s personal reflective essay, she describes several stages of the deaf experience. Her description of her son’s responses and adaptations is moving, and Karen mines a range of emotional responses to deafness. She shares with the reader the advice and support she received from other people: some readers will remember with affection the role of Elizabeth Hastings and John Lovett in the Australian Deaf community.

McQuigg’s reflections sharply highlight the fluid nature of our individual experience and understanding of deafness. She (and we do too) shifts from what was experienced and understood initially as a blank, a not-comprehending—a ‘blank’ that is linked with loss and constraints, grief, suffering and isolation—to a discovery of how those views and experiences can change, along with changing environment and opportunities. This comes across also in Christy L Reid’s piece “Journey of a Deaf-Blind Woman”: possibilities are linked with where the narrator is living, with life events as varied as training and job opportunities, changes in health, marriage, the birth and development of children, child rearing, and of personal triumphs.  

Michael Uniacke’s personal essay “Fluid Identities: A Journey of Terminology” has much in common with Jessica White’s essay as he too engages playfully with his ideas. He uses language and figurative play to challenge the reader’s understandings of deaf identity, and to demonstrate the fluid and multiple nature of identity. For example, his opening anecdote about the Hearing Impaired Businessman plays to an embodiment of the idea that many people have, through categories and labels, of a deaf person, as Other, a caricature figure with no interiority or humour or nuanced life. Uniacke engages with this figure in a kind of dialogue, making him surreal, highlighting his typecast nature. By the end of his essay, Michael has shown us how identity can be context-specific and composed of many parts. 

In “Interpreters in Our Midst”, Breda Carty takes us on a jaunty, personal and engaging commentary that provokes the reader into taking a fresh look at the role of interpreters in mediating/translating relationships between deaf and hearing people. She asks, ‘When interpreters are in our midst, whose interests are they representing? And why are those interests not always clear to the observer?’ Originally written as a short piece for the Australian Sign Language Interpreters' Association (ASLIA), the article is informed by Breda’s immersion in particular professional and personal communities and experiences. While the tone of her commentary is light-hearted, using film screen representations of interpreters to illustrate her points, Breda nevertheless succeeds in politicizing the subject of interpretation and interpreters. She makes us aware of the social assumptions and hierarchies that structure our understanding of interpreting, which, if left unexamined, might seem a neutral and apolitical practice.

Rebecca Sánchez makes an exciting contribution to the field of poetry. In her paper “Hart Crane's Speaking Bodies: New Perspectives on Modernism and Deafness”, Rebecca writes about looking for ideas about deafness in unexpected places, namely the poetry of hearing modernist Hart Crane. Taking up the theme of embodiment, evident in several other papers in this edition, Rebecca offers an interesting connection between a poetics of embodiment—Crane was influenced by Walt Whitman, a trail-blazer in embodied language in American poetry—and the more literal embodiment of manual languages. Although Hart Crane was not writing about deafness per se, his work explores the potential of embodied languages to alter the ways in which we interact with one another. When asked to define deafness, most people’s first response is to think of levels of hearing loss, of deficiency, or disability. By contrast, Crane’s non-literal approach provides a more constructive understanding of what communicative difference can mean, and how it can affect our und,erstanding of language itself. Rebecca’s essay's strength arises from its demonstration of Crane's desire to imagine the possibility of a language that lives within the body as rich and enabling, as are manual languages.

Miriam Nathan Lerner’s professional training as a librarian is evident in her filmography “The Narrative Function of Deafness and Deaf Characters in Film”. During 2010, she is collaborating with a technical support faculty member at the Rochester National Technical Institute of the Deaf to design a website with quick-time windows so that the reader can click on and watch film clips of the works she references in her filmography. A lively, chatty introduction to some forty-three films with deaf characters and deafness, in which she provides her admittedly quirky approach to categorisation, Miriam Lerner’s filmography will one day be recognised in the same breath as Jonathon Miller’s “Rustle of a Star: An Annotated Bibliography of Deaf Characters in Fiction.” (Miller was also a librarian: they obviously possess the requisite skills of categorisation!)

Pamela Kincheloe’s article “Do Androids Dream of Electric Speech? The Construction of Cochlear Implant Identity on American Television and the ‘New Deaf Cyborg’” offers an important analysis of popular (mis)conceptions of deafness and ‘assistive technologies’ as is evident from American television representations of deaf people with Cochlear Implants. She notes the prevalence of cochlear implants in television drama, identifies a couple of very limited narrative frames that dominate such representations, and discusses their implications. In her discussion of the ‘abject’ horror  associated in television series with the cochlear implant recipient (often already a corpse) Kincheloe asserts that the Cochlear Implant technology is increasingly used in such narratives to convey intensified anxieties, not only about the deaf Other, but also about technology and the emergent ‘cyborgs’, humans modified by technology.  

Sharon Pajka-West’s well-researched article “Deaf Characters in Adolescent Fiction”, excerpted from her doctorate thesis, originated in a request from a young deaf reader for a book with which she could connect. Pajka-West takes us on her pursuit to fulfil this request, giving us many fascinating insights along the way. Her blog is essential reading not only for anyone interested in the field of adolescent literature, but also for those who understand the significance of providing young deaf readers access to literature in which the multiple possibilities for deaf lives, deaf identities, and deafness are canvassed.

In her article “Marginalising the Mainstream: A Signed Performance of The Miracle Worker”, Caroline Heim places deaf issues centre-stage. Her thesis is that a way needs to be found to increase access to theatrical events for the deaf. She tackles this by viewing a Crossbow Production performance of The Miracle Worker (the story of the teaching relationship between Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan from different perspectives: accessibility, funding, plot construction and actors’ interpretation, the detail of production design (sound, colour and tactile) and the use of theatrical device, and post performance discussion. Arguably, Heim’s article might have benefited from more focus on the concept of inclusion, rather than exclusion. The claim that not enough money is given to providing ‘access’ for the deaf to mainstream productions may be difficult to uphold as a stand-alone argument when the budget of the majority of Australian theatre companies would highlight the fiscal difficulty they have just getting productions on the stage. All the same, Heim’s article provokes us, the reader, into investigating the many layered meanings of ‘access’ and also reminds us, yet again, of theatre’s potential magic in engaging audiences across all spheres of life.

In her essay “Looking across the Hearing Line”, Nicole Matthews has written a stimulating paper on youth, Deaf people, and new media. Her paper is especially interesting as an exploration of the intersection between disability and Web 2.0 technologies. In particular, Matthews picks up a thread of Web 2.0 technologies relating to visual communication and expression to provide some insights into the emerging, complex nature of Deaf users’ engagement with digital media in contrast with the continuing problems of inaccessibility and exclusion in the mainstream world.

Conclusion: Learning Our Knowingness from What We Don’t Know

This special “deaf” issue of M/C Journal is not a “project”, in the Modern sense of that word, i.e. a unified collective effort to define identity, in this case deaf identity, or to consolidate and express a unique world view. Nor does it seek to enlighten the public about what it is to be deaf. Such a totalising project would inevitably suppress heterogeneity and the specificities of people’s lives. Rather, this collection offers many different particular and localised accounts - some personal and poetic, some analytical, some working through critique - which explore the conditions of possibility for human subjects, and in particular, people who are deaf.  

The contributions highlight in very different ways the complex and shifting fields within which people’s lives and experiences are formed. These works give us insight into the varied and changing social and environmental conditions that not only shape our lives but are in turn shaped by who we are and by our practices and choices. The constraints and possibilities of people’s lives change significantly and differ widely. They are linked inextricably with where people are, in terms of geography or location, and with the circumstances they find themselves in or create for themselves: circumstances of gender, family, social networks, economics, education, work, lifestyle, health or illness, physical abilities, differences and limitations.

These works stress the highly contingent nature of human social development and the fluidity of deaf experience rather than identity. Identity shifts and takes on meaning in relation to others and situations; we come to know who we are through a process of differentiating ourselves from others and from identities that we do not feel comfortable with.

In almost all of these accounts here experiences of deafness are not the same those conjured up by labels or stereotypes. This act of disassociation from the usual notions of deafness, highlights that our received language and labels do not give us knowledge. Disavowal reminds us that we do not know, except through some disruptive encounter with the Other, whether that is the otherness of our own deafness or the deafness of others. These writings that demonstrate the particularity and detail of deaf people’s experiences, enable us to know the limits and inaccuracies of the labels and identities so commonly assigned to deafness and the deaf.

Thus, we come back to the beginning and find our equivocal, tentative answers to the question, ‘how do we learn what we know about being deaf and deafness?’ We learn what we know in various ways, yet hearing or deaf, we are exposed to particular ideas of deafness, limiting labels and assumptions that reinforce ‘ableist’ values. These writings have demonstrated the proliferation of limited stereotypes; they recur in narratives, news stories, television and films, and have power regardless of their disconnection from the real, and from the lived experience of deafness. It is a significant starting point to recognise the limitations of what we think we already know, through our media and social institutions, of deafness. These essays and writings represent a different epistemology; they explore not what deafness is or how it can be defined, but different ways of knowing deafness.


Couser, G. Thomas. “Signs of Life: Deafness and Personal Narrative” Ch. 6 in Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Bauman, H-Dirksen L. “Voicing Deaf Identity: Through the ‘I’s’ and Ears of an Other.” In S. Smith, and J. Watson, eds., Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. 47-62.

Kisor, Henry. What’s That Pig Outdoors? A Memoir of Deafness. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990.

Author Biographies

Donna McDonald, University of Queensland

Donna McDonald is a novelist, writer and policy consultant. She is currently completing her PhD at the University of Queensland, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, and is writing a memoir The Art of Being Deaf.

Liz Ferrier, University of Queensland

Liz Ferrier is a Senior Lecturer in Advertising and Media at the University of Queensland, Business School.