Prior to reading his book, d/Deaf and d/Dumb: A Portrait of a Deaf Kid as a Young Superhero (Valente 2011), I have had the opportunity to meet Joseph Michael Valente on several occasions. I recall attending a roundtable discussion he presented at a conference last year in which he discussed issues related to deaf culture and education. He spoke of the problems with the IEP process. He gave life to his frustration with d/Deaf children being labeled as “disabled” (I use the term “gave life to” rather than “voiced” because, as he says, “Voice implies speech is necessary for empowering people, whereas life recognizes the visual culture of deafness and shows deference to lived experiences, frequently overlooked in research on deafness and disabilities in general” 2011, p. 21). I remember telling him about the fact that, as a teacher in multicultural classrooms, I strive to learn to understand, and to some degree speak, the languages of all of my students, and that this includes learning and using some ASL (American Sign Language) in my classrooms. Valente pointed out at this point that d/Deaf education is very different than multilingual education.
I didn’t fully understand what he meant by that at the time. Now, having read his autobiographical book about his life as a deaf child growing up in a hearing world I have a clearer understanding of the distinction. Valente points out that “The ideological state apparatus sustains conditions of oppression against deaf children” (2011, p. 19). He speaks of what it was like growing up within this oppressive state: of the struggles and discrimination he faced as a child; of the teachers who punished him for attempting to learn sign language; of the kids who ridiculed him and took away his hearing aids; of the sense of predestined failure he was made to feel that led him to attempt suicide his first year in college. As he puts it, “For me, the term ‘deaf and dumb’ symbolizes moments in my life, both past and present, where I feel the overwhelming weight of internalized alienation, stigma, and failure” (2011, p. 67).
For Valente, the key to overcoming this feeling of despair came through words. As a child, Valente wore a cape and imagined himself as a superhero. The moment he made the realization that “words are power. Words are superpowers” (2011, p. 5), he gained a level of agency that he hadn’t before realized. Phonocentric society had attempted to deny him this agency, and Valente reveals that “Many minority culture members have struggled to gain access to and have been punished for a language and literacy that an oppressive majority society wanted to control. But often the lure of literacy is too much to resist” (2011, p. 37). He discovered that words can be used for resistance to the status quo.
He found this not only in discovering his own words through distinguishing the subtleties of difference between “bumped” and “crashed” (2011, p. 5), or between “fighting” and “self-defending” (2011, p. 119) but he also discovered the words of others. Though he had to fight for it along the way, he was able to make the academic world open itself to him, and throughout his book he references the works of writers such as Foucault, Butler, and Freire. He discovered that “theory is not something we should believe in but something we should use” (2011, pp. 125-126).
This strikes a particular chord in me, as I sit here writing my blog about how theory can be used in my own life as a teacher. I think about the path Valente took to come to this realization. On the positive end there was Mrs. Kappell, the teacher that stood by him throughout his elementary years and the one he could turn to for support when he needed it, even long after he was no longer her student. And on the negative end there were the IEP meetings that withheld information from him and told him that it was okay to be mediocre. But for Valente, “What hurt me so much from that meeting was that I wanted the chance to be smart, and not be just mediocre” (2011, p. 75).
I think back to my own experiences as I was attending college to become a teacher. I recall observing one parent-teacher conference in which a child was in tears because he was getting a C in math. The teacher attempted to reassure him that a C was a passing grade; that it was okay to be getting a C; that a C meant that he was a good student. The purpose of this was to boost the child’s self-esteem, but the child, like Valente, strove to be more than just a C-student. It wasn’t until the teacher went to the desk and pulled out the most recent homework assignment which hadn’t yet been returned, and showed the child that he had gotten an A on it, that the student looked as though he was trusting the words of the teacher once more.
When Valente had that pain of his own mediocrity revealed to him, he insisted on seeing his IEP file. It wasn’t until he had snuck into the location it was stored and looked at it himself that he was able to get a real sense of the areas in which he needed improvement. “I make notes on paper to myself: vocabulary, reading comprehension, writing conventions and more. This is the night I decide I want to be smart” (2011, p. 74). Building confidence is important, but teachers also need to be open and honest with our students about their capabilities in order for them to push themselves to succeed.
For Valente, it wasn’t his d/Deafness that was holding him back, it was the educational system itself. As he indicates, “Schools serve as sites of social formation and enculturation. Ideology is everywhere; it is embedded in our thoughts and our institutions” (2011, p. 96). So while I will continue learning and using ASL in my classroom, I must also remember that being d/Deaf is more than just speaking a different language, and that “Being Deaf means I belong to a culture, not a disability category” (2011, p. 143).
If you have a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended Reading page. Next month I will most likely be looking at Kathleen Bailey’s Learning about language assessment: Dilemmas, decisions, and directions (1998).
Bailey, K.M. (1998). Learning about language assessment: Dilemmas, decisions, and directions. Cambridge, MA: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.
Valente, J.M. (2011). d/Deaf and d/Dumb: A portrait of a deaf kid as a young superhero. New York, NY: Peter Lang.