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Understanding Deaf Culture — In Search of Deafhood, Paddy Ladd: A Critical Review

Dale Mellor, January 2008.

Between the covers of this wieldy tome, there lurks a good book. The whole, however, is not good. It is the exposition of a set of interviews with Deaf people about the Deaf environment over the past 50 or so years, bracketed by some muddy ‘analysis’ which is supposed to make it all academically acceptable, and topped off by some of Paddy’s own ideals; it is permeated throughout by extreme self-consciousness manifested as amblings about its own integrity, summaries and summaries of summaries, statements of self-accomplishment (to which one often finds oneself asking, “Where?”) and lots of statements of intent which leave the reader dubious that they will ever convince (one has the impression of being ‘softened up’ for some controversial or extreme opinions to come).

The book’s biggest failing is simply that it is not easily accessible by those people who it might be hoped would read it. Those with a social science degree can regard it as a formal text, but I note below how a directed reading can provide a way in for all others (and this is highly recommended). Paddy’s writing style is not fluent, and his vocabulary, though evolved and specialized and unusual to readers who are not social scientists, is not expansive and consists of a large number of contrived multisyllablic words.

Before I go on with this review, I must undertake a self-conscious act myself and explain my own position, just as Paddy is at pains to do in his own work. I was deafened shortly after birth by a bout of measles, and have known a constant level of hearing loss all my life. I had hearing aids plugged in when I was quite young, and pursued a fully mainstream education. I consider myself in retrospect to have been completely defeated by Oralism, with no hope of recovery; I would have liked, being in this state of hard-of-hearing, to be today straddling two cultures equally, moving freely between them.

In contemplating the Deaf world, of which I have hitherto had zero exposure or knowledge, I find myself a spectator, wanting both to participate in and to help the Deaf cause. Just like a spectator at a football match, I find myself envious of those able to play on the field, and only able to contribute to the quality of the team in front of me in a small way through a microscopic contribution to the gate and through the almost futile expedient of cheering.

My own education took me into the hard sciences, specifically mathematical physics (pursued coincidentally at Paddy’s own Bristol University), culminating with a Ph.D. in theoretical statistics. Thus I am not versed in the methods or customs of social science, and oftentimes where I describe Paddy’s book as “muddy” I acknowledge may well be only my own limited perception of the science. I do believe, however, it is a fair reflection of much of the writing.

I am reading this book as the aforementioned spectator, mostly to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity as to what the Deaf world is. I am not a student of Deaf studies, nor do I consider myself a lay reader (though I am much closer to the latter than the former). I admit that a second reading is really warranted for me to get a full appreciation of this work and that this review is therefore something of a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction, but not being a student I have not the time nor patience. I do expect to follow this up with some more reading in the field.

Paddy throws around many collective nouns to describe the Deaf situation: ‘culture’, ‘world’, ‘community’, ‘nation’, ‘’hood’. In this review I use ‘world’ to refer in the most generic way possible to deaf people and the environment they live in, as distinct from the hearing world; however, it is definitely not meant to be taken in a ‘global’ sense.

It is not entirely clear how this book has been arrived at. It appears to be an expanded (or not) doctoral thesis (anyone who has read theses should already be nervous). As a thesis it is okay, as a popular book it is way too verbose (feels to me like 300,000 words) and in need of a strong editor (I was almost shocked to learn in reading one of the minor chapter footnotes that Paddy has an editor at all). Sections of the book are clearly an outright effort to write as many words on a subject as possible, whether they contribute usefully to the text or not.

It starts out very slowly, mostly giving out vague promises of what will transpire through the pages, where the reader often seems obliged to “take a moment to introspect.” The main thrust of this seems to be to say that this is not an academic work (which it is), but is intended as a popular work with the idea to get people of other minority cultures, and of deaf cultures in other nations, to draw parallels with the English experience, (it turns out to be more an effort to describe in academic terms what it is to be Deaf in England, for the benefit of anybody outside of the community).

There is then a sparse and fragmented history of deaf cultures, interspersed with some personal remarks of Paddy’s, some description of the mechanical political apparatus that currently ‘controls’ the contemporary Deaf world, and some muddy theoretical insights. The upshot of this is that at some choice moments in time there have been significant surges in Deaf popularity, these moments coinciding with times when a very important person or people come along who happen to be deaf, (the occasional king and a bunch of French aristocrats for example); the recent Deaf situation has been one of complete oppression by white male hearing heterosexual Christians. In fairness I’m not really doing justice to the amount of Paddy’s research here. He does seem to have covered most of the historical ground available to him, but it comes across as a recantation to himself rather than a re-presentation of any interest, (I can’t really judge the amount or quality of new material that Paddy has brought to the table for lack of knowledge of my own in this field).

In places the monologue becomes very personal to the author. Paddy talks extensively about his own experience of Deafness in the UK and in the USA through his time at Gallaudet.

Gaps in the book’s coverage are conspicuous; tantalising references are made to Deaftowns in former Communist countries, which I think many deaf people would love to learn more about — their effectiveness in cultivating Deaf communities or in isolating Deaf people from the rest of the world — but which are not discussed at all. Similarly remarks abound about government-funded Deaf activities in Sweden and Denmark, but these are not much discussed. This is, however, a book about English Deafness and so rightly concentrates itself in that arena.

There then follows two chapters of a rather inaccessible literature review, taken mainly from studies of other minority cultures (e.g. Native Americans and Black Americans). I am unable to judge the academic merit of this as it is not my area, but I am left with the overriding impression that Paddy doesn’t really know what he’s writing about — it looks like he has taken the most complicated words and phrases he can find, and has re-arranged them for effect. I’m sure Paddy fully deserves his Ph.D. (I’ve seen much worse), but I don’t regard it myself as a better example; I trust he was given a hard time in his viva over this literature review, which barely seems to provide support to the rest of the work.

It is a very tough reading constitution that makes it through to the halfway line, physically marked by the insertion of some photographic plates, the contents of which bear no correlation to the text other than an accidental common theme, and the reader will have long amused themselves with their perusal during frequent moments of distraction wrought by reading tedium.

It is humourous to read Paddy himself describing the book as akin to a long, arduous journey over hilly terrain. It seems a failing to be writing a book for volume production knowing that much of the readership is not going to make the journey to the end of the book, and very shallow to attempt to lighten the tone with a trite self-ridiculing sideline.

However, flicking past the photographic plates, the work takes on a bright new outlook. The writing voice changes from that of a forced academic tome into Paddy’s natural (though still forced) speaking voice, immediately rending the work accessible to all who are still here to read it. Paddy starts what he calls the ‘data’ section with a quite personal analysis of himself. This stands out mostly as a statement of intent to make the work impersonal and impartial, which one feels at the outset is fated to certain failure. The attempt is laudable, however.

Eventually, we reach chapter 7, where things actually start to happen. This and the next two chapters consist about fifty percent in substance of transcripts from interviews with Deaf people arranged in a very logical order to tell the story of Deafness, interspersed with explanation of the nature of the signed discourse and a running commentary on the proceedings. This gives the reader a true insight into the recent history of the Deaf world.

This is fascinating reading. It transpires that the deaf world exists in two halves: the Deaf are the working class types who are completely immersed, the ones who at school were the long-term boarders with no contact outside, and who in the clubs were the ordinary members with no say in direction or running, and who eventually left the clubs for the pubs and on to formal rebellion; the others are those who were equated with middle-classes (though I get the impression this is more in attitude than actual standing) who from school got to go home regularly at weekends, who in the clubs were favoured by the missionary controllers and had some say (albeit under an iron fist) about club management, who largely worked against the will of the Deaf. These latter set were influenced by the outside hearing world: their signing was more inhibited by the Victorian need to suppress extreme facial expression and outward show of emotion, the need to put on a front of normality in public. As in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, so it seems the middle classes considered themselves able to rule the Deaf, presumably to make up for their lack of real standing in the hearing world to which they obviously had some aspiration.

This is an eye-opener for me — I didn’t realize that class played such an important role, having previously percieved deafness to be a pervasive community binding force. It also seems to partly defeat some of the ideals that Paddy puts forward at the end of the book, that Deafness should be accessible to those who have been shut out by mainstreaming. Almost by definition it would seem, it is impossible for these people to achieve Deafness.

I admit to finding all this quite disappointing. I was hoping to find a community here which would be more welcoming of those with outside (hearing) contact, and would be more amenable to ideas of integration and cooperation with the hearing world. The book does not allow me to draw a conclusion as to whether this state of affairs has come about due to the Oralist movement and the ignorant actions of well-meaning hearing benefactors, or if it is a natural human response of a fully deaf person to the world in which they find themselves immersed. I’m inclined to think it’s the former, manifested in the awful Deaf grammar schools.

It is quite peculiar the way that Paddy tries to make anonymous the people feeding him information. While it is obvious that he is trying to put across the idea of a disparate and unbiased sample of Deaf people, one quickly gets the idea that he is, in fact, talking to some of his most politically significant comrades from the recent Deaf scene. Some of the views and viewpoints are so sharp that I expect the identities of most of the informants can be ascertained by people in the know.

There is then a muddy concluding chapter, which mixes academia with opinion, and includes such typical statements as “…it is inevitable that some will wish to understand where Deafhood stands in relation to Deaf culture. The simplest answer I can suggest at this historical moment is the setting up [of] a contrasting relationship which, if explored, might reveal deeper layers of meaning.” The mind boggles.

The last chapter is called the ‘Afterword’, and is in fact Paddy taking advantage of his platform to espouse his own opinions on what the Deaf world should be doing now. It contains some gems, such as, “The crucial issue is group communication for that is where cultures are learned and enacted. If a person can communicate in such a group in, say, English, then they are essentially English speakers. If a person cannot use that language in such groups, then their primary language, whether they realize it or not, is sign language.” In its truth that statement cuts a bee-line to my own jugular, and is a truth I never saw before, (I have as a direct consequence of reading this single line enrolled on a sign language course).

However, despite Paddy’s oft-repeated protestations that he has made his study totally objectively, there are rigid parameters which stand stubbornly against the achievement of this goal, most notably that Paddy seems unable to see the Deaf community as other than a lore unto itself in a vacuum, and takes the completely subjective view that parents are simply wrong to have their children fitted with cochlear implants, for example (I’m not myself arguing one way or the other here — though I will below — just pointing out that this work is not completely impartial).

Actually, given that the entire work revolves around information supplied only by Deaf people, this was always going to be biased in their favour.

On a personal level, I find some of Paddy’s frustrations with the British research grants system very familiar. Indeed, I left academia precisely because (despite appearances) this country has no appetite for proper long-term scientific research projects; it is all twelve-month to three-year stints based on random, discontinuous project selection made by broad-sweeping research councils with little apparent interest in science. Reading the book, it is annoying that you read oftentimes about limitations in the study due to lack of time or space or money. Such is academic life.

In fact, anybody with any connection to deafness at all will find their image reflected somewhere in the pages of this book, and through most of the work they will find themselves indulging in self-analysis. I have learned a lot about myself in reading this, and only now have come to see myself as a victim of Oralism (I would not have written my introductory paragraph above before I read this book). Thus overall, it is a positive eye-opening read. Of course, there are points with which an individual will find contention.

In my opinion, the biggest collective noun that can be applied to Deaf people is ‘community’. ’Nation’, ‘culture’ and ‘world’ are too big, and ‘Deafhood’ seems vapourous. It is the intrinsic goal of the book to prove that Deaf culture actually exists at all. However, the conclusion I draw from the book is that all the ‘culture’ Paddy extricates comes from the Oralist missioner period of maximum Deaf oppression (mostly the middle part of the 20th century — this is when the informers to the work were mostly in their prime); by Paddy’s own admission, deaf history before this time has been lost to modern day mainstreaming (modern Deaf were surprised to find how much in the olden days finger spelling was used!), and so the only ‘culture’ we are left with (as exacerbated by the only fractious history that Paddy was able to furnish) is the knowledge of what has happened in times of living memory and in the stories that can be recalled (accurately?) by those people. But this to me is the antithesis of culture — it is a statement that really the Deaf world we have today has existed no more than 150 years — a time in which culture was anyway discouraged by circumstances —, and that historical ages separate any other cultures there might have been. I thus see Deaf as a culture emerging in the new world of enlightenment, but I don’t see it as a long-standing culture in the historical sense, though attempts to re-connect with history are laudable and welcome.

As an aside, I find it curious that in all the Deaf world, nobody has ever tried to invent written sign. It is the stated next intention of the study to make the full interviews used as the study material in this work available on DVD. The thing is video is a clumsy medium for recording documentary reference material, compared with the relative convenience and efficiency of information retrieval from the written word. I am surprised that such likes as Egyptian hieroglyphs have not been passed down through the Deaf world (I bet ancient Egyptian deaf people did not have so much trouble as English deaf people to learn the majority-written word; I also regard this as more evidence that Deaf culture does not exist, that Deafness has not been passed continuously from generation to generation), leading to some form of modern written language that is natural to deaf people, (I wonder how modern Deaf Chinese get on?) In the modern age, I would have thought that such a thing was deemed necessary to compete with the hearing world, and if a new culture is indeed to be established I would have thought it best to start getting things onto paper, as old-fashioned as that may seem.

Paddy makes good suggestions about where Deafhood should go, but he remains in an isolationist frame of mind. He thinks the Deaf grammar schools should be resurrected as opposed to 95% of Deaf being mainstreamed in isolation (like myself), but I think a middle ground is wanted. My own feeling is that fully autonomous and self-contained Deaf schools should be founded _inside_ hearing schools: I think that the Deaf teaching resources of a region should be brought together under one roof so that a true Deaf community can form, but that community will be immersed in a hearing one. This will be to the betterment of both communities, and will eliminate the criminal isolation imposed on deaf individuals.

Paddy argues the case against cochlear implants that if hearing aids are so good, why would one want an implant? But the argument cuts both ways: if hearing aids are so good, why shouldn’t one go the extra step and have an implant? What Paddy dresses up as inconsistency in hearing arguments for the intervention of technology in deafness, reflects as just as much inconsistency in deaf arguments against it.

Paddy further tries to make the point that hearing parents of deaf children (from where 90% of deaf people originate) are fed disinformation by the medical authorities. What he fails to realize is that a) parents seek out all the information they can get, including from the deaf communities, with a view to making a balanced decision for themselves, and b) have an inate need to help their children to achieve the model of success they hold for themselves. This is just the same as Deaf parents of Deaf children and even some of those of hearing children. Paddy acknowledges that in the case of partially deaf children this leaves them in later life alone, (a word he never uses, preferring to refer to “non-interaction with society”). But he does not present any solutions, simply living in the belief that being a member of Deaf society solves all problems. But interaction with hearing society as well is what will bring the greater rewards.

We live at a time of unprecedented technological transition, with inventions such as mini-disc, WAP and the 900MHz Intel Pentium processor being thrown at us that have a useful lifetime of a small number of years followed by guaranteed obsolescence. It feels to me like the new Deaf resurgence is similarly transient; it serves well the wants of the Deaf today, but like all society things are inevitably going to move on to different planes where many of today’s problems become irrelevances and no doubt new issues (probably relatively insignificant) will surface. The concept of ‘Deaf’ is worth hanging on to while there are those, of choosing or otherwise, in the community, but if it disappears in the long term it should be regarded as a good thing. Eliminating Deafness from the world is not tantamount to holocaust, it is not the elimination of a set of people rather the elimination of needless relative isolation of individual souls. There is not, as Paddy’s book has demonstrated, a long connected history of Deafness whose cessation will mark the end of a chain of humanity.

A question which readily springs to mind is why has this book been printed at all? It is definitely in need of a good editor; if it were me I would take a chainsaw to this book: rip out the awful literature review, cut down 80% of the verbiage, and have a good deal of the rest that Paddy himself wrote rewritten.

Who would want to read the work? It is stated that researchers in other cultures/nations should use it, but they would be as well to pull the thesis directly if that were their intent. Lay readers might find the book interesting if only it were even slightly accessible. If Paddy wants to get politicians and philanthropists to see the damage done by Oralism, then we need a book with a much more direct impact. Then there are the social workers and communication support workers: I really can’t see them taking away much from this book (if they manage to read it), other than an indication of the full, dreadful effects of the Oralist century, and maybe a sense of the lonely deaf voice crying out for recognition which carries as the slightest undercurrent in the writing.

The irony is that the world could really do with a true popularisation of Paddy’s thesis, to graphically bring to public attention the magnitude of the damage that hearing people have inflicted on deaf lives for so very many years… we really need a Stephen Hawkins of Deaf studies! Hopefully one of Paddy’s students will come along and fill this role.

Because it is poorly written and presented I find it difficult to see that this book will ultimately stand as a cornerstone of Deafhood, or even that it will go any way to its promotion. Ultimately, the stated intention of the book to provide a spring-board for researchers in other disciplines to link-in to the Deaf research is to be its most likely accomplishment. I hope that students at Bristol and elsewhere are able to see the work as a gateway, will be able to create books of greater clarity which serve to really advertise the needs and aspirations of Deaf, provides a more uniformly understood continuum of Deaf history, and serve as leverage amongst politicians and philanthropists in getting the Deaf case known.

Ultimately, Deaf need philanthropists. We are too small a minority to find financial support within ourselves on a scale allowing parsimony with the hearing nation in which we are immersed.


If you have this book in your possession but have hitherto failed to appreciate it, or if you have access to a copy of a friend’s or in a library, then I would strongly suggest that you pull it down from the bookshelf right now and read chapters 7 to 9. Ironically enough, it is this part of the book that is written mostly by other people and not by Paddy Ladd. It is, however, not only enlightening, personal, and deeply insightful, but also entertaining. I think anybody connected with deafness should read these chapters, but I wouldn’t recommend the purchase of this volume just for that privilege.

That said, I expect almost any deaf person to make a personal journey in reading this book, and will surely learn something about themselves that they did not know before.

Aside — to make any headway with this, you had better have a notion of what a subaltern is, as the word is used relentlessly throughout, and while there is a formal definition buried somewhere in the meat of this tome, it is not clearly marked. Whereas most research is undertaken by people who consider themselves to be above their subject, a subaltern is one who is on, if not below, a level with it and therefore effectively a subject of his own study; as such a position is in fact a contradiction, Paddy describes himself as subaltern-elite, by which he means that he is a member of deaf working-class who has equipped himself with the skills for academic research as would in the past have been practised by the higher classes. I think I already made the point that the book is violently self-referential….

If, after these chapters, you want more, you can then read the Afterword on the understanding that it is Paddy’s singular opinions you are reading. Then you can read chapters 0 and 1, then maybe 2 and 3 as far as you are comfortable. Then skip to chapter 6. If you can stomach it and you want the full welly, chapters 4 and 5 will complete the reading effort. However, I wouldn’t recommend any of this further reading on a casual basis — you will need to make the effort (not to mention set aside the time).


Copyright © Dale Mellor 2008

This text may be freely copied in its entirety only, including this copyright message.


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Policy is to post all comments received, moderated and edited for correct English and relevance, and ordered according to the amount of consideration inherent in the comment. It is hoped that this will lead to a more approachable discussion of the issues involved than a more free-format web log.


21st February, 2008

Couldn’t help but agree with you on this…

Paddy makes good suggestions about where Deafhood should go, but he remains in an isolationist frame of mind. He thinks the Deaf grammar schools should be resurrected as opposed to 95% of Deaf being mainstreamed in isolation (like myself), but I think a middle ground is wanted. My own feeling is that fully autonomous and self-contained Deaf schools should be founded inside hearing schools: I think that the Deaf teaching resources of a region should be brought together under one roof so that a true Deaf community can form, but that community will be immersed in a hearing one. This will be to the betterment of both communities, and will eliminate the criminal isolation imposed on deaf individuals.

I was told I was going to Donaldson’s school for the deaf. But even back then I realised the isolation and restrictions it would have for me, having grown with only hearing peers. I refused point blank. They gave up and sent me to a mainstream high school, which was a nightmare for me, and left me with the opinion you quoted. I’d have loved to have both, to mix with deafened/deaf, HOH, etc, and hearing; to have an understanding and hopefully not be feeling so left out of both worlds. But even in my ignorance back then I knew deaf school wasn’t for me, it seemed to direct me into a very small world, and I wanted to see it all, experience both. Hope to hell they make this happen for future generations.

Anyway the review was a nice read and well put together Dale, though having reading your comments I ain’t getting the book!


22nd January, 2008

The review is a cracking read and I have enjoyed it very much; it gave some food for thought.

I am doing my own journey through the book on my blog, http://alltheyoungdudes.radio666fm.com, called Tales of the Deafhood.

Meanwhile, I intend to work my way through Paddy’s book… I am starting chapter 3 now.


13th February, 2008

This article is referred to and discussed at Fintan Ramblings.