You may have already learned that sign language isn’t universal, but it’s a common assumption to have. We think sign language as a brain app that clicks on when a human is running on deaf mode, as if deaf experience itself were universal. But the only thing universal about deafness, apart from not hearing, is the mystique that it carries for people who do. As such, deaf cultural studies do seem to focus on universals; either on customs born from their sensory experience or on their responses to hearing politics, i.e. the suppression of sign language education. Certainly sensory experience is pivotal and cultural violences are endured by deaf across the world, but these truisms point more to the simple physicality of deafness and the universality of hearing oppression (audism) than anything else. So when we peel away these common threads, what distinguishes the experiences of the deaf in different nations?
Maybe because widespread deaf-hearing interactions are only as old as the advent of legitimate interpreting, or because we have kept the deaf so busy dispelling our myths, the above question seems a hard one for the field of deaf studies to ask, let alone answer. With Deaf identity being impossible to extract from sign language development and human rights milestones, it’s compelling to wonder how, if we diverted our gaze from these common denominators, national modes of deaf identity could come into sharper focus. Based on my reading of its first chapter, Deaf in the USSR seems to lean in this angle.
In Russia, the 1917 revolution marked freedom from a tyrannical tsar and the beginning of the Soviet campaign, which promised a bright future to all who bought into the Soviet ideal. Among other things, this Soviet ideal imagined the most devoted citizens as those who were free to refine themselves through high culture and physical labor. This strict, obligatory give-and-take between the state and the masses would ensure a proletariat worthy of (in theory) ruling themselves. Ideologically fuzzy and generously plastered on visual propaganda, this was a social model that the deaf saw, understood, and wasted no time putting to use.
The deaf were uniquely empowered by the USSR’s badge of being a “worker’s state.” In this context they could ignore the old tug-of-war between deaf-culture (sign language) and hearing-culture (oral) education methods, and argue instead as Soviets in defense of work: sign language was a quick route to basic literacy and job orientation, whereas arduous speech training would delay entry into the workforce by six to seven years (Shaw, 39). Their defense of these new values was revolutionary, and as such aligned smoothly with an overarching sentimentality toward breaking free from imperialist strictures. Communism handed down a logic by which deaf activism was a nationalist concept rather than a question of human rights, and deaf autonomy could be seen as instrumental to the Communists’ collective success.
In this regard, deaf identity was equally informed by the USSR’s mission to become an “affirmative action empire.” while the state initially considered autonomous deaf organizations as a hindrance to their social integration, the deaf won the right to unionize by arguing that social integration for a linguistic minority like themselves would first require consolidation of their own developmental objectives (Shaw, 41). Only as a unified, independent body could they better standardize common needs (like communication accommodations in the workplace) and refine their own cultural pursuits. They had carefully studied the USSR’s “affirmative action” rhetoric concerning the integration of ethnic minorities like Kazakhs and Tajiks, which sought to privilege them with their own territories and native-language institutions. Language inclusion and tailor-made outreach, the USSR hoped, would render Soviet propaganda more intelligible and intimate to minorities across the board. The deaf recognized themselves as a minority nation within this framework and argued for autonomy using the same logic. Because the communist party pledged to fund minority nations’ pursuit of “maximum development” (Martin, 12), the deaf were able to sidestep the reductionist ways they were commonly perceived, bringing to the forefront more complex aspects of their community identity.
Lauding American Deaf organizations in the early 20th Century, the authors of a Place of their Own wrote, “The ubiquitousness of American deaf organizations is striking… [and] contrasts dramatically with the experience of deaf people in other nations, where historically most organizations were established for deaf people by hearing people” (Cleve and Crouch, 87). It appears they overlooked the USSR, where as early as 1920 the deaf were hijacking communism and internationalism to transform public understanding of social inclusion and minority identity. The Soviet deaf story is one far more personal than the universal revolt of “proving to the hearing we can do it.” So far, Deaf in the USSR pulls the reader into a distinctly Soviet watershed moment, politely offering a seat at the table of deaf negotiations on who they wanted to be and why.
Books titled Deaf in (insert country) tend to posit deafness as a line of defense against discrimination, with an obvious (universal) pursuit for their communities and language to be granted equal legitimacy in practice and under the law. Yet like any sociolinguistic minority, Deaf people practice self-actualization in dynamics unique to the places they live. If we seek to understand them on these deeper levels, we’re wasting time detailing their contempt of discrimination or the fact that they have their own language. These things are only useful to combat hearing misconceptions, and I don’t know about you, but I’m bored of seeing things from my own point of view.
Stay tuned for Chapter II, “Making the Deaf Soviet.”
Cleve, John and Crouch, Barry, 1989: A Place of their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America. Gallaudet University Press.