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The development of the deaf community

Much like in other linguistic minority groups, sign language is not only regarded as a means of communication by its users but also as a symbol of social identity (cf. Grosjean 1982; Lane et al. 1996; Morales-Lopez et al. 2002). The symbolic value attributed to sign language lies at the centre of the concept of the deaf community as a linguistic minority group. Moreover, solidarity, based on the concept of attitudinal deafness ties a deaf community in a given country to the international or interregional deaf community (solidarity across national or regional boundaries, cf. Aarons & Akach 2002; Marschark et al. 2002; Morales-Lopez et al. 2002; Morales-Lopez 2005; Padden 1998a). This notion of perceived solidarity among the users of the language is not only central to the notion of the deaf community, on a par with other minority language communities; it also underlies the development toward the more global concept of Deafhood explained in section[1]

From a historical perspective, the development of deaf communities and their sign languages is related to the gatherings of deaf people in larger numbers (Ladd 2003: 90, among others). Unfortunately, relatively little is known about deaf communities prior to the establishment of the first schools at the end of the 18th century (section 1.3.2, Plaza-Pust 2016). However, historical records suggest that deaf individuals did not always live in isolation as they gathered with other deaf individuals owing to genetic or demographic factors.[2] Ladd (2003: 90) distinguishes the following scenarios (or, in his terms, ur-Deaf communities) prior to the establishment of deaf schools:

  • - isolated Deaf person, mostly in rural environments
  • - small numbers of deaf people in those environments (or higher proportions due to genetic factors), at times (when the proportion is high enough) hearing members of the community use forms of sign language
  • - gatherings of deaf people in larger, more urban communities
  • - gatherings of deaf people within specialised urban groupings (e.g. monasteries, royal courts).

Educational institutions (deaf residential schools) and social meeting points (deaf clubs) have formed the cornerstones of deaf communities in Western societies (Woll & Ladd 2003: 154; Ladd 2003; Padden 1998a) and also, in other social contexts as, for example, in China (Yang 2008). Sign language, deaf culture and historical traditions were passed on from one generation to another in schools and later maintained through social interactions, in particular, in deaf clubs (Padden & Humphries 2001, 2005; Lane et al. 1996). While schooling and social gathering points are equally important for the maintenance of other minority languages (Fishman 2004: 427), deaf schools and deaf clubs have been vital for the historical maintenance of sign language and the deaf community because of the circumstance that the “parent-to-offspring model” of language transmission (Mufwene 2001: 12) does not apply to the majority of deaf signers for whom exposure to and socialisation in the language occurs generally outside the family, at a later age (section

In the course of the last decades, however, seemingly contradictory processes have affected deaf communities (see, for example, Morales-Lopez 2008 and Gras 2008 for Spain; Johnston 2006 for Australia; Krausneker 2008 for Austria; Padden & Humphries 2005 for the USA). The traditional cornerstones of the deaf community, deaf clubs and deaf schools, have become vulnerable to socio-political and economic developments (Woll & Ladd 2003: 154; Padden 1998a). The last years have witnessed an increased social and economic mobility of deaf individuals;

also, the developments in the area information and communication technologies have influenced the life style and social behaviour of deaf individuals as of the late 20th century, providing new means and opportunities for communication and congregation. In a detailed account of these developments as they occurred in the USA, Padden and Humphries (2005: 87) conclude that “... Deaf clubs declined because of powerful shifts in Deaf people’s work lives leading to the growth of a Deaf middle class. The kinds of work Deaf people did changed between 1940 and 1980, and the shift affected the kinds of spaces they used and the ways they interacted with one another.” So, while traditional forms of gathering and socialisation disappear, new forms emerge, reflecting a new “ease of independent and self-motivated congregation” (Mitchell 2004: 213). As pointed out by Padden and Humphries (2005: 98) “the spaces have become fluid and symbolic”. While they remark that “today (...) these clubs are only a shadow of their past vitality” (Padden & Humphries 2005: 78), they also argue that “... much of the nostalgia of Deaf clubs is misplaced” (Padden & Humphries 2005: 96). Changes pertaining to an increasing urban segregation and the general trend, at the educational level, toward the preference of integration over segregation are similar to those observed for other linguistic minority groups (Romaine 2004). However, given that only a minority of deaf children are born to native signers the question arises as to the factors that might affect sign language transmission patterns, an issue that we elaborate in the next section.

  • [1] To mark the difference between the use of “deaf” to refer to hearing impairment, capitalised“Deaf” is used since the 1970s by those advocating the cultural identity of deaf individuals.
  • [2] As for the use of sign language, historical records also reflect a link between the use of thelanguage and the gathering of groups of deaf individuals. Ladd (2003: 91-92) observes that references to manual communication in the writings of those authors who express a positive attitudetoward it usually refer to deaf people as a group, whilst authors with a negative attitude woulddescribe deaf individuals with a focus on their isolation.
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