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A central concept that is used in the literature to describe power and the processes through which people gain control over their lives, achieve their goals, and have more opportunities to make choices is that of empowerment (de Clerck 2007: 12 ff). The notion implies that group members themselves re-distribute power and knowledge (between themselves and the dominant group), which hints at the central role of access to information and the possibility to exert influence as a group. For deaf individuals with an oral education background, contact with the signing deaf community usually marks a turning point in their life, raising deaf awareness, which is often expressed in metaphorical terms such as “deaf awakening” (de Clerck 2007: 6). Notice that the notion contrasts with the “sleeping” metaphor used by Flemish deaf people to refer to the time prior to their awakening, in which there was no deaf rhetoric (reference to deaf culture, identity, etc.), that is, the counter-rhetoric to the oralist one (de Clerck 2007: 9, 11).

In her discussion of the international empowerment of the deaf communities toward the end of the 20th century, De Clerck (2007: 16) emphasises the relevance of networking with empowered deaf peers and visits to “culturally strong deaf sites”, such as Gallaudet University (USA), the Centre for Deaf Studies in Bristol (UK), and deaf federations in the Nordic countries. This author highlights also the relevance of “advocacy and information sharing ... [to] inform the majority society about deaf ways of life.” De Clerck’s discussion of the steps leading to the empowerment of deaf individuals in Flanders is instructive as to the role of knowledge sharing within the group and contacts at the international level. Based on the evidence obtained in a study on deaf individuals in Flanders, de Clerck (2007: 8) distinguishes the following phases and factors determining individual pathways: [1]

  • [1] early 1990s - participation in deaf awareness courses - contact with empowered deaf individuals - visits to ideal deaf places or “deaf worlds” 2. mid 1990s - information of sign language researchers (received by deaf leaders) 3. second half1990s until today - community empowers its members through deaf activism and collaboration The author discusses the impact of journeys abroad during the first phase, inwhich deaf individuals learned about bilingual education (in particular, inDenmark), the use of sign language on campus (at Gallaudet University), severaltypes of interest groups organisations (e.g. associations of parents of deaf children) and participation in decision making processes. Interestingly, De Clerckremarks on the interviewees use of the notion of “dream worlds” to refer to theplaces they felt to be barrier-free or less oppressive than their reality in Belgium.Against the backdrop of the developments depicted we can conclude withMonaghan (2003: 21) that “nationalism, therefore, may lead to the founding ofdeaf communities, but internationalism plays a larger role in the empowering ofcommunities.”
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