A Dialogue Between Two Subjects

(Excerpted from the Series, ‘Transgressing the Object’)


Alison L. Aubrecht & Ryan Commerson

Note from the authors: A word about transgressing the object - Inspiration for the title of this series comes from the works of bell hooks and Paulo Freire. Teaching to Transgress (bell hooks) offers stimulating perspectives about how engaged pedagogy invites students to become critical thinkers. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire presents the idea of “the object” and “the subject,” and ways that the oppressed are usually perceived as objects. In our case, the object would be “deaf.” As such, we investigate ways that focusing on deaf persons as objects ignores the subjective experience of individuals in the classroom. In exploring the liberating power of learning we must transgress the object, the box or bubble that is “the deaf.” 

In this series, we interrogate the validity and intent of “deaf education.” As Freire writes: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Dialogue: Experiences with oppression on a personal level:

Aubrecht (ALA): I think I was lucky. I don't remember ever at any time during my childhood and high school years believing that I was limited to a very small pool of jobs or even that I was destined to collect social security for the rest of my life. And I remember knowing that my options for colleges were wide open. I do remember being told there were things I "couldn't do." There were educators who told me I couldn't take specific classes, either because they did not feel I was capable of handling the material or because there were not enough interpreters available. 

Commerson (RC): I was relatively lucky too. I had very supportive parents who insisted that I be independent, to figure things out on my own, and they gave me the freedom to explore.  My frustration started at school when teachers told me that things would be difficult for me because I didn't speak very well. I remember when I was doing really well in mathematics class and wanted to take Algebra, my guidance counselor told me I couldn't because I was deaf, that it'd be too hard for me. My mom often went to school to fight for me. She demanded that I be taken out of the "hearing impaired" classrooms and put in all-hearing classes. Then I had a 10-year old classmate who volunteered to be my interpreter. 

ALA: Parents are so important, yeah. My mom pushed hard for me as well, tried everything she knew to make sure that I had equal access to education. There were times, though, when other values got in the way. It was difficult to explain to my family why I felt I could not abide by certain substandard expectations of me or agree to accept limitations that were imposed on my being in the educational atmosphere when they were insistent that authority be respected at all times (teacher knows best). One of my biggest “buttons” has to do with always being evaluated, always being compared to some “hearing counterpart.” Tested, evaluated, having goals set for me. Decisions made for me, about me. About my future. It was difficult to accept this when I existed in an environment where what I saw contradicted with what I was being told in meetings. And yet my hearing peers didn’t appear to have to go through the same level of rigorous evaluation that I was subjected to year after year. And when I wasn’t busy working on living up to expectations I was being told that I was “special.” It was either not good enough or some kind of weird, twilight-zone, eerie glow of uniqueness that had nothing to do with who I was as a human being.

RC:  Special!  Special!  If I had ten cents for every time I'd been told this, I'd be a millionaire by now.  Yes, my parents consistently expected me to respect adults - teachers, counselors, psychologists, etc. I'd go home and complain about them, eventually, slowly, they'd give me the benefit of doubt but I still had to deal with certain Dr. Knappys or Dr. Klismans who'd give me a look that would suggest that I'm beneath them. They exerted an amazing amount of energy to ensure that we, students, knew that we’d never amount to anything. So often, the Knappy/Klisman duo would tell me, "You're so smart for a deaf kid!" Deep inside, I knew it wasn't a compliment.

ALA: Oh yeah. That. “For a deaf kid.” I hated that line, too. All those tests were horrible. Audiograms. Psychological assessments (IQ). SAT tests. Felt like a lab rat. And you notice how we never really could get a clear answer as to why those tests were necessary? I tried to resist a few times (SAT testing, particularly) but was always forced in the end to take them.

RC: *shaking head* They were a constant reminder that I'll never measure up, that I'll always have to work twice as hard, pretend till it hurts to appear "normal".  I remember when I took an IQ test, a deaf psychologist told me that I was smart enough to enroll at Gallaudet University at the age of 13. I remember being so excited at the prospect, but, of course, my parents said "NO!" 

ALA: *nods* it always felt like we had to prove that we were "as good as." So busy working to prove that we deserved to be there, that it didn't leave much room for passion for learning. I often butted heads with service providers (teachers and interpreters) during my school years. Like everyone else, I have all kinds of stories. One that sticks out at the moment – we (students) did not like interpreters being asked to give feedback during our IEP meetings. We felt that this was an invasion of our privacy and that interpreters should -- in their role-- remain neutral. They were there to facilitate communication, not to supervise us, you know? And if feedback was needed about our classroom performance, the classroom teacher should be asked. But anyway, one of the interpreters became furious with us for making the request that they not be allowed to give input. She yelled at us-- went on this rant about how she has a right to give feedback and how she is qualified to do so. It was a bit jaw dropping to be honest, in part because this was one of the "cool" interpreters. Kind of one of those “mask of benevolence” moments, and she was unmasked. It was a moment of deep betrayal, a wound that would become bigger and bigger until I learned to be wary of any and all professionals.

RC: I've never had an interpreter blow up at me. I've had interpreters who'd act as my supervisor.  Well, actually, they'd act as if they're my mother.  They would tell me to do my homework, to stop teasing my peers... and worse, I have had interpreters who were considered "cool" and the problem was, they were so cool that they'd interact with my peers, befriend them, joke around with them...while leaving me in the dark.  I couldn't participate in the classes because the interpreters would stop interpreting and be one of the "kids." 

ALA: *nods* I've seen that too, where interpreters socialize with students (and others) but don't sign at all. So much for inclusion. I always felt on the outside of everything, in every class, at every school I went to. I was always highly conscious of the fact that I was placed in a very specific "box" -- disabled kid, check. It was like I knew I was in this weird place and didn't know how to get out of it. You always hear about how language/hearing separates people. That was never my experience. All I ever saw was people making a choice to steer clear of "the box" that they assumed I was in, as if they'd be contaminated somehow. And all along, I'm standing there, watching-- seeing that whole process happen with complete clarity. And the worst part was I could also see that part of them that was convinced that I wouldn't know the difference anyway. But I always knew.

RC: Yep.. same.  I had interpreters for all my classes for about 6 years and the experience was always the same in every class, every year ... missing out on a lot of information.  So much gets lost through translation.  Sitting there watching an interpreter all day took a toll…sapped me of energy, made my brain very tired.  Whenever I raised my hand, I was usually filled with trepidation, with the knowledge that chances were my answers or questions would be misinterpreted, leaving me looking really dumb, feeling embarrassed. I couldn't win.  If I didn't raise my hand, I’d lose points for "lack of participation," but when I did, I ended up looking like a bumbling idiot.

ALA: It was definitely a chore to access educational material and classroom discussion. A lot of filtering had to happen on our part, especially when the English-ASL translation was not accurate. And that was when we did have interpreters present. It became such an unpleasant task that I lost all passion for learning. I wasn't a good student at all. As much as I cringe to admit it, I even started to ride on that "helplessness" tailcoat to get out of doing things-- that was the colonized part of me reclaiming control in ways that would eventually harm me. The first time I ever felt a spark-- a flood of joy in the educational environment happened the first weekend I visited Minnesota State Academy. I attended one of the athletic events and was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of input of information around me. I could access everything-- no matter where I turned my head.  I was able to participate in cheers, instead of waiting for someone to tell me what was going on and then nod with a smile after the moment had already passed (and that’s what much of my childhood was like: a summary of moments that have already passed).

RC: Ugh… thinking about this suddenly makes me tired.  Colonization. Took years of debating, confrontations, speaking up, wresting away the hands of oppressors from my body to finally be on path of self-actualization, to become de-colonized. Looking back, I don't know how I did it.  When mountaineers climb Mt. Everest, they report how difficult it was to breathe at 26,000 feet – that the air was so thin, like breathing through a coffee straw for every two steps taken... That's the amount of information I had access to while growing up and I didn't realize it until I went to a federally-funded high school in Washington, DC.  By then, I had subconsciously learned that "hearing" means better, so whenever deaf staff told me something, I'd automatically double check with hearing staff  just to be sure, assuming they were more knowledgeable. 

ALA: Yes. It is one of those shameful memories, knowing that we were once in a place where we felt that Deaf adults were “less than” hearing adults.

RC: So, upon entering a deaf high school, I finally met deaf peers who were smarter than me. Like you, I was finally free and I'd exhaustively chat with new friends all night long in desperate effort to make up for the lost years. I had to learn social cues, the intricate art of connecting with people such as turn taking, listening, attending, when to tell a joke, when it isn't appropriate to say this or that...the kind of stuff that all children naturally learn through socialization.  After few months at the deaf high school, I began to see the truth of my initial liberation.  If I thought I was colonized before, the experiences at the deaf school were far more insidious.

ALA: Our liberation is frequently challenged, smothered. When I was really young it was always a scold about how I was being disrespectful. As I got older and continued to resist the comments turned into "be patient" and "change takes time," or "we're trying our best" and "things are better than they were before." Now, though, most of the time it's "don't rock the boat" or "be careful, you might burn bridges." You're right, though-- it is far more difficult to hang onto ground in that battle for liberation and decolonization in supposedly secure spaces, like Deaf spaces, where oppression is far more insidious. 

RC:  Insidious, because many of us don’t recognize what is happening to us until much later, if ever.  It’s the small things like this:  I’d been asked repeatedly to take off my hat in school (typical teenager), I’d end up in the assistant principal’s (deaf) office where she’d berate me: “You need to watch your attitude and obey the rules or you won’t succeed in the hearing world.”  This assistant principal was deaf. On one hand, I felt connected to her (despite being a bratty 15 year old). She was affirming our place in society. This is the “hearing world”.  The underlying message was that, no matter what happens, I’ll never be on an equal footing, ever. It wasn’t until years later that I understood that the deaf staff, teachers, administrators were just as marginalized and colonized as I was. 

ALA: I’ve often noticed that when comparing public schools with residential schools, we often comment that public schools provide good educational opportunities and residential schools provide good social opportunities.

RC: Yeah. The residential school I went to… students who attended public school for a few classes would always say, “I’m taking this and that at the nearby public school…More advanced than name of school.”

ALA: Ouch. You know, my experience at Gallaudet, was that certain classes (i.e. honors) or consortium classes were thought to be more advanced (mostly because of the strong focus on English literacy). Looking back I remember thinking that ASL-based literacy was “too easy.” Now, I know better—it was easy because it is supposed to be when you have complete, unrestricted access to language. That’s when you can move into higher levels of intellectual reasoning and dialogue—when you are not impeded by language struggles.

RC: It certainly didn’t help when the majority of teachers are hearing with substandard sign language skills and an attitude that English skills are more important. There was one class at my high school--Earth System Science. We’d connect with other schools via online chats, and we were always cognizant of the fact that we were working with hearing students. We were constantly questioning the appearance of intelligence through language, and felt the need to show that we were as good as them.  We had a group project where three students worked together and we had one student in our group who was comfortable with written English.  We each had to write a paper and agreed that this particular student would put them together as one. Later, we found out that she had re-written all of our papers.  I went to the teacher to demand that she not be allowed to do that and wanted to know my real grade. The teacher downplayed what this student did, made it seem as if it was ok to do that. 

ALA: No matter which school we attended—our experiences are the same: limited access to education and constant exposure to a medico-pedagogy, which continues to teach us that we are less: less capable, less qualified, less human.

For the full series, go to: http://www.facundoelement.com/articles/Butterfly_Effect_Series/TO1.html


bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

Freire, Paulo (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Ladd, Paddy (2003). Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood

Lane, Halan (1999). The Mask of Benevolence

Nover, S. (1995). Politics and language: American Sign Language and English in deaf education. VOLUME 152, NO. 3, 2007 AMERICAN ANNALS OF THE DEAF

Simms, L. & Thumann, and H. (2009) Minority Education and Identity:  Who Decides for Us, the Deaf People? In Ayers, W., Quinn, T., & Stovall, D. (Ed) .The Handbook of Social Justice in Education. Erlbaum Publications, Mahwah, NJ.

Simms, L., Rusher, M., Andrews, J., & Coryell, Judy (2008) Apartheid in Deaf Education:

Examining Workforce Diversity.  Accepted for publication by the American Annals of the Deaf, Fall Edition.

Simms, L. & Thumann, H (2007). In Search of a new Linguistically and Culturally Sensitive Paradigm in Deaf Education. Accepted for publication by the American Annals of the Deaf, Summer Edition.

About Facundo Element:

Facundo Element is an organization that actively works to remove oppression and misrepresentation of Deaf people through the means of mass media and non-violent activism. We stand by the transformative power of sign language. Much of our work involves dialogues, workshops, film production, and community organizing.

About Aubrecht & Commerson:

Alison L. Aubrecht, M.A. is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor who resides in Minnesota; she has worked as a mental health therapist in schools and communities since 2003. Aubrecht is a published author; her work has appeared in Deaf American Poetry (Clark, 2009). She works as a full-time social activist for Facundo Element.

Ryan K. Commerson, M.A. is a professional filmmaker with several projects under his belt, including the widely acclaimed film, Gallaudet. His Master’s degree is in Deaf Studies with a specialization in cultural studies. Commerson resides in Colorado, where he recently founded his own non-profit organization, Facundo Element.

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