Review of the book, Children, Deafness, and Deaf Cultures in Popular Media by John Stephens & Vivian Yenika-Agbaw

Paula Thomas
Rowan University
New Jersey, USA
thomaspm@rowan.edu

 

Thomas, P. (2023). [Review of the book, Children, Deafness, and Deaf Cultures in Popular Media by John Stephens & Vivian Yenika-Agbaw]. University Press of Mississippi.

Representation in children’s literature is critically influential in the way that human diversity is portrayed. Consequently, children’s literature authors have a responsibility to genuinely represent characters based on true and factual experiences. However, both the absence and inaccurate portrayal of communities outside of hegemonic ideologies persists in children’s literature. The book, Children, Deafness, and Deaf Cultures in Media presents the argument that there are substantial deficits in how Deafness, specifically the representation of Deafness in children, and the Deaf community are depicted in children’s literature. In addition, the authors emphasize how these inaccuracies and misconceptions can underhandedly contribute to the perpetuation of ableism and “hearing-ness”, which can be harmful to the Deaf community. Hence, the authors call for appropriate depictions of Deafness by exposing previous works that have engaged in detrimental representations of it. Along with highlighting these negative representations, this book also includes works, both written and in the media, that accurately represent children in the Deaf community as a model for future works that include Deaf children.

Both coeditors are hearing individuals who bring interesting perspectives to the collection. Dr. Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, an African woman who became interested in disability studies due to her experiences with disabled family members, often saw how societal attitudes towards people with disabilities were displayed in the way people treated her sister. Yenika-Agbaw found true interest in doing research in deafness when her mother became deaf in one ear and chose to hide it from her children. As a professor of children’s and adolescent literature at Pennsylvania State University and an author of African youth literature, Yenika-Agbaw, chose to combine both interests and begin research on the representation of D/deaf children, their cultures, and communities. Coeditor, John Stephens is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of English at MacQuire University in Sydney, Australia. Stephens has taught and researched children’s literature for almost 30 years. He strongly believes that children’s literature studies should maintain its place in interdisciplinary spaces to lend itself to disrupting the “norm” on all levels.

This collection is organized into three parts over 15 chapters, beginning with an introduction that outlines the historical context of deafness as displayed in society, specifically in literature and media. Stephens and Yenika-Agbaw highlight how representations of deafness have either displayed stereotypes or misconceptions. Furthermore, the authors explore the various inaccuracies that have plagued people with deafness for many years. Along with written works and media from the United States, this book also offers global perspectives with written works and movies from Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Comprised of essays, narratives, and anecdotes, this collection is easy to read and accessible to the average reader who may have an interest in Deafness or in learning more about the Deaf community. While calling for immediate attention and warranting change for future representations, these works also provide examples that can function as a guide to accurately portray the Deaf community and deafness. The collection examines how representations have improved over time, even though depictions are still missing key components that show true, inclusive accounts of the Deaf community’s experiences. Particularly, the lived experiences of the Deaf community are either absent or unjustly represented.

Part one titled, “Narratives of D/deafness”, examines the print representations of D/deafness, or lack thereof. In this section, Stephens and Yenika-Agbaw critique current books and literature that portray Deaf characters, usually as secondary roles or in incompetent roles. Representing D/deaf characters in deficit-based roles may be unintentional; however, as the authors poignantly explain, these portrayals reify historically harmful positionings of D/deaf people as “unbalanced, disobedient, unable to speak for themselves, or dumb fools,” (Stephens & Yenika-Agbaw, 2023). In turn, these representations perpetuate concepts of “hearingness” and ableism, and position Deaf people as inferior. It is clearly detrimental to the Deaf community to depict them with such incompetencies, as readers and others in society may begin to treat Deaf people as if they were less-than-perfect individuals who have less to contribute to society because of their hearing condition (Eckert et al., 2013). In addition, such portrayals of Deaf people in media can lead to incorrect conclusions and lend itself to readers and viewers placing unnecessary limitations on people who are deaf.

In Part two, titled “Deaf Cultures in Visual Texts,” Stephens and Yenika-Agbaw explore the Deaf representations that are assembled through different types of systems that couple together with signed languages to give a broader understanding of Deafness through visual texts. This section addresses Deafness as it is portrayed in children’s books and media, highlighting the use of the narrator’s experience in a visual representation to help readers make connections throughout the reading. The relationship between author, children’s comic characters, and readers encourages the use of such a system to inspire reader engagement, proposing that by using visuals, readers are better able to make connections with narrators’ stories and are often more easily able to empathize with the characters. Stephens and Yenika-Agbaw argue that this may help to eradicate preconceived notions about people who are Deaf.

Furthermore, they emphasize how the use of visuals can capture the magnitude of an issue and can counteract dominant perspectives of hearing versus deaf people. They highlight that the use of visuals is important for the Deaf community as it helps to create safe spaces for Deaf people to be themselves and break away from the limitations placed by the hegemonic ideologies regarding this community.

Additionally, the authors examine how stigma can be a part of the cultural landscape through symbols and peculiar representation. The authors bring a different perspective into the book by reviewing how diverse cultures view and portray deafness in media and in literature. They also bring attention to the consequences of carefully portraying deafness in a specific culture in a manner that can help to preserve a rich, signed language specific to a group of indigenous people. The authors make a point of including this information to prove that the signed language should be appreciated and preserved, as it represents a large part of a specific group’s history and culture.

Part three, “Deafness and Cultural Difference,” investigates the intersectionality of being D/deaf and a child in society. Here, we see the parallels between D/deafness and people who are queer highlighted in media through Deaf narrators who share their experiences. Stephens and Yenika-Agbaw assert that intersectional aspects of D/deafness should be portrayed, recognized, and respected. They also address the use of multicultural tactics to bring awareness to American Sign Language (ASL) as a respected language. However, the portrayal of ASL glossing, a natural part of ASL displayed as a bridge between ASL and English can, in some ways, be seen as a disadvantage. Specifically, it displays Deaf people as illiterate and unintelligent (Stephens & Yenika-Agbaw, 2023) because the syntax of glossing lacks proper English grammar and syntax rules. This informal approach to communicating is ASL can be interpreted negatively, showing ASL as a language with no complexity or density. It further perpetuates the ideology that due to their simple language, Deaf people are not as intelligent as their hearing counterparts. Lastly, this section offers reasons why accurate representations are extremely imperative to the community and lays out the disadvantages associated with depicting Deafness erroneously.

One key point and a great strength of this collection is that it does not use strong language to critique the existing literature and media sources. Instead, it examines damaging flaws encompassed in representations and portrayals of the Deaf community. Another strength is that this collection is well-researched and well-organized. It offers solid historical context that provides the background of how Deafness has been perceived over time. Additionally, the authors seek out and present contributions from genuine, personal experiences from people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing. These authentic experiences and stories further promote the necessity of appropriately representing this group in literature and media. The collection concludes with a narrative of a Deaf scholar’s journey to success: from the diagnosis of a hearing loss to the attainment of her doctoral achievements. This selection also includes the contributions from people who are considered “outsiders but insiders” (Stephens & Yenika-Agbaw, 2023, p. 5). This class of advocates do not have physical deafness but are close to the Deaf community through experiences of being around people who are deaf. In addition, these cultural narratives contribute to illuminating the Deaf perspective as a linguistic minority (Charrow & Wilbur, 1975) and demanding space for them to be acknowledged and respected in literature and media representations.

Along with the strengths of the collection, it is important to note areas that could improve the collection’s argument and credibility. Qualitative stories and data are an imperative source of information that acknowledges and documents marginalized group’s reality and lived experiences. Quantitative data provides an element of validity and credibility to the support of accurate depictions of a group of people. Collecting and analyzing numerical data could add to the reality of how such inaccuracies could be affecting how hearing individuals perceive deafness. Yet, this written collection lacks the statistical data that would highlight the experiences of the Deaf community. The volume’s findings could have been strengthened by incorporating statistical evidence and percentages of hearing people that view deafness or deaf culture as inferior to that of their hearing counterparts based on questions of ability. Additionally, the collection has an overabundance of experiences and narratives shared from the Deaf community on how it is portrayed. Consequently, there is an element of repetition that could be avoided with fewer anecdotal stories and more statistical data. Having many people share their experiences proves the point that there is a persisting issue; however, having numerical data to support these findings would have been an asset to this collection.

All in all, this collection provides insight on the necessity of displaying strengths. Essentially, the authors argue that the breakdown of hegemonic ideologies and allowing for the Deaf community to break through the less-than-perfect beliefs imposed on them by their hearing counterparts would lead to a more accurate portrayal of the community. This community has a right to see their strengths portrayed in society and to be treated as just as capable of achievements as hearing people. Due to the great deal of history and varied experiences included, this collection is accessible to a wide range of readers. Furthermore, the collection, enriched with authentic experiences and personal narratives from D/deaf individuals, engages scholars, educators, parents, students, and others, offering valuable insights to a diverse audience. Ultimately, the collection may be most beneficial and engaging for children’s literature authors to use it as a model of what to include or exclude from their representations of Deaf children.

References

Charrow, V. R., & Wilbur, R. B. (1975). The Deaf Child as a Linguistic Minority. Theory Into Practice, 14(5), 353–359. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1475829

Eckert, R. C., & Rowley, A. J. (2013). Audism: A theory and practice of audiocentric privilege. Humanity & Society, 37(2), 101-130. https://doiorg.ezproxy.rowan.edu/10.1177/0160597613481731

Johnston, M. V., Ishida, A., Ishida, W. N., Matsushita, H. B., Nishimura, A., & Tsuji, (2009). Plasticity and injury in the developing brain. Brain & development, 31(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.braindev.2008.03.014

Author Bio

Paula Thomas is a Teacher of the Deaf and a Ph.D. student at Rowan University. Her research focus is centered on recording the lived experiences of the Deaf community, along with identifying and addressing the widespread issue of language deprivation in the Deaf/hard-of-hearing community.

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