King Jordan, former President of Gallaudet University, once said, "There are many ways to be deaf. " His statement could not reflect more appropriately Irene W. Leigh's book, A Lens on Deaf Identities. Leigh's work discusses not only the wide range and complexity of what it means to be deaf today, but it also provides what I consider to be the most comprehensive research available on d/Deaf identities. The "lens" by which Leigh asks us to examine deaf identities illustrates not only the breadth of the subject, but also its depth and complexity. She states, "Alienation, affiliation, language, communication, hearing and deaf environment all interplay in structuring individual perception of deaf identities" (37). Within this framework of macrosocial context and individual self-perception, Leigh demonstrates how constructs of both societal and individual identities are closely tied with social policy and personal ideology.

In her introduction, Leigh defines identity as "a complex and developing cognitive and social construction encompassing an array of characteristics or identity components that connect the person to specific social groups" (4). She states that it is human nature to want to label or categorize others in order to differentiate groups ("other versus us"). Her critique is that disability from a medical and hearing audist 1 point of view often ignores the dynamic process of "identity evolution" and misses the different ways that a person can be hard-of-hearing or d/Deaf, instead of providing insight. Such limited perceptions of what it means to be "deaf" can often lead to cognitive simplification and distortion, especially when we try to put a label on one's social/personal identification. Leigh says, "Labels themselves are based on an amalgam of interactions between one's motives, expectations, knowledge, and reality related to the meaning of label" (9). For example, "we may assume that a person who is labeled hard-of-hearing to be forever on the margin, unable to assimilate into a hearing or Deaf group" (9). The problem with this assumption is that the "hard-of-hearing label is not that clear-cut due to the presence of different ways of being hard-of-hearing" (9). Also, those "who select their labels and those who label themselves may perceive the criteria for each label differently. Consequently, to provide generally acceptable definitions of deaf-related labels can become a futile task" (9) and "can change over time" (11). This concept ties back to the earlier idea that there's more than one way to be deaf or hard-of-hearing; labeling can only lead to distortions and misunderstandings. While it is human nature to want to label, Leigh effectively shows that there is a need to step back and recognize that labeling is only skin deep. To look beyond is to recognize that deaf identities not only exhibit variability between individuals, but even within the same person they are fluid and constantly changing.

Leigh segues into this idea of "variability" by suggesting that we need to move from the singular to the plural when thinking about our identities, their permutations, and their interactive effects (22). She offers several examples of this variability. In her analysis of Tom Humphries's study on the "modern deaf self" and why we need to add the "Deaf Culture" label instead of being comfortable with terms like the "deaf community," Leigh explains that Humphries is more concerned with how Deaf culture defines itself (that is, being centered in wellness and a nondisabled self-schema) rather than being defined by hearing observers. She also points to Paddy Ladd, who argues for examining Deaf culture forums as a way to explore the multiplicity and "exclusionary boundaries that implicitly oppress those who appear not to meet specific Deaf criteria while simultaneously scrutinizing which aspects of essential Deaf identity constitutes Deafhood" (19). As another case in point, Leigh relates the experience of another deaf individual named Karen who was hearing, became hard of hearing, and then deaf. She learned to sign and to code-switch between various groups: hearing, hard-of-hearing (HOH), and Deaf. In terms of her identity, Karen feels that she is "Karen" first and that the rest should fall into place. Lastly, Leigh adds Brenda Jo Brueggemann's discussion about her identity as a betweenity (i.e., like an Oreo creme filling) that reinforces the idea of multiple d/Deaf identities (21). These various scholars reveal and validate not only the complexity of d/Deaf identities, but also their fluidity.

This fluidity of identities is emphasized in Chapter 3. In discussing "Beyond Category: the Complexities of Deaf-Hearing Identity," Leigh addresses the dangers of assuming that a specific deaf identity explains a person. The various terms—hearing, late deafened, culturally Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deaf—do not exist as sole entities. Each labeled identity is colored by life experiences when stimulated by specific situations. For instance, religion, stage of life, status, nationality, sexual orientation, and more, will influence both the way the deaf person is perceived and also how he or she sees his/her identity. Even within a particular labeled identity, there are complexities.

One of Leigh's most interesting examples is her depiction of the vagueness in hard-of-hearing identities, which she earlier described as the tension between emic (insider's view) and etic (outsider's view) constructions. She describes three different hard-of-hearing individuals and their views of their identities compared with their social environments. For instance, Brueggemann, who is hard-of-hearing, was asked if she was hearing or deaf upon arriving at Gallaudet University. Not knowing how to reply, she answered "hard of hearing." As she describes this scenario, her answer called for "a foul from the umpire" because of the negative label by which the Deaf Gallaudet students then viewed her "hard-of-hearingness." It had a negative meaning because it presented her as someone who "thinks hearing" despite her hearing loss. Conversely, for the hearing population, "hard-of-hearing" had positive connotations because it meant she has some hearing. As Brueggemann puts it, she achieved a sense that she was neither Deaf nor hearing but sort of stuck in between. In a contrasting example, Susan Searle and her husband decided to label their children as Deaf to avoid marginality in the Deaf community despite audiograms diagnosing them as "hard-of-hearing." Bernard Hurwitz, who is hard-of-hearing, proclaims that his identity depends on whom he is with. He is "hearing" when he is at work with his colleagues and "Deaf" with his Deaf wife and Deaf social circle (61). In presenting these examples, Leigh effectively demonstrates how d/Deaf identities are not only fluid, but can also be fraught with conflict due to what different behaviors d/Deaf individuals will employ to work with, or avoid, marginality.

In exploring how deaf individuals internalize their normative or stigmatized identity, Leigh discusses the roles of family and school in creating or modifying deaf identities, and argues that it begins with the family. How a parent attributes meaning to having a "different" child will present their message to that child. Since 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, this influence is crucial because the "benefit of multigenerational sameness is absent for deaf and hard-of-hearing children with hearing parents" (68). Leigh rightly points out that "stating that parents need to accept the deaf or hard-of-hearing child is an overly simplistic mantra without clear-cut operational description of how acceptance is manifested throughout various family life events" (67). Rather, it depends on how families experience the hearing differences and the child's individual characteristics such as temperament, cognitive abilities, personality, communication responsiveness, etc. (68). Drawing on Davidson (1996), Leigh describes how teachers and peers provide "opportunities for nurturing, shaping or resisting the identities students bring with them from home and community setting" (73). While she is careful to mention that every deaf individual's educational experience is different, Leigh elucidates that the majority of deaf students' involvement in mainstreamed academic settings have shown to be educational yet emotionally painful. Even when extensive support is provided in inclusion settings, the deaf students often experience some degree of isolation, bullying, and lower levels of self-esteem (78-82). The nature of families and school influence "varies depending on a multiplicity of complex variables related to individual characteristics and environmental factors" (85). In other words, there is no way to pin down specific influences.

Chapter 6, "Stigma, Resilience, and Deaf Identities," is my favorite simply because Leigh discusses what I call the heart of d/Deaf identity—that is, what d/Deaf people face on a daily basis: the environmental barriers, the ignorance, the inability of society to recognize strengths in view of communication and linguistic mismatches, stereotyping, stigma, discrimination, prejudice, oppression and more. Mainstream society still perceives deaf people as "different." She writes, "To be different in ways that do not fit society's expectations of acceptability, to be part of a minority group, to communicate in a unique way, often generates negative reactions. Those experiences will shape how individuals feel about being deaf and how they determine their deaf or hard-of-hearing identities" (105). Many mainstream hearing people are blind to their inequitable treatment of deaf individuals while harboring stereotypical and limited expectations about what deaf people can or cannot do. It can manifest in many ways, from simply calling a departmental major "Communication Disorders" (many deaf people do not consider themselves communication disordered!), to sharing with a friend, "Isn't it wonderful that she has a hearing roommate?" (which implies that having a deaf roommate is inferior), to the more complex issue of telling a "deaf professional that the payment for the use of sign language interpreters during a professional conference went against policy because his communication difficulties were his problem" (107-121).

Applying Corrigan (2004) to her discussion of these various levels of stigmata, Leigh brings forth the concept of "discredited identity," which can be described as a public stigma or a self-stigma. This concept of "discredited identity" is important because if the public endorses a negative-stereotyped group attribute, a deaf or hard-of-hearing person can become the "disability itself" and therefore derided or devalued by society. If the mainstreamed person cannot see past the deaf person's disability and see him/her as a person, the deaf or hard-of-hearing person may be infused with shame. This self-stigma, especially if he/she believes it, furthers a lack of self-esteem, isolation, self-efficacy problems, and psychological pain. In turn, this stigmatization may lead some deaf individuals to resort to secrecy and to find ways to "pass" as something other than deaf in order to become more accepted in mainstream society. Stigma has dire consequences, particularly if it is cloaked in oppressive practices and discourse of ableism and audism. Consequently, language can become a means of control. When a hearing person, for example, uses simplified language when talking with a deaf person, the act is patronizing. These types of situations can bring on what Leigh calls "the issues of justification" because they play a role in ongoing stigmatization, audism, and oppression. Deaf people who are unable to respond to spoken language are blamed for their inability to communicate and compensate sufficiently. As a result, their "marginality is expected" (in other words, justified) (118). Similarly, Deaf community members may ostracize Deaf outsiders for mingling with hearing non-signers. These examples portray the rich variations in which identity issues may manifest themselves due to stigmatization and oppression, both in the hearing and Deaf worlds.

The depth in which Leigh discusses d/Deaf identity goes far beyond this review. Suffice it to say that educators, researchers, students, and any curious soul who wants to learn about the far-reaching complexities of what is involved in d/Deaf identities should read this book. The sheer volume of her research demonstrates that deaf identity cannot be labeled as a medical/auditory issue but rather is one that is far more complex, varied and even conflicted. Instead of placing the burden of deafness on d/Deaf individuals, Leigh's insightful book reveals that the responsibility must be squarely placed on the shoulders of society as a whole.


  • Davidson, A. (1996). Making and molding identity in schools. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
  • Corrigan, P. (2004). How stigma interferes with mental health care. American Psychologist, 59, 614-25.


  1. Audist is defined as a negative or oppressive attitude towards deaf and hard-of-hearing people.
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Copyright (c) 2012 Kristen Laubscher Johnson

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