Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2005, Volume 25, No. 2
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Oliva, Gina A. Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2004. 224 pages. $29.95, softcover 1-56368-300-8.

Reviewed by Zach Rossetti, Syracuse University

The strength of Gina Oliva's Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School comes in the many first-person narratives shared by the author and other d/Deaf and hard of hearing individuals throughout. These emotional and conflicting stories of social isolation, the immense desire to belong, and the joy of finding one's "people," linger long after putting down the book and reflect the complexity of the inclusion debate.

Oliva shares her own story of growing up as the only d/Deaf student included in hearing schools, schools commonly assumed to be and described as typical or normal. She complements her experiences and ideas with additional first-hand accounts of "the solitary mainstream experience" (20) by participants who similarly "can't hear too well" (20) in her Solitary Mainstream Project. Oliva conducted qualitative research in 2000 focused on how d/Deaf and hard of hearing adults with some time for reflection made meaning of their inclusive educational experiences in hearing schools. "Solitaires," 140 total, responded to questions about favorite and least favorite teachers and classmates, issues of disclosure and passing, social and academic experiences, and past and current social interactions with both d/Deaf or hard of hearing peers and hearing peers. Though the book lacks a strong theoretical framework and the writing style seems clumsy at times resulting in the feeling of Oliva "adding on" her experiences to those of the solitaires in her project, it is the collection of experiences themselves that will resonate long after readers put the book down. Ultimately, the book makes an important contribution to Deaf culture and Disability Studies and reflects the strengths of qualitative research by raising complex issues with the passionate voice of human experience.

Alone in the Mainstream is further distinguished as the inaugural work in Gallaudet University Press's "Deaf Lives" series "intended to feature contemporary autobiographies or biographies written by or about 'modern' deaf and hard of hearing people" (xi). After a foreword by series editor Brenda Jo Brueggemann and colleague Lauren Kelly, Oliva begins by introducing readers to her story and highlighting relevant issues and periods within the history of deaf education. The chapters then follow the traditional format of being based on the themes rooted in the questions described above. Oliva states her working premise early on: "...true inclusion for individual deaf children is a possibly unreachable ideal" (25). In so doing, she raises an issue central to deaf education but also reflective of the larger relationship between Deaf Culture and Disability Culture. Reading the turbulent personal experiences of being a solitaire, one may quickly agree with Oliva. But one of the strengths of the book, reflective of Oliva's thoughtfulness, is the presentation of many aspects of this complex situation: ableism in schools, the myth of normalcy, the dilemma of disclosure, and the tendency for academic successes but social isolation in inclusive settings. What Oliva does, in one sense, is to "out" inclusion in name only—the classes and schools that claim to be inclusive but result in the painful stories of being in but not with, of being an island in the mainstream. It is up to readers to continue this discussion and advocate for more effective and respectful education for all.

Central to this work is the idea of connectedness. Oliva and the solitaires in her project present a variety of experiences on the spectrum of being connected (or not) to friends and family, the hearing world, and the d/Deaf community. Inherent to these connections or lack thereof is the ongoing debate between signing and speaking as the primary form of communication in which choices of personal identification are often made. Oliva's story focuses on her relationship with her father who largely chose to ignore his deafness and embraced the hearing world. While much of this work can be read as Oliva talking back to her father, she presents a collective plea to ensure that current and future solitaires feel that they belong just as they are in all groups and communities to which they desire membership. To achieve this, Oliva stresses the importance of connectedness to combat the limitation of opportunities she and others experienced. Oliva's goal is to develop this connectedness through the role of knowledgeable adults as mentors to young solitaires with the goal of providing a positive example, unconditional support, and necessary information to individuals and their families. The book ends hopefully with an emphasis on high expectations, school and community inclusion, and the commonality of Deafness.