Susan Burch and Alison Kafer's Deaf and Disability Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives brings together a series of essays depicting the intersections and divergences between the fields of Deaf Studies and Disability Studies. The fourteen interdisciplinary essays in this collection take a variety of approaches, ranging from narrative to critical race studies to anthropology. The book is organized around three themes: "Identities and Locations," "Alliances and Activism," and "Boundaries and Overlaps."1 Each section examines the complexity, uneasy tension and alliances that underscore the linkage of Deaf and Disability Studies.

As Burch and Kafer write, "Part of our hope with this collection is to highlight moments where these divisions have broken down or proven illusory—where scholars in one field have drawn on insights from the other, for example, or where activists have articulated the need for deaf/disability alliances" (xvii). The field of Deaf Studies traditionally presents deaf culture as a cultural community neatly fitting into the dichotomy of D/deaf identities.2 The Deaf cultural identity is often set as a counterpoint against the medical model of the deaf people. Meanwhile, scholars in Disability Studies, according to Burch and Kafer, have often neglected to incorporate Deaf Studies perspectives. This occurs most prominently in cases where language plays a role in the effects of hearing people as a privileged class that has created a perceived hierarchical relationship. However, Burch and Kafer also note similarities in theoretical standpoints of Deaf and Disability Studies: for example, both fields aim to remove pathologization of impairments through the use of political activism and the social model of identity construction.

The first section, "Identities and Locations," explores the idea of a D/deaf identity as it is constructed across various geographical and historical settings. Disability Studies usually discusses the social models of identity construction based upon how the body performs to meet socio-economic factors in industrial or agrarian societies. However, the question that has yet to be examined is whether Deaf cultural identity represents something that could only be afforded by privileged countries. This raises questions about the role of economic factors and cultural environment that contribute to the dichotomy of Deaf and disability identities. In Khadijat Rashid's "Intersecting Reflections," for example, her own narrative experience as a deaf person from Nigeria conveys that in developing countries, "it simply has not been possible to fully separate disability from culture, or culture from disability" (26). And, Rashid adds, "I don't view these identities and conditions as in conflict with one another: Being deaf is a disability and, because of language issues, it is a culture at the same time" (26). Another political perspective comes from Lakshmi Fjord's anthropology fieldwork in Denmark and the United States, "Contested Signs," which shows that disability and cultural identity can co-exist with national identity. In Fjord's article, medical and educational institutions promote Denmark Sign Language, and cochlear implants, along with multi-modal approaches, are actually a means of integrating into the Danish cultural identity. But in America, Fjord maintains, medical and educational institutions are competing for Deaf and disability identities as a capitalist commodity rather than a national identity. In her fieldwork, audiologists who "interpreted" neurological studies of American Sign Language users and their cognitive predisposition to language use are in direct competition with spoken English language counterparts for "neurological territory" (69). Fjord presents an interesting point, here: by using the phrase "neurological territory," she indicates that it is the brain that is transformed into the site of identity construction, rather than the decibel levels perceived by the deaf person. The very idea that the shaping of identity originates from the merging, competing ideologies, technology and capitalism will provide rich potential for expanding research in Deaf Studies and Disability Studies.

The need for research in the blurring of identities and worlds is taken up in "Deaf Matters," by Kristen Harmon, which gives insight to the sensory experiences of a deaf person in different contexts of the "hearing world." Tavian Robinson's "'We Are of a Different Class'" uses social history research to show how deaf people in the hearing world during the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century incorporated ableist ideology to equate themselves to their hearing counterparts. Michele Friedner's "Focus on Which (Deaf) Space?" describes her ethnographic research into a social organization for Deaf women in India. Friedner shows how the members of the Delhi Foundation of Deaf Women (DFDW) "travel between [the] domestic sphere and the public sphere, occupying multiple spaces and identities" (54). What Friedner is conveying is that identities do not need compete to fit the role of a given space, be it public or domestic; rather, roles can overlap and identities can be "fluid and noncontesting" (58).

The second section of the book, "Alliances and Activism," opens with an investigation into Deaf and hearing social relationships in "Identifying Allies" by Joan Ostrove and Gina Oliva, an article aimed at demonstrating collaborative works and cultural understanding in spite of identity differences. In Lindsey Patterson's "Unlikely Alliances," Deaf and hearing peoples are examined within the context of Gallaudet College in the 19th century. Patterson argues that contrary to the longstanding notion in American history of a tight-knit Deaf community, Deaf people did not have an "immediate cultural kinship" (145), particularly across lines of gender and race. Other historical events, however, demonstrate how Deaf people joined political forces with disabled people to redefine the concept of disability in terms of social justice and accessibility. Some of this history is chronicled in Corbett Joan O'Toole's "Dale Dahl and Judy Heumann," which examines the establishment of independent living centers at Berkeley during the 1970s, and in Leila Monaghan's and Constanze Schmaling's "Deaf Community Approaches to HIV/AIDS," which investigates activist communities in New York and Quebec. Each article in this section focuses on the importance of cross-cultural understanding between Deaf and hearing people across historical periods.

Deaf and Disability Studies devotes a significant amount of time to stressing the need to re-define Deaf identities, as evidenced by the third and final section of the book, "Boundaries and Overlaps," which examines alliances and divisions between the two fields of its title. Jessica Lee's "'What Not to Pack'" acknowledges that the "Deaf-World" framework unifies deaf people beyond class, race and national boundaries. However, Lee agrees with fellow Deaf Studies scholar Yerker Andersson that the "Deaf-World" framework will need to be further expanded to include diversity within the deaf community as well as internationally. In an interview conducted by Susan Burch, Andersson maintains that Deaf Studies continues to use a theoretical foundation that stems from the social model of deafness, whereas Disability Studies has expanded its analyses "by incorporating queer theory, feminist theory and critical race theory" (195). In another interview, conducted by Alison Kafer, Nirmala Erevelles argues that Deaf Studies contributes to the field of Disability Studies and vice versa. Such contribution entails the expansion of both academic fields' theoretical foundations. Erevelles emphasizes the strength of Deaf Studies: "I see Deaf Studies as disturbing the order of things, especially as they stand in regard to the politics of knowledge" (210). Speaking on audism, Erevelles also points out that Deaf Studies has shown that Deaf people lead vision-oriented lives that replace and, perhaps, enrich their lives more than auditory-based experiences.

Auditory hegemony is further explored in Soya Mori's "Testing the Social Model of Disability," an article describing the United Nations 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. At that convention, the UN placed financial limitations on its willingness to provide access to communication in sign language for Deaf people from different nations, despite providing written and spoken access to as many as six official languages for other countries. As Mori suggests, this indicates that financial concerns were a priority over "social justice and equal access" (237). The closing essay in this section, Brenda Jo Brueggemann's "The Tango," explains in detail the "dance" between Deaf and Disability Studies. According to Brueggemann, audism is on one side, while ableism is on the other. Both sides influence the frameworks and identity construction of deaf and disabled people.

Burch and Kafer spent three years putting together this collection of articles. They write of their experience, "We struggled, both as individuals and as a pair, to articulate what drives this work: what precisely, unifies and guides these texts?" (xxiv-xxv). The selection of articles in Deaf and Disability Studies demonstrates how a wide selection of approaches can offer multiple points of analysis and perspective. Altogether, this collection attempts to capture the overall potential of what Deaf and Disability Studies could be if the two fields were critically integrated. Because the writers selected come from a wide range of specializations and approaches, the book takes on a vast range of theoretical approaches. Readers who are familiar with the fields of Deaf and Disability Studies will see that the writers' contributions differ in not only their approaches, but also their standpoints. This will be a useful book for those who want a taste of many different analyses that demonstrate the interdisciplinary nature of Deaf and Disability Studies, revealing the complexities and divergences of both fields while demonstrating their intersections.

Work Cited

  • James Woodward, "Implications for the Sociolinguistic Research Among the Deaf." Sign Language Studies 1.1 (1972): 1-7.


  1. Although the table of contents is organized thematically, Deaf and Disability Studies also provides a list of keywords, such as "Activism," "Language," and "Oral History," which cross-reference the articles along various axes.

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  2. The term D/deaf was first coined in 1972 by James Woodward to create the distinctions between the culturally Deaf and the audiologically based deaf. The capitalized form of "Deaf" denotes cultural identity, shared values and language (American Sign Language), while the lowercase "deaf" refers to the audiological condition.

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