Storytelling in any community is an important way to pass on linguistic and cultural heritage to the next generation. Signed stories have long been recognized within Deaf communities as a cornerstone of Deaf culture in many countries (e.g., Hall 1989; Peters 2000; Rutherford 1993), but there has been remarkably little published on the rich storytelling heritage of the British Deaf community (see Ladd 2003 for an important exception) and very little indeed on its importance for deaf children. (1)
This article considers the types of signed narratives presented to deaf children in the classroom and identifies elements that Deaf adults believe should be included to help students develop their personal, linguistic, and social identities. Although the focus here is on the importance of sign language narratives in the development of Deaf identity in children, it should be noted that many of the themes--and their realization--are also important for the development and maintenance of Deaf identity among adult members of the Deaf community. Indeed, scholars recognize that storytelling and other aspects of signed folklore are key elements of Deaf cultural life for adults who are already well established in the community (see Peters 2000 for one of many examples). Additionally, those Deaf people who join the Deaf community as adults (perhaps having been deliberately kept in their youth from meeting other deaf children) need to learn about Deaf cultural life and Deaf identities. For these adults, too, signed storytelling and other forms of signed folklore are crucial for enculturation (Hall 1989).
Before proceeding further, readers unfamiliar with Deaf communities should note that the vast majority of deaf children are born to hearing families who have no experience of deafness or sign language. Exposure to sign language rarely occurs before school age and often not until after the young adult has left school. Most Deaf people are not automatically members of a Deaf community and do not naturally acquire knowledge of the Deaf world from their families--the exceptions are the very few deaf children born into Deaf families, and it is not surprising that the social and cultural experiences of these children are most similar to those of most hearing children. Thus, socialization and enculturation into a Deaf community are important processes for Deaf people because they enable the development of Deaf identities.
Breda Carty has suggested that Deaf people comfortable with their Deaf identity have learned how to embrace deafness as an essential and positive part of themselves (1994). Additionally, they know how to recognize and participate in Deaf culture, especially through sign language, and can interpret the surrounding world in a way that is compatible with their experience as Deaf people. All Deaf people need help being socialized into the Deaf community, and they often find this guidance in Deaf clubs, from Deaf role models or, rarely, from Deaf teachers.
Deaf clubs are one of the primary sites where Deaf culture is perpetuated (Ladd 2003; Padden and Humphries 1988). In these clubs, newcomers to the Deaf community are enculturated by more veteran members (see also Hall 1989). Additionally, many Deaf people report becoming acquainted with a specific Deaf adult who acted as a "Deaf parent" to them when they first joined the Deaf world (Lane, Hoffmeister, and Bahan 1996). Clive Mason, a leading member of the British Deaf community who was born into a hearing family, described to me his experiences of learning from adults outside of school. Using signs that evoke more than their English rendering can imply,2 Clive described how this old storyteller dramatized an account of his working life.
When I was sixteen I left school and stayed with an old couple--they were Deaf. I sat down by the fire and they told me stories that amazed me. "When I was young I got up at four a.m. Different from you, youngster. You're up at six; I was up at four. Off on my horse, with my cap on and a cigarette in my mouth. I had to clean and feed the horse--my boss's horse. You have cars, bus, or taxi. I rode a horse." He told me wonderful stories with me sitting in front of the fire. That's an old British tradition of passing things on.
Clive's comment shows the cultural power of language as language. Although personal narratives from the older community members teach younger members facts that they might not otherwise learn, they also teach the style of creative language that can be used to deliver these facts. Clive's re-creation of the old man's story, depicting the way he looked after and rode the horse shows how well his lesson was learned.
The cultural power of this language is also demonstrated at the other end of the age range, as children with good signing skills pass these on to less skilled children, again through creativity. Before the 1980s, when residential Deaf schools were the norm, children from Deaf families often provided the first introduction to the Deaf cultural world for children coming from hearing families. These residential schools in Britain rarely employed any signing teachers because deaf children were expected to use English. The Deaf poet John Wilson (also from a hearing family) described the experience, at age twelve, of seeing a girl signing poetry while he was at a residential school for deaf children:
She signed a simple poem about a tree by the river, blowing in the wind. Watching it had a very powerful impact on me. I laughed for ages afterwards. I wasn't laughing at her but at the delight of seeing her poem. It was like a slap across the face--the first time I'd ever seen anything so clear. (Wilson 2006)
John's experience with poetry until that time had been exclusively in English. The other deaf girl's use of language taught him that sign language has the power to communicate strong emotions, and also that signed poetry was even possible. It cannot be assumed that deaf children will naturally find this out, as they grow up surrounded by English.
Despite the importance of these other sources of creative signed traditions in educating new members of the community, this article will focus on the role of signing Deaf teachers in children's identity development. It will show the form and content of signed narratives directed at children that adults in the community judge to be appropriate for teaching (see also Sutton-Spence and Ramsey 2010). Deaf children learn important lessons and values from the stories told in sign language by Deaf adults. Additionally, they gain a sense of belonging in the Deaf community. As Donna West (2010) has phrased it, quoting from a deaf child with a Deaf teacher: "We're the same, I'm Deaf, you're Deaf, Huh!" Children also learn their language heritage from Deaf narratives, which often model good storytelling practices and appropriate structural and linguistic features such as characterization, use of space, and creation of highly visual neologisms. In this article, I consider examples of well-told Deaf stories and outline their value to Deaf children.
There are many good educational reasons for introducing all children to narratives: they are, for instance, key tools for developing the decontextualized thought required for literacy. In addition, there are important social reasons for developing narrative skills in children. For example, narratives teach listeners how to behave according to community expectations (Wishard Guerra 2008). This is as true for deaf children as it is for hearing children, but deaf children need to understand the expectations of both the Deaf and hearing worlds they will live in. Barbara Kannapell has argued that "one of the goals of educating deaf children should be harmonious identification with both Deaf and hearing cultures, but educators should strengthen the Deaf identity among deaf children first" (1994:47-48). Signed stories frequently aim for this goal, becoming important sources of both explicit and implicit information about children's Deaf cultural heritage. Skilled use of British Sign Language (BSL) in the stories also demonstrates to children the rich potential of their language and offers narrative templates. Learning these narrative skills enables children to participate in community storytelling after they leave school, thus perpetuating Deaf heritage.
There are many ways that narratives told by Deaf teachers allow deaf students to "interpret the surrounding world in a way that is compatible with [their] experience as a deaf person" (Carty 1994:41). In my analysis of stories here, I will show how they comment on the cultural expectations of behavior by Deaf and hearing people, the importance of accepting one's deafness, and the value of BSL and English (in spoken and written forms). Given that so much of this Deaf enculturation is traditionally shared through storytelling, these narratives are an integral part of BSL folklore.
My data on Deaf folklore and storytelling are drawn from interviews and discussions with seven adult members of the British Deaf community (all aged over forty) drawn from across the United Kingdom. All interviews were conducted between 2005 and 2009. Additionally, I comment in some depth on the linguistic and cultural content of two British Sign Language (BSL) stories for children told by Richard Carter and Paul Scott. (3) Both men are Deaf (Richard grew up with hearing parents; Paul grew up with Deaf parents), are active members of the British Deaf community, and are widely recognized as skilled BSL poets and storytellers. Both have worked as teaching assistants in Deaf schools. Richard's story is a fantasy aimed at nine- to eleven-year-olds. Paul's is a narrative of personal experience aimed at fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds. All interviews and discussions were conducted in BSL and the stories were told in BSL. Translations are my own.
Socio-historical Context of BSL Narratives
It is estimated that approximately 5 percent of deaf children have Deaf parents (Mitchell and Karchmer 2004). Frequently, these children are able to acquire sign language and Deaf culture as part of their home environment. Conversely, approximately 95 percent of deaf children have hearing parents. Traditionally, most deaf children started their socialization into Deaf culture upon entering Deaf school, where they finally met other signers. During the years of strict oralist policies in Britain (from approximately 1880 to 1980), signing was heavily proscribed in Deaf schools in favor of speech and lipreading. Deaf teachers were rarely employed and those few Deaf adults who did work in schools were usually forbidden to sign to the children, as it was believed that signing would hinder their acquisition of English. Consequently, most children had very limited access to signing Deaf adult role-models and very few opportunities to see Deaf adults telling BSL stories. However, outside the classroom signing continued among the children, often clandestinely. Deaf children learned sign language (and what it meant to be Deaf) from each other, and especially from older children and those with Deaf families.
Much of the children's signing in schools took the form of storytelling, and storytelling traditions and skills learned in school carried over to adulthood. Deaf clubs, where adults meet and tell stories, remain key contexts for BSL folklore (Smith and Sutton-Spence 2007). It is clear from the many descriptions of Deaf culture in the United States and in Britain (e.g., Hall 1989; Ladd 2003; Padden and Humphries 1988; Rutherford 1993) that there is a very close association for many Deaf people between signing and their Deaf identity, and also between signing and storytelling. These associations were strongly reinforced during the interviews with British Deaf people carried out for this research.
Educational philosophies in Britain have changed considerably since the 1980s, and BSL is now more widely recognized and accepted as a language for deaf children. Paradoxically, increased recognition and status of BSL has coincided with a dramatic decrease in the number of schools for deaf children. Today, over 90 percent of deaf children are educated within a mainstream setting, and thus have little opportunity to share Deaf culture or sign language with their peers. Most qualified teachers of the Deaf are still hearing people (British Association of Teachers of the Deaf 2000), and although some of them now have good BSL skills, their signing ability rarely matches that of Deaf adults. However, signing Deaf adults still work in a few remaining Deaf schools (or units within schools catering to deaf children). In the past, most deaf children had no option but to learn from each other because of a lack of linguistic and cultural adult role models at home or in school. Now, in these remaining Deaf schools, Deaf adults can introduce children to live BSL narratives that teach both sign language and Deaf heritage and identity. Historically, when children told each other stories in school they did so primarily for entertainment and learned other things incidentally. Adults, however, can use signed narratives intentionally to teach Deaf children about language, themes, plot, and character.
Sign Language and Deaf Identity
Self-identity requires the sense of being oneself and not another. Thus, the first step in the development of a Deaf identity is understanding that Deaf people are different from hearing people. It is by no means obvious to a young deaf child that he or she is deaf. In a great many cases, this understanding first occurs with the realization that some people sign and some do not.
The link between signing and a Deaf identity has been widely documented (Ladd 2003; Lane, Hoffmeister, and Bahan 1996; Padden 1989; Padden and Humphries 1988). While hearing people may see Deaf people as people who cannot hear, many Deaf people identify themselves as people who see the world visually and use sign language. Thus, deafness is not a loss but a social, cultural, and linguistic identity. Paul Scott's childhood discovery that he was deaf is typical in his observation that using signs rather than speech distinguished Deaf people from hearing people:
When I was small I thought the world was full of deaf people. Yes, we were great! Because when I was small my parents were Deaf. …