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J Deaf Stud Deaf Educ. 2016 April; 21(2): 234.
Published online 2015 August 20. doi:  10.1093/deafed/env036
PMCID: PMC4886310

Deaf Ecologies

Reviewed by Michael E. Skyercorresponding author

Bauman, H.-D. L. and Murray, J. J. (Eds.). ( 2014).  Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity.  Minneapolis, MN:  University of Minnesota Press.  521 pages. Paperback.  $34.95. . 

When encountering an old-growth forest, I am struck most by its immense, dynamic ecology. A cleaved boulder hosts creeping lichens, miniscule insect homes, and reflective dew-pools. A decomposing log boasts dozens of environments—a complex interplay of decay and rebirth. The biodiversity within such systems is inherently interdependent, multivariate, and hybrid; indeed, these are their most striking features. Such richness provides a good metaphor for understanding the transdisciplinary text Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity, edited by Bauman and Murray. Deaf Gain is interdisciplinary at its core; the biological, linguistic, cultural, historical, artistic, and philosophical discussions in this volume are as timely as they are necessary given the threats d/Deaf people face in our globalized age.

Deaf Gain, to be clear, is not a new idea. It is a new name for a very old idea, an idea that encompasses two distinct threads: intrinsic deaf gains, which are the embodied benefits of being deaf, and extrinsic deaf gains, which are the perceived contributions that deaf people create for all humankind. Bauman and Murray’s volume traces the genealogy of both views through a dense forest of interrelated rhizomes. In exploring the epistemological and ontological ecologies of deaf individuals from antiquity to postmodernity, Deaf Gain (as a theoretical position) establishes itself firmly as a progressive paradigm shift built on the work of scholars in Deaf Studies and Disability Studies alike. As expressed by the contributors to this text, Deaf Gain is not simply a semantic “gedankenexperiment”—the phrase itself does not simply invert the ideology of “hearing loss” by turning it inside out—instead, the position offers a metatheoretical thread with which its authors stitch deafness and “hearing-ness” into dynamically interrelated systems of thought, language, and being. In the editors’ view, “what could be considered a pathological condition—deafness—could instead be seen as a contributor to a more robust social and cultural ecology” (p. xx). Bauman and Murray coin the term “biocultural diversity” (p. xvii) and emphasize how better understanding deafness and sign languages are net gains for all humankind.

Diverse readers will mine this book for their own purposes. However, as a deaf educator, I am drawn particularly to Deaf Gain because of its synthesis of divergent positions regarding sign languages and visual representations as they are used in classrooms and educational contexts. Encompassing a dizzying array of subject matter and theoretical orientations, the authors of Deaf Gain decompose and recompose their views on deaf people, deaf language, deaf culture, and deaf esthetics by iterating and expanding on the themes woven throughout: collaboration, reciprocity, adaptation, and sustainability. The best chapters of this book are those that embrace the deaf umwelt as an organic and adaptive variation in the polymorphic manifestation that is human culture. The least effective chapters reinscribe the lines that depict deafness as incommensurately different, as irreducibly contrasting to and apart from hearing humanity.

In the final analysis, Bauman and Murray’s ideological inversion invites readers to explore the variegated experiences of diverse, globalized deaf populations. They invite their audience to see its dynamic ecology with deaf eyes wide open and remind us that deafness is a part of, not apart from humanity.


Articles from The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education are provided here courtesy of Oxford University Press