Our Lady of Lourdes deaf club, Newcastle upon Tyne 1994 (photograph by Ernst D. Thoutenhoofd).
Deaf Studies is a network of academic expertise within the social sciences. Just like social scientists, who are interested in how understanding can derive from what people do, deaf studies scholars are more particularly interested in what understanding about deafness and being deaf derives from what people do. Deaf studies activity is transdisciplinary, but it has focal points in sociolinguistics, in (cultural) sociology and social policy, in social history, in symbolic and cultural anthropology, in health studies and in disability studies, and in educational studies.
Before linguistic attention to sign languages developed in the 1960s, the academic attention to deaf people derived predominantly from psychology (Myklebust 1960, Levine 1960), a psychology that aimed to do the best possible job of 'restoring' individual deaf people—who were perceived to be psychologically damaged by dint of their impaired spoken language communication skills—to society.
A completely different view on the situation of deaf people developed in sociolinguistic studies that emerged out of research that linguists had begun into sign languages in the late 1950s and early 1960s. With the idea that sign languages are natural languages that deserve to be studied and described alongside spoken languages, also emerged the associated idea that therefore there must be language communities in which those sign languages are being used. Therefore deaf studies as it developed from the early 1970s onwards focussed predominantly on those culturally 'Deaf' people who used sign language. This reference to capital 'D' deafness was in fact one among the very first conventions to emerge in deaf studies. It is attributed to an early text by an American deaf studies scholar called James Woodward, who wrote a text in the very first issue of the new scholarly journal 'Sign Language Studies' that soon came to define a common focus within deaf studies on the interaction between sign language and a particular notion of 'Deaf community' (Woodward 1972).
In the article Woodward calls for studies aimed at describing the key attributes of the deaf community that was only then coming into proper view through the early linguistic study of sign language that had been undertaken by William Stokoe (1960) on the surface structure of American Sign Language (ASL). Other studies soon followed that made connections between ASL and the ASL-using deaf community (Bellugi 1976; Schlesinger and Namir 1978; Baker and Padden 1978; Baker and Battison 1980). The notion of 'Deaf community' that later developed out this early work rested on a combination of sign language skills and derived social and cultural capital that served as clear membership criteria: to be 'Deaf' came to imply a higher status than to be deaf or hearing-impaired, and in particular not to be handicapped or disabled. Instead, a 'Deaf' person was a confident member of a socio-linguistic minority culture.
In the wake of those early sociolinguistic studies were reports about the nature of life in deaf communities and the experiences of Deaf people in the US—deaf people had found a voice, as was suggested for example by Leo Jacobs' book 'A deaf adult speaks out' (1974) and Thomas and Jane Spradley's book 'Deaf like me' (1978).
The US developments took some time to travel to the UK, with early papers on British Sign Language emerging in the late 1970s (Brennan 1976; Brennan and Colville 1979; Brennan and Hayhurst 1980; Llewelyn-Jones, Kyle and Woll 1979). They too were soon followed by studies that made connections with community and culture (e.g. Brien 1981). Such studies inquired for example how young deaf children, most of whom are from hearing families, nevertheless gain access to the deaf community and culture.
By the mid-1980s there was a wealth of published sociolinguistic evidence on the nature of deaf communities written by linguists. Alongside those studies there were also the deeply personal insights of leading members of deaf communities, who had learned that the sign language that they used was not the communicatively shallow pantomime of a psychologically unstable patient, but the proud cultural asset of a fully capable individual who shared this language with other members of the language community. Attempts to put those new ideas into a framework that would enable sociologists and anthropologists to study the socio-cultural and socio-historical circumstances of these deaf people did not develop until the late 1980s in the US (Higgins and Nash 1987; Padden and Humphries 1988; Wilcox 1989) and perhaps just a little sooner in the UK (Kyle and Woll 1983, 1985; Woll, Kyle and Deuchar 1981). Increasingly those studies told of linguistic, social and cultural oppression and exclusion of deaf people, but most of all they told of outright discrimination of sign language-using pupils in the countries' classrooms (e.g. Fletcher 1987).
This next wave of studies, originating mostly in the relative new, and essentially interpretative field of cultural sociology, led to re-defining deaf communities as socio-cultural minorities within an oppressive social system that had utterly failed deaf people (e.g. Corker 1998; Ladd 2002; Lane 1992; Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan 1996). Instead of emancipated citizens with democratic say in public affairs that affected them, deaf peoples' life trajectories seemed instead characterised by persistently worse conditions that severely restricted their opportunities right across all major social functions, but in particular in education (Branson and Miller 2002; Oliva 2004) and work. Attempts were set in motion to 'reconstruct' the public understanding and meaning of deafness (Gregory and Hartley 1991). Alongside this broad interventionist programme also developed better organised grass-roots activism and emancipation, not only in relation to calls for radically altering the nature of education in order to enable deaf children to conduct their schooling in sign-bilingual programmes, but also as vociforous attempts by deaf people to gain control over matters that directly affected their community and social circumstances. In one very public landmark victory, I. King Jordan was appointed the first-ever deaf president to Gallaudet University (a university for deaf students in Washington DC) in 1988. In the UK calls soon followed for deaf leaders to head major organisations such as the British Deaf Association (BDA) and the Royal National Institute of Deaf People (RNID).
There is no good indication what directions deaf studies might turn to next. What is clear from contemporary developments is that young deaf people today are significantly less wedded to the idea of living their life only in the 'Deaf community' as it had been academically construed in the 1980s: they tend to have better language skills and hence are more confident participants in the mainstream of social and cultural affairs. This does not mean that they are no longer willing members of deaf communities; it is just that with the general implosion of community feeling and meaning (along with the retreat of cultural sociology in favour of more diverse social science), they are content to manage their public sense of self on the basis of highly diverse and more dynamic social attributes—much like their hearing peers. This greater social and cultural diversity, flexibility and dynamism among younger generations of deaf people is most certainly foremost a result of more widespread transformations in society. But it will also, and in no small matter, be due to improvements in audiological and medical technologies; and in equal measure to the ceaseless efforts on the part of a network of deaf studies scholars and deaf activists.
For all of these reasons (and more besides), it now seems no longer appropriate to cling to the 'Deaf' label within academic discourse: it hinders creative and exploratory analysis of the changes that have been taking place. Over the last forty years deaf studies scholars have, with deaf people and their families, altered the public face of deafness, argued for better opportunities for language acquisition and development, for the recognition of sign languages, for the development of social and language services, for sign-bilingual education, for higher standards of teaching and learning and better access to post-compulsory levels of education, for deaf peoples' right to access communication services such as the telephone, television, and ICT services, and for the removal of barriers in employment. However, despite clear gains over time, deaf pupils remain significantly disadvantaged within the national curricula and mainstream educational programmes, with consequences throughout their life-course (Powers, Gregory and Thoutenhoofd 1998; Thoutenhoofd et al. 2005). Associated with that, in many countries sign language has not successfully integrated in the curriculum. And finally, research into sign languages has fallen behind the major technological developments that have altered the course of mainstream linguistics, and this has public sphere repercussions for the status of sign languages and the development of contemporary sign language resources.
Deaf studies centres are now well-established in particular in the US and the UK. In the US major centres of deaf studies research are Gallaudet University and NTID, the National Technical Institute of Deaf people. In the UK there are well-known deaf studies centres in Bristol, Wolverhampton and Preston. Deaf studies networks remain less-well established outside of those two countries, but in many countries there are individual efforts that connect with deaf studies.
An area of obvious concern for deaf studies that now presents itself are the socio-technical forms of social organising that post-date the strong grasp of culture and community on social life. There is now abundantly clear interaction of deafness with technologies of many kinds, including medical technologies (such as cochlear implantation, see Chorost 2006), educational technologies such as testing regimes and monitoring systems, social science technologies that survey, map and model micro-social differences, and in particular perhaps the new genetic technologies (such as the genetic screening of human embryos for deafness genes). Also of interest to deaf studies should be deaf peoples' participation in the new social technologies that have appeared with online environments -- including not only sign language corpora, blogs and wikis but also Facebook, Hyves, Youtube, and so on.