Deaf People are not Animals in a Zoo
Perhaps you’ll think I’m being pedantic. But if there were one thing I’d change about Sara Novic’s True Biz, it’s this: changing the term dormkeepers. This post is not a comprehensive critique of True Biz. I’m commenting on one point that sets my teeth on edge because I saw the news that the book is being converted into a television show.
The book is popular with deaf people because we *finally* have representation in mainstream fiction. We value the framing of schools for the deaf as sacred spaces, the minimal illustration of the existential threat to deaf people threatened by closures of schools for the deaf, and the emergent discussion about language deprivation. For some of us, we appreciated being able to read about audism and ableism from an author who has firsthand (pun intended!) experience with audism and ableism. I neither loved or hated the book. I wished for more nuance and better grounding in deaf histories in some places. The book, for me, delivered a lot of caricatures rooted in outdated understandings of deafness grounded in whiteness and ableism. I’m not keen on those caricatures and did not find the book grounded in the reality of residential deaf school experiences. The book felt like a big caricature that buys into and peddles (and capitalizes on) mythologies about the Deaf/deaf cultural divides.
Disclosure: I attended three schools for the deaf; two of them considered the Big Six (Maryland and Riverside). I was a day student at Maryland, a dorm resident student at Riverside. I was also unfortunately mainstreamed for a good number of years in a variety of settings in between deaf schools. I’ve lived on both sides of the so called D/deaf debate. My lived experience and scholarly understanding of those histories rendered the book a disappointment for me although I appreciated some of its highlights. Putting all of that aside and accepting that no one book can perfectly encapsulate the deaf experience, I want to comment on one thing at least. Dormkeepers.
Novic uses dormkeepers to describe the people who staff the dormitories at the fictional River Valley School for the Deaf (RVSD). As a fictional work, nomenclature is subject to creative license. Novic, as part of her effort to build a world for the reader, is welcome to devise terminology not traditionally used to describe schools for the deaf and their staff. But of all the creative options available, why, why, why dormkeepers?
I hate the term. Why? Because Deaf People are not Animals in a Zoo. Dormkeepers evokes zookeepers. Well, well, yeah. Creative license. Coincidence. “Keeping” as in gatekeeping, doorkeeping, housekeeping… the term is just about caretaking and/or guarding, right? What’s the big deal, especially since dormkeepers barely figure in the story?
I found this treatment of the dorm staff really odd given the typical close(r) relationship between boarding students and dorm staff in deaf schools, especially if they were deaf. I mean, ours were invited to our weddings, some of ours partied with us, drank and/or provided the booze, smoked weed with us, smoked cigarettes with the smokers off campus, hung out in our hot tubs over the summer. One of mine even lent me and my roommate A.N. Roquelaure’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy to read. Those books had a lot of sex. (Yes, I know. Adults hanging out with high school kids like that, especially before graduation, wasn’t appropriate). That was just some of our dorm staff. The other dorm staff, especially nondeaf, on the other hand, treated us like animals to be managed carefully. Tucked away in our rooms at appointed hours, delivered to the dining hall like clockwork for meals, and our bodies and whereabouts accounted for. At. All. Times. We had jokes (grounded in pain and resentment) about our schools serving like zoos or prisons: state control of deaf bodies in keeping us safely away from other nondeaf people and supposedly safe from ourselves. Comparatively speaking, deaf high school students in residential schools do not have the same level of independence nor are we viewed as possessing the same level of maturity as nondeaf teenagers.
Anyway, the absence of dorm staff as major characters in the storytelling was really weird. But that’s beside the point. Those people may have been our “caretakers”. We typically call them dorm staff, dorm counselors, cottage parents, resident advisors, or resident educators. The sign for dorm counselors may be confused for dorm keepers because of the slight variation in sign production between counselor and keeper. It is also possible that keeper was a deliberate manipulation of the sign counselor in the spirit of worldbuilding.
The problem here for me with using dormkeeper is the historical associations between deaf people and the abled gaze and thus the evocation of zookeepers. In the 18th and 19th century, royals, government ministers, and the educated elite often gawked at deaf children. Agape at the *miracle* of deaf education, they demanded to see the proof of signed languages being used to teach deaf children or better yet, deaf children being able to perform hearingness (Edwards, 2012). We, deaf people, had to allow ourselves to be subjected to that gaze in order to obtain basic state supports for education and inclusion. Since then, well into the 21st century, deaf children have been subjected to observers. Educators, interpreters, linguists, and adjacent professionals often come into the deaf education classroom to observe deaf children “in their natural environments”. I personally remember many observers. Some of my classrooms were even built with special observation rooms with one way observation windows so that people could come observe deaf children on a regular basis. Historians like John V. Van Cleve and Barry Crouch have described how deaf schools also have historical origins and roots as institutions of carceral control. And here’s a little historical tidbit. American School for the Deaf is still referred to as the Asylum by old school deaf people who remember the original sign that was associated with the school’s original name: The Connecticut Asylum for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. Those schools were often subject to the abled gaze.
In public, this gaze becomes something else. Adults gawking at us signing. Telling us that our signs are so beautiful (although they have no fucking clue what we’re saying). Wondering out loud where our personal aides and interpreters are. More staring. All that staring I endure as a signing deaf person that dares exist in public spaces. When signing or visibly deaf, I often feel like an animal placed on display for public spectacle. Check out Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s book on Staring. And all the delicious disability studies scholarship on the freak show. Many scholars of deaf and disability histories, like R.A.R. Edwards, point to various actions- by individuals and by the state- in where deaf people were reduced to objects of observation for the nondeaf gaze. This gaze is dehumanizing. The association with animals being kept in zoos is dehumanizing. The idea that deaf people need to be placed into institutions separate from society and highly controlled is dehumanizing.
This gaze has led to jokes and commentary by deaf people. One common refrain is Deaf people are not animals in a zoo! And our jokes…well, we joke a lot about our deaf schools *feeling like* prisons (although there is a marked difference we shouldn’t neglect here), as sites of control, where we were placed under constant surveillance, treated as little more than animals to be controlled. And this is before we apply a critical race lens in considering the carceral system’s relationship with non-white deaf people from school to prison.
Anyway, dormkeeper evokes a painful and ugly relationship between deaf people, the abled gaze, and carcerality. Since dorm staff did not figure significantly in True Biz, nor did the book deliver a commentary on the notions of keeping, carceral systems, or the abled gaze, there was no [good] reason to invent and use the term dormkeeper. This language reinforces ideas about deaf people and deaf schools that is at odds with what Novic tries to do in True Biz. If bilingual deaf schools are a site of liberation for deaf people, then why evoke the very opposite of a liberatory ethos? I hope any adaptions of the book abandons this term.
Pedantic perhaps. But I know this. Words matter. What meaning people derive from those words matter. Those meanings and the schemas that people develop from the book about deaf education matter. Deaf schools are nowhere like the elite private schools of the U.S. Northeast like Exeter, Groton, or Deerfield. The public expense via tax dollars is worth the investment. We cannot reduce participation, inclusion, and fullness of deaf lives to a dollar amount, which is where we are because of austerity measures and neoliberalism. I get that Novic is trying to get us *here* to this point. The social costs of language deprivation and inaccessible education is far greater than paying up front for a residential school experience but it’s hard to instill this into audiences when they’re led to think that deaf schools are enclaves of the privileged or short term social institutions that controls undesirable bodies until they are governable (rendered docile and compliant to the capitalist producer economy), which is what terms like headmistress and dormkeeper suggest. Dormkeeper reinforces we’re the sort of bodies that are to be controlled, surveilled, and governed.
I am uncomfortable with anything that suggests that deaf schools are like elite private schools. Someone once compared deaf schools to Hogwarts. I assure you. They are not. Our furniture was made by the people incarcerated in our state prisons [either criminally unpaid or severely under compensated]. Metallic, beige-pink, badly scuffed, and generally uncomfortable. Our food was appallingly disgusting. I have stories but I’ll spare you, dear reader, from the gory details. Deaf school funding and survival depends on public monies; it’s really important that the public understands the relationship between voting, paying taxes, and support for deaf education. Say what you might but the media is a powerful force that shapes people’s attitudes. People are far too divorced from the impact of their political choices. In part, this is because people don’t understand the relationship between their political choices and the impact of policy decisions. Beyond the impact on nondeaf people, words also mean something to the deaf reader.
As a deaf reader, I could not enjoy a book that evokes the abled gaze, even if done so obliquely.
This blog was informed by my deep reading of deaf history and disability studies. Much gratitude to the scholars below who made this critique possible.
Edwards, R.A.R. (2012). Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture. New York: New York University Press.
Garland-Thomson, R. (1996). Freakery: Cultural spectacles of extraordinary bodies. New York: New York University Press.
Garland-Thomson, R. (2009). Staring: How We Look. Oxford University Press.
Van Cleve, J.V. and Crouch, B. (1989). A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.