[normal] Speech As Common Ground

Not An Angry Deaf Person
5 min readJan 23, 2022
White bald man signing against a gray background. Tshirt reads Vintage 1980.

Well. There’s no one audience for this essay. I want deaf people to understand our histories better; to explicitly recognize our onto-epistemic contributions to broader conversations about language, belonging, and power. This is also an exhortation for scholars in disability studies, trans studies, accent studies, and sociolinguistics interested in questions of language, speech, and power to be in conversation with Deaf Studies.

First, allow me to introduce you to Oralism as Hegemony [a branch of white supremacy & settler colonialism] and Oralism as Ideology [a system of ideas that forms the basis for the way we do things]. This is relevant for all people: speaking and non-speaking. For we are all judged on our speech or lack thereof. Some may think this issue is only relevant to deaf people. And that oralism is at most a controversial method of educating deaf children.

I can understand the confusion. Despite decades of deaf historiography and centuries of deaf knowledges and experiences transmitted across generations, somehow, a Google search yields little beyond understanding oralism as an educational method. Nothing more. See screenshot:

Screenshot of web definition of oralism. o-ral-ism. the system of teaching deaf people to communicate by the use of speech and lip-reading rather than sign language. (Definitions from Oxford Languages).

The subsequent results are little better. Wikipedia frames oralism as an educational methodology. Deaf historians maybe should have a class project to get to work on revising that Wikipedia page lest we perpetuate mistaken understandings of the past. We should also be more invested in better communicating the relevance of our work to public audiences and across fields.

One deaf blogger, Mohd. Aqil Hajee, hits it on the nose though. Oralism is an ideology.

Oralism is not simply a methodology for teaching deaf children that focuses on speaking and lipreading. [Note: all the efforts directed at “listening” are really directed toward accomplishing performative hearingness- that is, the ability to speak].

Oralism is the belief that normative speech exists; this belief compels all bodyminds to perform to this standard in order to be judged worthy of belonging [and thus access, power, privilege, opportunities, capital, and citizenship] through structural, institutional, systemic, and interpersonal relations. Oralism is a configuration of legal, social, and political institutions that functions to uphold whiteness as property and supports the settler-colonial project (Read Nair, 2020; Baynton, 1992 & 1996 for further discussion).

Various populations placed on the margins have been subjected to expectations of normative speech; speech has become a site of performances of ability, gender conformity, sexuality, masculinity, race, citizenship, and other forms of normative belonging.

There’s conversations about this in many fields that would be enriched by a disability lens and well-informed by deaf historiographies on expectations of normative speech. One field where the omission of deaf perspectives and histories perhaps stuns me the most is Disability Studies. There are conversations about disabled bodies and performance of normative speech without as so much an acknowledgement of deaf people’s experiences with or contributions to the pathologization of speech. Maybe this dissonance is because people mistakenly believe that deaf people are soundless, as in we make no noise at all. Not even when we giggle or sneeze. This is apparently a prevailing belief. [Thanks @ebonyrgooden !] Therefore, we aren’t subjected to expectations of normative speech or performative hearingness. But we were! [Read R.A.R. Edwards, Words Made Flesh, 2012- or any deaf history book published since 1989. Or open any white mainstream deaf newspaper from the 19th century. It’s all there. Trust me].To be fair, deaf people have spent the last century and half, at minimum, denying association with disabled people [Read Robinson, “We are of a different class: Ableist Rhetoric in Deaf America, 1880–1920,” 2010 for more on this]. Deaf Studies followed suit, which resulted in relatively recent questions about whether or not Deaf and Disability Studies should tango. Lateral ableism is a thing; I’ll leave it at that.

So. We have two different fields talking about normal speech and how it’s forced into our bodies. How we suffer in different ways, economically, politically, and socially, as a result of not being allowed to language naturally, as a result of people’s desire to not invest the work in mutual understanding and meaning making [Read Henner & Robinson, preprint on Crip Linguistics for more and literature on this subject.] When we attend to trans studies’ conversations about perpetuating an ideal trans voice [read normative], there are resonances about normative speech and speech pathology that speaks to biopower. When we attend to sociolinguistics’ conversations about accentism, accent reduction, or removing traces of race in speech through the imposition of standard language ideologies, there are resonances about normative speech and oral linguistic pathology that speaks to biopower. Accent reduction apps. Trans voice training apps. Guess where the tech for that originally came from? Speech pathology for disabled and deaf children. This was fueled by an overarching system of biopower: oralism.

We need no neologism [new word] to describe oralism. Only a more expansive understanding of this as an ideology intertwined with hegemony that attempts to span the globe. Rather than inventing terms for things that already exist, the better question is to interrogate how oralism upholds other systems of power, in particular white supremacy and settler colonialism through enforcing ideas about acceptable [normative] ways of speaking and using language [as a source of capital]. And in upholding those systems of power, sets us at odds with each other.

To be clear, our histories are distinct as is the impact of oralism. Not all people with non-normative speech are subject to the same forces or experience the same consequences. Context matters. Drawing colonialism as an analogy for oralism, for example, elides the role of oralism in protecting whiteness as property and upholding empire. Remember, oralism was not originally intended for black deaf people (or any form of education, really, but when we got around to educating black deaf children, oralism wasn’t on the table because oralist methods were intended to restore deaf white children to society. And black people, writ large, deaf or not, were not welcome to participate in U.S. society as equal citizens (Excellent readings available at The 1619 project). In understanding this, we must thread out the distinction between audism (systemic oppression of deaf people based on hearing status) and oralism (systemic oppression of non-normative speaking people). In seeking a coalitional politics against pathologization and othering, we should seek solidarity with all those who are cast to the margins of society on basis of speech coded as “disordered”- foreign, accented, racialized, disabled, non-conforming.

We cannot dismantle the pathologization of speech while enacting ableism toward each other across fields, ignoring disability as a framework and ignoring the contributions of deaf history & Deaf Studies. Those questions we ask are not relevant only to ourselves [we aren’t navel gazing, I promise] but are relevant to broad non-deaf audiences since we co-exist in the same world and within the same structures of power.

Acknowledgements: Much gratitude to Jeff Brune for the conversations that first planted the seed for this project long ago (nine years to be exact but who’s counting?); Michele Friedner, Breda Carty, and Corrie Tijsseling for the encouragement to pursue this project, I’m so glad our paths crossed at Deaf Academics Conferences; Mette Sommer Lindsay for conversations that highlighted the value of this project because distinctions matter; Erin Moriarty for the intellectual space and insights that allowed this project to materialize, (if not for this, the larger essay would have sat in my drafts pile for another 9 years!). Last but not least, to Jon Henner for our work together on Crip Linguistics that gave me the overarching framework I needed to bring this idea to completion.