Deaf Cultural Ties Likened To Ethnic Group Bonds

Harlan Lane, distinguished professor of psychology, has coauthored a new book on Deaf culture asserting that sign-language users have many of the characteristics of a distinct ethnic group.

“The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry” is an interdisciplinary exploration in Deaf studies, history, cultural anthropology, genetics, sociology and disability. Lane identified a distinct language, and shared values, customs, social organization and sense of identity in the deaf world.

Moreover, a majority shares ancestry, said Lane, as do the members of many ethnic groups.

The book also traces the genealogy of the founding families of the Deaf world in the United States, and challenges the common representation of ASL users as a disability group.

Published this year, the book was coauthored by Richard Pillard, professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, and by Gallaudet University’s director of Deaf library collections and archives, Ulf Hedberg.

Lane, one of the founders of Northeastern’s ASL program, developed an interest in Deaf culture in the 1970s when, after teaching at the University of Paris, he accepted a visiting professorship at the University of California, San Diego. There he had a chance encounter with Deaf students signing to each other, and was amazed to learn that what they were using was a certifiable language.

“I became quite excited because I realized there was a whole new way to look at the psychology of language. I felt like Balboa discovering the Pacific,” he said.
Today, the ASL program, which includes interpreter education, is widely regarded as one of the top interpreting programs in the world, said longtime program director Denis Cokely.

The program recently received $4.5 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education to improve the quality of ASL-English interpreters, interpreter education programs and resources available to Deaf and Deaf-blind people.


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