Date of Award

Fall 2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Foundations & Leadership

Committee Director

Dennis Gregory

Committee Member

Shana Pribesh

Committee Member

Joanne Scheibman

Committee Member

Adela Roxas


Self-naming has long stood as the primary assertion of power for disenfranchised communities in the western world. While person first language (e.g. person who is deaf) has been the preferred language of disability and disability services for the last 20 years, members of the Deaf community have asserted their cultural capital, and indeed, their Deafhood, or defining the experience of being ‘deaf in the world’, through the power of self-naming. This research examines attitudes toward language, self-naming, and disability in the Deaf community and seeks to move toward a more attentive, sensitive, and responsive language policy in the academy.

Historically, Deaf students have been excluded to varying degrees from full participation in society and especially in higher education. The language we use reflects, in many ways, our perceptions of the world around us. Conversely, our perceptions and use of language also have observable real world effects (Linton, 2010). Our attention to the way we use language and the power that language can exert are important tools in examining the phenomenon of the language use and language policy in the academy.

A culturo-lingual model of disability was prevalent in most of the participant’s narratives. Deaf was constructed in opposition to deaf, although a certain amount of overlap with the disabled construction of deaf and disability did occur. The primary defining cultural artifact that was identified by participants was the centrality of ASL to the Deaf experience as well as the respect and status of ASL as a language in the worldat- large. Intertwined with the primacy of ASL is the distinction between the visual world inhabited by Deaf people and the verbal world inhabited by Hearing people. Participants constructed Deaf pride as a strong primary identity in which participants simultaneously advocated sameness as well as a unique cultural identity.

The discussion of disability and its interaction with Deaf identity revealed four major categories of identity and association: participants outright rejected the classification of disability as pejorative; participants rejected disability as inaccurate and constructed disability as a trait of the other; participants accepted disability but still constructed their Deaf identity in opposition to the social construct of disability; and participants accepted disability only insofar as it provided for rights and protections under the law.

Although, perceptions of the language of disability have been studied among students and rehabilitation specialists, none of the existing literature examines the perceptions of this language in a way that takes into account the students whom such language is meant to describe. By examining how Deaf students view the language used to describe them, as well as how they use such language themselves, this study seeks to answer important questions that could influence the future of language policy in and outside of higher education.


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