Book Review: Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India

Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India. Michele Friedner, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015, 196 pp.

Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India is a welcome addition to the still-sparse but growing cross-cultural collection of ethnographies addressing deafness and sign languages. Friedner’s well-organized, very readable account draws on several years of participant-observer fieldwork in India (2005–2014), especially Bangalore, addressing three primary questions: (1) how might deaf people have unique opportunities and aspirations in their efforts of “deaf development”; (2) how might the “temporality” of deaf development differ from other kinds of development (e.g., social, political, economic); and (3) how do the observed registers of deaf development allow us to reassess what “development” means, empirically and analytically (p. 9)? Although primarily analyzing the lives and agency of deaf Indians, this book has much broader significance and is relevant for anyone exploring local responses to regional and global phenomena involving nongovernmental organizations, governmental agencies, religious organizations, multinational corporations, and multilevel marketing businesses.

Friedner focuses her argument around the sociality of deafs and normals, native categories Friedner observed used by deaf Indians themselves (pp. 12–14). While the terms are in contrast, deafs does not imply abnormal, just different-from-normal due to deafness. In fact, much of the tension revealed in the book is because deafs have to navigate a society and economy that does not give them equal access to opportunities and resources due to their communicative circumstances, whether the result of oralist education or from their acquisition of sign language.

Friedner’s approach contrasts with much work in Deaf studies that focuses on Deaf identity or Deaf culture. Instead, she highlights the social orientation and practices of relatively young deaf adults aged 18–40 (p. 23), especially as they so often “disorient” from familial sociality (in the sense of reorienting away from natal families, not in the sense of being in a state of confusion), and orient themselves toward each other as deaf deaf same, their local concept of deaf similitude (p. 25), in an effort to increase deaf development.

Friedner herself is recognized as being deaf deaf same (pp. 2, 25), too, and her acquisition of the local dialects of sign language, including Bangalore variety Indian Sign Language (BISL), helps her ground this ethnography in the discourse and concepts of Indian deafs themselves. As she unpacks their terms and concepts, which are nicely summarized in a convenient appendix, Friedner reveals not just the worldviews of the individual deafs sharing their experiences with her, but also the structural factors framing these experiences. She explores the nature of contemporary Indian society, morality, and economy, especially in neoliberal urban India, and how these structural factors are implicated in the lives of deafs and their families.

Friedner opens her book an introduction that quickly sets the stage, clearly identifying her approach and articulating the structure of her argument through the following chapters. In her second chapter, she addresses the reorientation of deafs from their hearing families and toward their fellow deaf young adults as they seek to develop themselves and each other in a deaf sociality. In the third chapter, Friedner examines churches and religious groups as opportunities for developing deaf sociality, including the moral and ethical decisions the deafs face.

The fourth chapter, “Circulation as Vocation,” explores the often very extended vocational training that deafs pursue, often repeatedly, due to the contradictions embedded within these systems that provide very limited content and individual transformation (i.e., “not- learning”) (p. 78), rather than deep knowledge (p. 75; emphasis in the original), and often serve more as a mechanism for replicating deafs as persons with disabilities, or, if successful, perhaps “workers with disabilities” (p. 106). The last two chapters explore deafs’ opportunities and constraints as agents, first in national and multinational corporations, and then in multilevel marketing businesses.

In each of these domains, deafs, to differing extents, are able to convert or leverage their symbolic and social capital as deafs to economic ends, but they are also subject to having their value as deafs and as workers “extracted” by others in a neoliberal economy. Their choices can also lead to challenges to deaf sociality. Friedner’s concluding comments look forward to further changes in orientations and sociality of both deafs and normal alike, especially as some of these Indian deafs have hearing children of their own, who, as native signers, could potentially provide additional bridges that help articulate the worlds of deafs and normals with each other.

This book would be excellent material for upper-division undergraduate and graduate-level courses, whether in anthropology, Asian studies, Deaf or disability studies, and even the political economy of neoliberalism. Each chapter focuses on particular dimensions and concepts, but together, as an articulated whole, the book reveals not just some of the nuanced diversity of deaf populations and communities worldwide, but also the range of diversity and circumstances even within local deaf communities.

The linguistic elements provided in this account are accessible enough for those not yet familiar with sign languages, though as Friedner indicates, there has been relatively little formal linguistic research on BISL to date (p. 17). Yet, Friedner’s grounded description of several native concepts and terms adds useful comparative content for those with deeper background in cross-linguistic sign language research. The list of abbreviations (p. xiii) and the appendix of key local phrases in Indian Sign Language (p. 163, ff.), combined with endnotes and a helpful index, make this a very useful text for a range of disciplines.

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