An Autoethnography of a Life in Sign Language

by Noel O'Connell (Author)
Monographs XII, 188 Pages


This book weaves intensely personal and evocative stories into a layered autoethnographic text about the author’s experience of childhood deafness, sign language and education. Interwoven with the performative narrative are powerful stories of stigma, trauma, friendships, relationships, love, isolation and displacement. Using interpretative and reflective analysis, the author explores the storied experience of self and belonging in family and school contexts, providing both personal and theoretical perspectives on language and culture. He traces the pathways he has taken in pursuit of a true sense of belonging in society, community and place.
This is an important contribution to the study of sign language, deaf education, disability and deaf health and well-being. It will be of interest to professionals and practitioners working with deaf children and parents and to students and researchers within social policy, social medicine, psychology, sociology, early childhood studies and special education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: A Childhood Divided
  • Belonging in a Fragmented World
  • Some Kind of Deaf
  • Irish Sign Language
  • Autoethnography
  • Plan of the Book
  • Chapter 1: Narratives of Loss and Trauma
  • Childhood Interrupted
  • Introspection
  • Back Story
  • Chapter 2: Religion, Oralism and Deaf Education in Ireland
  • Early Deaf Education in Ireland
  • St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls
  • St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys
  • Sr Nicholas Griffey
  • Policy Change in St Joseph’s
  • Early Intervention and Service Provisions
  • Department of Education Report
  • Chapter 3: Recreating Home and Culture and the Power of Stories
  • Mary Immaculate School
  • Tales from the School Ground
  • Introspection
  • Roots of Oralism
  • Chapter 4: Watching the Watchers: Evocative Stories and Surveillance Matters
  • Writing Evocative Stories
  • St Joseph’s
  • Tales from the School Ground
  • Introspection
  • Chapter 5: Gender, Love, Language and Relationships
  • Gender Relations
  • Heartfelt Stories
  • Introspection
  • Chapter 6: Summer Childhood: Identity, Belonging and Meanings of Home
  • Home and Away
  • Stories of Belonging
  • Introspection
  • Chapter 7: Behind the Teacher’s Back: Stories of Cultural Encounters
  • Cultural Space
  • Behind the Teacher’s Back and Other Stories
  • Introspection
  • Irish Deaf Education: Mainstreaming and Inclusion
  • Chapter 8: Reflections
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Writing this book would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of many people who have helped to hone my ideas over the past number of years. At Mary Immaculate College, Limerick: my postdoctoral mentor, Jim Deegan, for his insightful comments, wit and encouragement and for giving generously his time with patience; Anne O’Byrne, Patricia Kieran, Gerard Downes and Jessica Kindler for their advice and support; Michael Healy, Mary Collins, Elaine Gleeson and Rebecca Breen at the college’s Research and Graduate School for their support in making the writing and research journey possible.

Special thanks go to a number of scholars who encouraged me to believe that the stories should be published: Patricia Mannix-McNamara and Carmel Hannon at University of Limerick, and Donnacha Toomey at Institute of Technology Tralee. For sharing their knowledge and expertise of sign language and deaf culture research, my thanks go to Annelies Kusters, Jemina Napier, Heather Mole, Stacy Webb, Gary Quinn, Steve Emery, Rita McDaid and Graham Turner at Heriot-Watt University; Alys Young and Rosemary Oram at University of Manchester; and John Bosco Conama and Teresa Lynch at Trinity College Dublin.

A number of friends who gave generously their time and support include Graham O’Shea, Mette Sommer, Dorrit Christensen, Lis Aaen and Dai O’Brien. I especially thank Teresa Lynch and Brian Crean and their children, Sinead and Daniel, for their genuine friendship, kindness and sense of humour. Thanks to my daughter, Emma, for being a source of joy and laughter. Thanks to my deceased parents for giving me the gift of perseverance and the ability to fight for what I believe in. I especially appreciate the love and care given by my mother who sadly departed this world in January 2017.

I am grateful to my editor, Christabel Scaife, who saw potential in this book and for being so patient and generous with her time in responding to my queries. The financial support received from the Irish Research ← ix | x → Council Postdoctoral Fellowship Award (GOIPD/2015/73) is acknowledged and greatly appreciated. Grateful acknowledgment is made to Taylor and Francis for including a piece from “Childhood Interrupted: A Story of Loss, Separation and Reconciliation” and Sage Publications for including parts from “Passing as Normal: Living and Coping with the Stigma of Deafness”.

Finally, thank God for Irish Sign Language, for the richness it has given my life.

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A Childhood Divided

I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me … I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which to live.

ANAIS NIN (quoted in Ellis and Bochner 2000, p. 746)

Belonging in a Fragmented World

Belonging is an autoethnography that chronicles the first eighteen years of my life from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Autoethnography is a form of autobiography that intersects ethnography with personal stories that offer us a way of understanding culture (Ellis 2004). The autoethnographer writes personal stories and systematically analyses (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand self and others in relation to culture (ethno) (Holman Jones 2005). In this book, I present personal stories about my experience of the deaf world that existed inside the high walls of religious-run residential schools for deaf children and my relationship with sign language. Personal stories are written in the present tense using plot, characterisation, scene-setting and dialogue to give readers a sense of verisimilitude, to make personal experience life-like and real on the pages (Ronai 1995). The book is much more than a story about deafness. It is story about power, abuse, prejudice, social exclusion and marginalisation. It is a story of survival in a world that was rendered invisible to Irish society. It is the story of an insider’s view of the world of deaf children that coexisted with the world of hearing adults. It is the story of the suppression and stigmatisation of sign language.

I was born hearing, the oldest of my parents’ four children. In 1967, at the age of four, I lost my hearing. The diagnosis shifted me from a state of ← 1 | 2 → “normality” to a decidedly “abnormal” situation. I became someone with a lifelong medical condition, a view that would later colour my outlook on life. My deaf identity was attributed a stigmatic quality that placed me amongst the “marginal” and “inferior” social groups (O’Connell 2016). Goffman (1963, p. 3) defines stigma as an “attribute that is deeply discrediting”, reducing the person that possesses the stigma “from a whole and usual person to a tainted and discredited” one. The following year, in 1968, my parents sent me to a “special school” for deaf children in Dublin. I started school around the time when institutions had power to label any behaviour like communicating in sign language as evidence of abnormality. This kind of power was apparent in my school where sign language was outlawed and it was routine to physically punish deaf children for signing. Even with the looming threat of punishment, the children continued to sign regardless. By socialising with them, I learned sign language and was able to use my hands and body to describe memories, situations and actions. Learning came naturally and sign language became part of my identity like a birth right. I found much joy in visually discovering the social world through signs.

My childhood was not an ordered, coherent world. It was fragmented by movement between residential school and family home. I lived in school as a boarder and visited my family at the weekend and during school holidays. In school, I was part of a culture that was quite outside the bounds of social experiences that my family members were accustomed to. It was difficult for my family to know what the deaf world looked like inside residential school. While I loved going home, it was always something of a challenge to try hold back from expressing any aspect of deaf culture. I was silenced by my father’s rejection of sign language which took away the opportunity to build a solid relationship with him in later years. My father’s disregard for sign language needs to be seen in the context of the social stigma of the time. He was acting on advice from received an audiologist who warned him that sign language interfered with speech development.1 The thought of his son growing up without speech must have frightened him. I believe my father developed hostile feelings towards sign language as ← 2 | 3 → a consequence. I have no doubt he wanted the best for his son and thought the right thing to do at the time was to disallow sign language in the family home. My siblings therefore did not have to concern themselves with sign language. Since their whole world evolved around being able to hear and speak, it was impossible for them to imagine an alternative world such as the one I encountered in school. They never got to experience stigma that deaf people experienced in their everyday lives. At home, I abandoned all traces of deaf culture which engendered feelings of alienation inside me.

My childhood was interspersed with movement between two distinct cultures. This fragmented world caused me to question the meaning of “home”. Where was home in the context of such movement? The constant shift between school and family created a sense of falling between two stools and not knowing whether to remain in one place or move to the other. My struggles for acceptance as a sign language person centred on knowing where I belonged. How did I make sense of this fragmented world? What happened to a sense of belonging when sign language was denigrated and proscribed? What did belonging mean in such contexts? The term “belonging” is an ambiguous concept and is difficult to pin down in a single definition. Antonisch (2010) suggests that its meaning is dependent on a number of contexts and situations. In this book, I use the term to refer to my yearning for attachment to sign language and show how the prevalent stigma caused me to develop feelings of alienation. There was always something of the outsider in being deaf in a hearing family because I found it difficult to feel comfortable about my attachment to sign language. As this book will demonstrate, my experience of belonging was undermined by the rejection of sign language and the experience of stigma.


XII, 188
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (August)
deaf education deaf belonging autoethnography
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XII, 188 pp.

Biographical notes

Noel O'Connell (Author)

Noel O’Connell is a postdoctoral fellow at the Research and Graduate School, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. He has worked as a lecturer in Irish Sign Language and deaf education and as a researcher in the area of translation and identity. He has published widely on autoethnography, deaf education and sign language.


Title: Belonging
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