Young South Asian deaf people and their families: negotiating relationships and identities



Abstract This paper explores how various and competing identity claims are negotiated by young deaf people and their families. Our findings, based on group and individual interviews with young South Asian deaf people and individual interviews with their families, illustrate the complex realities of identity negotiation and how this process occurs against the backdrop of ethnicity, religion, gender, racism and deafness. More generally, the structures against which these negotiations take place influence the identity choices to be negotiated. Equally, the struggles to define self-hood in meaningful and fulfilling ways show agency and ingenuity at work. This helps us to understand a fundamental tension facing young South Asian deaf people as they make sense of their deafness. Deaf culture represented a source of strength and inclusion in a community, which reaffirmed and respected their difference as deaf people, while at the same time denying and undermining their ethnic and religious difference.


Making sense of social identity has always been central to sociological thought (see Keith and Pile 1993). Knowing who we are and seeking legitimacy for this understanding of ourselves is at the heart of social life, combining the ‘most mundane of things’ with ‘the most extraordinary’ (Jenkins 1996: 3). At its most straightforward, identity marks the way in which individuals and collectives are distinguished in their social relationships from other individuals and collectives (Simmel 1971). Identity, however, also embraces ‘being’ and ‘becoming’; thereby reflecting practice and process, (Jenkins 1996). Several recent writers, for example, have emphasised the flexibility, situationality and hybridity of identity claims, according to which it is possible to identity a dynamic interplay as we make sense of the different influences on our life (Hall 1990, Papastrergiadis 1998). In this way multiple identifications become possible. At the same time, modernist notions of identity, in which structural constraints limit the range of identity claims one can make, remind us of the importance of power, ideology, politics, structure and history in legitimating people’s sense of identity (see Bauman 1995). There is thus some limit to the identities we can assume.

Consequently, identities are neither chaotic and liable to construction according to free-will, nor wholly structured and pre-determined (Bourdieu 1977). They are actively cultivated within a variety of structures and ideological frameworks. The formation and maintenance of identity occurs within a dynamic space involving negotiation and engagement (Giddens 1991). The family forms an important part of this dynamic space, embodying structural and personal factors as well as historical and current social relationships (see Brannen et al. 1994, Jenks 1996). Family life is thus both constituted and constitutive, mediating the ways individuals come to understand themselves and present this understanding to others (see Bourdieu 1977).

In this respect, family life becomes a dynamic combination of individual and social action (Calhoun et al. 1993). Consequently, the role played by the family in reproducing values and behaviours is vital in understanding an individual’s identity (see Ahmad et al. 1998). The reproduction of cultural values of honour and shame, identity and religion, obligations and expectations, relationships with kin and gender roles, including sexual morality are regarded as essential to family responsibilities (Anthias 1992). And such norms may be constructed and policed in relation to the perceived opposing values of out-groups.

The family, therefore, represents a site of cultural reproduction as well as the realisation of cultural norms and values (Rex 1991). This has particular significance for South Asian families living in the UK and, as such, family-based socialisation serves the twin functions of imparting religious and cultural values and countering, what may be seen as, the conflicting or corrupting influences of the wider society (Anwar 1979, Afshar 1994). Perceptions of new freedoms as threatening to the continuation of traditional cultural values, such as parental authority and obligations, possible changes in marriage choices, and concerns about sexual permissiveness are held strongly by the older generation of South Asian people (Anwar 1979, Modood et al. 1994). Young people, for their part, adopt their own views seeking sustenance from different and often conflicting value systems. Changes to parental value systems may not come solely from a rejection, a relatively rare phenomenon, of these values, (see Drury 1991), but from partial and contingent acceptance and reinterpretation of some of them – thus constructing ‘hybrid’ identities (see Papastergiadis 1998). Both through globalisation – the movement of people, goods and cultural artefacts – and through living in a multi-racial society, young people can have access to a variety of other identity claims. This variety includes being a ‘young person’ within a Western context – with its emphasis on independence and autonomy – as well as the more mundane realities of school, home life and social networks (see Skelton and Valentine 1998).

Identity politics, therefore, is especially salient in terms of the presumed predicament of the ‘second generation’. Academic policy and lay discourses tend to over-emphasise ‘cultural conflict’ between young people and their parents, thus racialising the routine negotiation of values and behaviours between generations (see Brah 1992). And, although generational change is observed within South Asian communities, it is characterised by changes other than those relating to age, such as education, class, social and cultural capital, and a different engagement with the state compared to the parents’ generation (Drury 1991, Afshar 1994, Modood et al. 1994). Literature on inter-generational relations presents a picture of cultural retention and successful negotiation of identities; outright rejection of ethnic and religious identities remains rare in the second generation.

More broadly, this cultural retention embodies notions of language, religion, ethnicity, nationality and a shared heritage (Fenton 1999). As well as offering a form of self-identification, a symbol of belonging, pride and mobilisation (Samed 1992), cultural reproduction can also have a wider political significance, defining exclusion by a powerful majority. A sense of difference, enforced by racism and discrimination thus remains an important influence in how South Asian young people make sense of their lives.

Deafness can offer a similar form of pride, resistance and mobilisation, in response to how the ‘hearing world’ classifies people who are deaf. Deaf people’s struggles for a positive identity rest on a re-framing of the disadvantage they experience; the disadvantage results from the negative attitudes of a hearing society which fails to communicate effectively with deaf people in either sign or spoken language. Society thus infantilises and marginalises deaf people because of their difference. Such oppression is legitimised by the range of professionals who work with deaf people; according to Lane (1993), oppressors wearing the ‘mask of benevolence’. This powerful and necessary critique of the hearing world’s response to deaf people has led to the development of an ascribed Deaf culture. Through this, deaf people can come to celebrate their difference, by asserting a collective identity, based on a combination of social, linguistic and political gateways (Ladd 1991). British Sign Language (BSL), for example, has emerged as a predominant symbol of Deaf identity, facilitating communication and supporting a positive sense of identity, which enables deaf people to distinguish their experience from hearing people. Deaf social clubs further facilitate this cohesion.

The construction of Deaf culture, however, is itself open to criticism at a variety of levels. Of particular importance to this paper, is the criticism of the, largely white, ‘Deaf community’, by minority ethnic deaf people and their families for not responding to ethnic and religious diversity, and for racial marginalisation of minority ethnic deaf people (Ahmad et al. 1998). As well as providing young people with an alternative cultural framework in which to make sense of their life, the predominant symbol of a Deaf identity, British Sign Language, poses a potential barrier between parent and child. For example, parents and young people often do not share a language and so have problems in conveying their thoughts and feelings to each other; developing positive relationships when there is little communication is far from easy. One of the central mediums of socialisation and cultural reproduction – routine family life with a shared language – is thus compromised (see Beasley and Moore 1995, Corker 1998). Parents, especially those from minority ethnic groups, may see Deaf culture in opposition to their own cultural and religious norms, while the young person somehow has to negotiate between Deaf identity and other identities. This paper explores the territory at the intersection of these different and, at times, oppositional identity claims.

The study

To allow an exploration of complex and contingent perspectives, behaviours and inter-relationships, we used group interviews and in-depth individual interviews with deaf young people, and individual interviews with their parents. We conducted 14 group interviews (43 respondents). Each group, with no more than four participants, was gender specific, and had respondents of similar ages who attended the same school or social group. We also carried out individual interviews with 15 deaf young people of the same age. Building upon this first phase and exploring emerging issues in more depth we undertook a further 12 interviews with the same age group.

The sample of young people was generated through contacts with community groups, schools, colleges, education authorities, social groups and networking in three localities in the North of England and one in Scotland. The interviews with young people were held in schools, colleges and youth clubs.

The sample of 70 deaf young people included 36 males and 34 females. The mean age of the sample was 15 years 9 months: 16 years 9 months for men and 14 years 11 months for women. Eighteen respondents were < 14; 30 were 14–17; and 22 were 18–29 years of age. In terms of religion, 59 were Muslim, three were Sikh, seven were Hindu and one was Christian. Forty-eight of the young people interviewed were at school, nine were at college, one attended University, seven were working, two were unemployed, one was on a training course and the remaining two were carers at home. Most young people lived at home with their parents. One lived with her mother – who was separated from her father – and with an aunt and uncle. Two young people were in shared accommodation with other young people. Of the total sample, three were married although one was still waiting for her husband to come from Pakistan, two and a half years after the wedding. Two of the young people lived with white partners (one deaf and one hearing) with whom they had children.

To supplement the material obtained from conversations with South Asian deaf young people, we spoke to 15 hearing family members, who assumed parental responsibility for a deaf young person. These included 10 mothers, three fathers, one aunt and one sister. Three of these families had two or more deaf children.

The 15 parents consisted of 11 Pakistani Muslims, two Indian Hindus, one Indian Sikh and one Indian Muslim from East Africa. Eight of these were relatives of a young person whom we had previously interviewed.

A topic guide, for use in both group and individual interviews, identified a number of key themes developed from a literature review, discussions with key informants, advice from an ‘expert’ advisory committee and relevant previous work (Ahmad et al. 1998 and Chamba et al. 1998). The interviews focused on home life, family relations, language, education, use of free time, peer networks and religion. The themes raised by the group interviews were explored in more detail during the individual interviews with young people. To aid discussion of these issues with deaf people, some of whom had minimal language skills in either BSL or spoken language, we used photographs (of a deaf party), drawings (of a young man and young woman) and show-cards (with single words denoting ethnicity, religion, deaf/disabled identity, gender etc.). Informants drew or wrote on the drawings the issues, which were important to them, chose and rated cards, and discussed the photographs in relation to ethnicity, deafness, gender, etc.

The narratives of young people informed our discussions with other family members. These interviews aimed to cover the same topics as with the young people but from the family’s perspectives.

Young people were offered a choice of interviewer (in terms of BSL or English, and gender of interviewer). They decided the language of the interview: BSL or Sign Supported English (60) and English (10). The interviews in BSL were interpreted with a voice over by a BSL/English interpreter. The interviewer asking the questions in English, however, was also a fluent BSL user and could therefore assess the voice over by the BSL/English interpreter. A discussion after every interview was able to clarify any possible areas of misinterpretation. Parents were offered a similar choice (in terms of language and gender of the interviewer). Eight interviews were conducted in Punjabi, five in English, one in Urdu and one in English/Punjabi. Those conducted in Punjabi and Urdu were translated into English for analysis. All interviews with young people and parents were tape-recorded.

Transcribed interviews with parents and young people were organised according to analytical headings. Following accepted conventions of qualitative analysis (see Gubrium and Silverman 1989), information was taken from the transcripts and transferred onto a map or framework, allowing comparison by theme and case. The respondents’ accounts were organised by categories and sub-categories, suggested by the topic guides as well as new categories that emerged from analysis of transcripts. The material included under each heading reflected both the range and the frequency of respondents’ views on particular issues, and formed the basis of generalising their experience. This enabled a comparative analysis of different aspects of experience, as well as the significance of the individuals’ background in making sense of this experience. In the accounts below, pseudonyms are used to protect respondents’ identities.

The accounts of young people and their parents

In presenting the narratives of parents and young people, we explore four broad and inter-related themes: interpretation of deafness; language and communication; socialisation and cultural reproduction; and responses to Deaf culture and BSL. The concluding section takes up the main findings and locates them within wider debates about identity and family relationships. As we have noted, the sample was largely made up of young people (59 out of 70) and parents (11 out of 15), who could be best described as ‘Pakistani Muslim’. Where possible we use the experience of the smaller number of ‘Indian’ families who practice Hinduism or Sikhism (still a sizeable group of 10 young people and four parents) to draw out possible similarities and differences with the Pakistani Muslim families. However, our material shows little, if any divergence in perspectives or experiences within the South Asian group. We acknowledge, however, that the small number of Hindu and Sikh young people could have an effect upon the production of narratives, making it especially difficult, for instance, to explore fully ideas of ‘difference’.

Understanding and making sense of deafness

Having a deaf child has social and psychological consequences for hearing parents (see also Chamba et al. 1998, Gregory et al. 1995). These include feelings of guilt, frustration, anxiety, helplessness, isolation, notions of unfairness and resentment. These responses mirror those of parents of children with chronic illnesses and disabilities (Beresford et al. 1996). Many viewed the birth of a deaf child as a tragedy, difficult to comprehend as well as threatening in terms of its consequences for the child and parents2.

Chronic and disabling conditions have an important impact on personal biography and identity (Schou and Hewison 1999, Atkin and Ahmad 2000) and the parents’ own response to deafness affected the young persons’ views about being deaf. For example, 15-year-old Bushra Khan, was aware that her parents resented having a deaf child. They loved her but had little confidence in her abilities:

My mother panicked. She was upset. She didn’t know how to communicate. She felt it would be impossible. She wanted me to be hearing like everyone else. She did not want a deaf child.

This is a reminder that loving relationships do not always promote a positive Deaf identify. We return to this below. Many parents believed that deafness made their children socially and morally more vulnerable, and limited their life chances. Maryam Fiaz, speaking of her 18-year-old daughter, said:

She does not have much understanding. When you get married you have to be responsible for so many things, looking after the house, cooking for the person you get married to, all kinds of things.

Parental concerns focused on issues such as the ability to successfully negotiate transitions they deemed ‘normal’ for hearing children: a good education; social skills; knowledge of parental religions and cultures; and assuming adult roles such as having a job and being married. Parents felt that deafness presented additional barriers for their children. Parents also noted the changing nature of problems faced by young people as they got older. This worried Maryam Fiaz:

A mother who has deaf children does not get over her difficulties, you are always thinking about it. My daughter is now an adult. Other girls her age are married … who will marry her when she has so little understanding? It’s when you start thinking of these kinds of things, where do these thoughts lead you? Pain, that’s what.

Other evidence confirms how parental concerns are heightened as their deaf children grow older (Chamba et al. 1998, Ahmad et al. 1998).

Perhaps, not surprisingly, young people felt that their parents’ view of deafness undermined their own confidence and made it difficult to sustain a positive self-image. Many young people, for example, felt that their parents treated their hearing siblings more favourably. Fifteen-year-old Bushra Khan, remarked:

It seems as though, because I was deaf, they kept me in the background. They always involve my younger sister. I think it’s because I’m deaf. They don’t think I can handle things.

Bushra, who wanted to be a schoolteacher, went on to describe her parents’ surprise that she was able to learn English. Deafness thus subverted ‘normal’ family hierarchies; the roles the deaf person would usually be entitled to perform were passed onto hearing siblings. Young people resented such ‘lack of respect’, a term used repeatedly to describe their treatment by both family and hearing people. Such social diminution, or what Finklestein (1993) describes as ‘social death’, within the family sometimes reflected the marginalisation they experienced in the wider society. However, as we shall see, family life is not always so negative.

Stereotypes of supportive extended South Asian families are common (critiques by Ahmad 1996; Atkin and Rollings 1996). Recent evidence, however, finds that the extended family is often a mixed blessing (Chamba et al. 1998) and sometimes oppressive, providing moral policing but little practical support (Katbamna et al. 2000). In our study, the extended family was of some help but also posed many challenges for the deaf young person and their parents. Parents sometimes found themselves blamed for their child’s deafness. Parents and children also felt socially isolated and ostracised. Shahab Khan, father of an 18-year-old son, described his family’s reaction:

They said we must have sinned to have a deaf child. My mother and sister used to say I must have done something wrong … There was a strong tradition of politics in our family and [grandfather] wanted his grandson to be a lawyer. [Grandfather] used to cry about him being deaf.

Most parents attempted to adjust to the deafness by treating children ‘as if they were normal’. Mr. Bachan, father of 16-year-old Amitabh, typified this response:

I mean our son is normal in a way apart from hearing. We do not consider him deaf. That is why he didn’t go to a special deaf school. This is why he does not learn sign language. It wouldn’t be good for him (our emphasis).

Numerous studies report such constructions of normalcy, by discounting the specifics of a condition (e.g.Atkin and Ahmad 2000). As we shall see, such an approach, however, meant parents can sometimes fail to recognise the benefits for their children both of Deaf culture and of associating with other deaf people.

Not all young people felt excluded; those who experienced exclusion would still describe a generally loving family atmosphere. Parents often criticised the extended family for having negative views of deafness, albeit that parents’ own perspectives could also be negative. This reflects the complexities of the parents’ response. They do have a sense of sadness at having a deaf child, but at the same time they wish to ensure the best opportunities for their child. More specifically, deaf young people and their families can describe loving and caring relationships similar to those described by their non-deaf peers (see Brannen et al. 1994). Seventeen-year-old Shazia Akhtar, when asked about her relationship with her parents commented:

I think we are a close family. We all look after each other. My mum and dad love me and I love them.

Parents were vital allies for their children, while at the same time making deaf children feel excluded and less valued because of poor communication. Some young people felt fully included in family life. Ayub Ahmed, aged 21, when asked if he felt valued by his parents, remarked:

Everyone in the family is treated the same. There is no preferential treatment. I’d support my brother and sister and they’d support me. In this family there is equality.

Twenty-year-old Ibrahim Nabi was asked the same question and commented:

My parents try hard not to exclude me and I do feel part of the family. Basically we’re together. That’s good.

Others described themselves as the family favourites, having a greater say in family affairs than hearing siblings.

Language and communication

Language is symbolic of culture, ethnicity and heritage and a central vehicle for constructing shared identities and defining out-groups. Minority ethnic communities have struggled hard to maintain their linguistic heritage and to share it with their children. Such linguistic heritage also connects generations and countries and plays a crucial part in sustaining community and religious ties (Anderson 1983, Ahmed 1992). This is why any perceived threat to home language may also be seen as a threat to family and community relationships, cultural reproduction and religious adherence. This represents an important part of the background for understanding the use of language between deaf children and their families.

In our study communication remained limited between most young people and their families and for many there was no common language. Two reasons explain this. First, few hearing family members knew BSL and most parents saw BSL as a threat to, rather than a vehicle for, enhancing family relations. We will return to this later in the paper. Second, many family members had limited access to the child’s other language, English, and few children who used spoken language, had skills in or were supported in developing their home spoken language. Not surprisingly, most young people bemoaned the lack of communication at home. For example, Mohammed Waseem, a 12-year-old BSL user, finds it difficult to communicate with parents. They speak Punjabi, which he does not know: ‘It’s boring at home. There’s nothing. No communication’. South Asian parents, like other hearing parents, missed not being able to speak to their children in the home language, or fully to involve them in family conversations (see Fletcher 1989)3. Equally, young deaf people resented being at the margins of the family, excluded from conversations and other important aspects of family life – although this was not universally experienced.

A few families had begun to use BSL, usually with support from the child’s school. Mothers and siblings, especially sisters, were more likely to learn BSL than fathers. Learning BSL, however, was not seen as easy. Many mothers felt that their ability to learn BSL was compromised by their limited skills in English3. Siblings had greater success in learning BSL than mothers and thus became important mediators between parents and deaf children. The siblings who interpreted were very often also the deaf young person’s major source of emotional support. The reliance on particular hearing family members as go-betweens with the deaf family member is also reported for white families (Jones et al. 1987, Hetu et al. 1992). The fact that mothers and sisters make greater efforts to acquire the skills to communicate with the deaf young person is also reflective of the importance of women as ‘carers’, keepers of tradition and in holding families together (Anwar 1979, Atkin and Ahmad 2000).

However, brothers too sometimes played an important role in facilitating communication. Twenty-two-year old Adeeba Ahmad said:

If I tell my brother things he will tell my parents but [if] I tell my parents, they don’t understand really.

Older deaf brothers, in particular, were important role models for younger deaf brothers. They helped in cultural socialisation and, in particular, in religious teaching and observance. They also partly compensated for the fathers’ relative absence from their deaf children’s lives. Strong relationships between fathers and deaf young people were thus uncommon. Fifteen-year-old John Kang’s mother knew basic signs but there was little communication with his father. Fathers were also described as ‘too busy’ to learn sign language. This seemed to reflect ideas about the role of men in family life (see above) as well as more practical influences such as the need to work. Many of the BSL classes, for example, were held during the day. In our fieldwork sites, it was almost exclusively mothers who attended BSL classes aimed at South Asian parents. Nonetheless, in some families, fathers did play the lead role as communicators. This, however, had its own problems. Maryam Fiaz described the problems that arose as a consequence of her husband being their daughter’s main source of information:

He has always been the best with her. But now my daughter is 18 and has problems with her periods, her father cannot be as involved with that, can he? That is up to me but I don’t know how to make her understand.

Limited communication, typical of most families, allowed them to ‘get by’ although, as noted, deaf young people often felt excluded, and the lack of communication with certain family members hindered the development of strong ties. Respondents specifically bemoaned their compromised ability to communicate ‘deep things’. Being able to explore ‘deep things’ became more important with age. Mother, Arifa Begum, explained:

He nags us all the time. We haven’t got the signs to make him realise. As he has got older, his wishes are getting bigger. We can make him understand all the routine things but not the deep things.

Madhu Patel, whose daughter is 20, agreed and cited specific examples:

About sex education and about religion as well. I find it difficult to explain sometimes.

In recognition of the limited communication, parents sometimes avoided explaining certain things, or excluded deaf young people from particular activities or discussions. Frustration at not being able to communicate properly, on the part of both deaf young people and family members, was common. Salma Jabbar, a mother, explained:

If sometimes he doesn’t understand what I am saying, he starts thinking what has my mum said to me. Obviously he gets upset and he sits down. So I don’t try and make him understand too much because he can’t understand a lot. I go quiet and then I get upset.

Salma Yousef (aged 12) remarked, ‘I can’t follow things. I’m deaf. It’s difficult for me … That’s my life. I’m on my own’. This pattern was repeated in most families and young people’s frustration could not be summed up more strongly than in the eloquence of 14-year-old Ismael Kamal: ‘Your hands are waiting to say something and there’s nobody to say it to’. The sadness of family members, especially mothers, and the loneliness of family life for many deaf young people was, therefore, a common theme in our discussions with young people and parents. Twenty-two-year old Adeeba Ahmad also has a deaf brother:

They all sit chatting away at dinner and my brother and I are just sitting. We are really missing out. No one will talk to us at all. They treat us as being lower down than them. It can be very, very lonely at times.

The number of families where the young deaf person faced no communication problems and felt highly valued was relatively small, but such examples showed how parents and children could build strong relationships with good communication.

The isolation and limited communication at home, many young deaf people felt, dented their confidence to face the wider, ‘hearing’ world. Social networks were difficult to develop with hearing young people and their attempts to develop networks with deaf peers were sometimes resented by parents (see later). Whilst most young people as they grew up developed resources and networks to overcome their isolation, a few remained extremely isolated and had low self-esteem.

Communication and socialisation

Socialisation into cultural and religious values, against the backdrop of a potentially hostile majority culture, is a major concern of minority ethnic groups (Rex 1991, Anthias 1992, Modood et al. 1994, Ahmad 1996). The poor communication hinders routine socialisation. Equally, the possible greater freedoms afforded to some deaf children, introduce them to influences many parents would wish to guard their children against (see Ahmad 1996). The limited access to a family’s networks compromises the deaf young persons’ ability to learn through observation and participation in routine family and community life (Ahmad et al. 1998). The resultant loss of social and cultural capital makes it difficult for young deaf people to function as full members of their families and communities. This creates potential difficulties for the relationship between parent and child.

For example, most young people and parents, irrespective of deafness, employ various strategies to avoid conflict (Drury 1991, Afshar 1994, Modood et al. 1994). This is usually done through using particular and flexible interpretations of cultural rules, employing different cultural symbols to counter particular arguments, and avoiding open displays of behaviours which would cause offence. For example, a woman may use her identity as a ‘Muslim woman’ to challenge restrictions, which she argues, are located in ‘ethnic culture’. People negotiate ‘deviant’ behaviour against the backdrop of normative assumptions by emphasising the unique features of their situation, giving a legitimate excuse to contravene norms without damaging identities or severing relationships (Finch and Mason 1994). Such negotiations of behaviour, if they are not irreparably to damage one’s social or moral identity, require cultural understanding and social skills. Both deaf adults from minority ethnic groups and their families have argued that deaf people are excluded from acquiring such understanding both by their communities and institutions (Ahmad et al. 1998). Their sometimes crude understanding of their families’ ethnic and religious values sometimes made it difficult for young deaf people to negotiate behaviour in this way.

One particular area of concern in our study was the problem of teaching deaf young people about their religion. Mosques and temples, which provide such teaching, seemed to make no BSL provision or show any Deaf awareness. Perhaps, not surprisingly, few young people valued their attendance at mosques or temples as places of instruction, religious observance or social life. Equally, both young deaf people and parents bemoaned the young people’s limited religious knowledge. Twenty-two-year old Adeeba Ahmad complained:

I don’t know anything about Islam. I have no idea about it. I never went to mosque. My parents have not told me anything … I know we eat halal meat but I don’t know what it is.

Twenty-year-old Gurdev Singh, a Sikh young man goes to the temple with his parents:

I can only hear a little bit. I don’t understand it all really. It just goes over my head. There’s nobody who signs there. My mum and dad don’t explain at all. They don’t understand that I can’t understand what’s happening in the temple.

In an extreme case, one reportedly Hindu child could not tell us his religion. Deaf young people’s limited understanding of their religion, both in terms of scripture and values, concerned parents greatly. The young people’s reluctance to attend mosques or temples was resented by parents.

However, despite concerns about limited religious understanding, most young people knew enough about their families’ cultural values to avoid conflict and to negotiate appropriate behaviour, and are thus able to build supportive family relationships. Some parents proudly talked of their children’s religious understanding, particular since they were aware of the difficulties of communicating such knowledge. Arifa Begum said of her 20-year-old son: ‘He understands Islam well. Thank God, he does have Islamic knowledge’. Nighat Hassan said of her 20-year-old brother:

He never touched alcohol, he never touched a woman and he never went clubbing. He goes regularly to mosque. He reads the Qur’an and prays five times a day. He wants to learn more and he feels because of his hearing he probably has missed out on a lot.

The deaf girls emphasised the socially sanctioned, importance of modesty and sexual morality to their own and family identity. The comments of 17-year-old Shehnaz Akhtar sum up both her basic understanding of modesty and appropriate gendered behaviour, as well as the rigidity of some of her understanding:

I know it is important to wear a scarf. If someone comes, you have to go upstairs and fetch your scarf. Wearing a scarf shows respect’.

So far, this is a model summing up of the symbolic significance of the scarf. However, she then goes on:

[Mother] also told me, that if a man comes into the house to visit us and I don’t have a scarf on, they could marry you … If you wear your scarf, it means you’ve already been married or something like that. Oh, I don’t know.

The example she uses, although illustrating some misunderstanding, conveys the message concerning the symbolic importance of modesty to female sexual morality. To this extent, Shehnaz is well socialised into cultural mores regarding gendered behaviour.

A few young people showed a high level of sophistication in their understandings, which allowed them to challenge parental views from a firm basis. Seventeen-year-old Misbah Nabi’s views on clothing and modesty indicate a challenge to ‘ethnic values’ from the position of ‘religious’ understanding:

My mother says clothes, for example, like skirts and tops, mother said I’m not allowed to wear that. I think that is strange because it’s all right. It’s long, so my mother is wrong. As long as I’m covered up, it’s OK. I used to say to my friends, ‘Does your mother and father let you do that’, and their mother and father says, yes they can but my mother says no. And that’s made me realise that my parents are wrong.

Finally, an important symbol of cultural reproduction is marriage within the ethnic and religious community. Modood et al. (1994), for example, note that their African Caribbean older respondents bemoaned the tendency among younger people to set up families with white partners; this was perceived as a threat to the survival of African Caribbean identity. Within the Deaf community, there are debates about marriages to Deaf and hearing people; the concerns are not just pragmatic but also political. Marriages across ethnic or religious boundaries are rare among South Asians, especially Muslims (Modood et al. 1997). Among our respondents, both young people’s and parents’ attitudes to ‘appropriate’ marriage partners followed this pattern. Some gender differences were, however, observed. Young men were more likely, although still few in numbers, to express a wish to marry white partners than young women. There were more mixed views on marrying a hearing or deaf partner.

The few young men who would prefer to marry a white hearing girl believed this would counter the disadvantages of being both deaf and South Asian. Ikram Hussain explained:

It is not a good idea for deaf people to marry deaf people. How would you cope? It would also help if they were white and spoke English. They would understand a lot more about what is going on. Deaf people need that.

Most young people, however, emphasised the importance of having a partner from the same religious and ethnic group and of accepting parental wishes. Eleven-year-old Shehla Naz explained:

My parents want me to marry a South Asian man, a Muslim man. I wouldn’t marry a white man, no, definitely not, because of religious differences, that’s why.

For parents, deafness was a particular concern in making decisions about the appropriateness of a potential partner, although parents would sometimes disagree between themselves and with their children on such choices. Ghulam Nabi, father of two teenage deaf children, remarked:

I want them to marry someone they like because it is their life. I will try and introduce them to suitable partner and let them decide.

Parents, however, because of generally negative attitudes towards deafness, were keener than their children to suggest a hearing partner. Adeeba Ahmad, aged 22, said:

[Father] says, I will have to change my mind [and marry a hearing man]. I said, it’s my life. I want to be able to communicate with my husband and I think it’s not fair. I think communication is really important. I don’t want to be sitting in the house not even able to talk to one another.

Encountering Deaf culture and British Sign Language

Young people did have a sense of deafness, although as we have seen this is entwined with the question of family networks. Over 90 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents (Ahmad et al. 1998). A Deaf identity is thus rarely developed through family-based socialisation. A sense of belonging and identification with Deaf culture, if it occurs, is engendered through the use of BSL, peer groups and attendance at Deaf events and institutions. Young people who had such contact found it helped them to legitimate their sense of deafness as well as making sense of the discrimination they faced. To this extent, Deaf culture was reaffirming, provided confidence and located the disadvantages associated with deafness in the oppressive practices of the hearing world. Twenty-year-old Sadhna Patel expressed a strong sense of identity; for her contact with deaf people:

[They] helped build me up, if you like, make me feel positive, one step at a time. I had to think how to become strong. I’ve learnt to develop myself.

Developing and sustaining a Deaf identity within the context of family relationships was, however, far from straightforward. Minority ethnic parent ambivalence towards Deaf culture and BSL has been noted (Ahmad et al. 1998) and this was certainly reflected among the parents we interviewed. There was also a fear that schools were doing little to consolidate children’s religious or cultural identity. At worst schools and Deaf culture were seen as a threat to children’s ethnic identity, summed up in the comments of one mother: ‘I send my son to school and he comes back an Englishman’ (Ahmad et al. 1998). Studies of South Asian communities’ inter-generational relationships and cultural reproduction recount similar concerns about religious and cultural erosion and external threats to cultural values (Afshar 1994, Modood et al. 1994, Ahmad 1996, see also Anthias 1992).

As part of this, many parents prefer the child not to learn BSL. Learning BSL, when parents have no skills in this language, was seen as emphasising the linguistic divide between the hearing family and the deaf child. This sometimes created the fear, among parents, of their exclusion from the child’s life and of excluding children from their life, and of potentially losing their child to the (white) Deaf culture. Kaneez Rasool, whose 17-year-old son had learnt BSL, commented:

They understood us more when they were little. Now they have their own language, not just our way of communication (our emphasis).

Some prohibited their child from using BSL at home. Nighat Hassan said:

I used to tell him, put his arms down and start trying to communicate with me properly (our emphasis).

These references to ‘their own language’ and ‘communicating properly’ are indicative of parental ambivalence towards BSL; it is neither ‘proper’ nor is it ‘our language’. Some parents celebrated the ‘fruits’ of resistance to BSL. Another parent, Arifa Begum, noted: ‘It is good, a person should be able to talk’. Parents’ responses also relate to the normalisation strategies we noted above. As we have seen, however, in most cases BSL is little used at home because of the reluctance of the hearing family members to learn to use it. Young people often have to shift between using BSL and lip reading, while not feeling particularly confident in either. Such shifting of languages is commonly employed by multi-lingual children; however, it is more difficult when a deaf child has limited speech and when little professional support is available in learning spoken home language (see Chamba et al. 1998 and Ahmad et al. 1998).

The use of BSL was also talked about in terms of parents’ suspicion of Deaf culture, which they believed would divide them from their children. Not being able to communicate with the child compromised their ability to share their children’s world and to protect them. To some extent, young people were sympathetic to these views. Three themes help us make sense of this.

First, association with Deaf culture (Deaf friends, attendance at the Deaf clubs, use of BSL) was sometimes regarded as a threat to religious and ethnic values and family solidarity. Deaf culture was seen as no more than an extension of the white culture and parents felt threatened by their child’s incursions into these networks (see also Ahmad et al. 1998). Parents mentioned individualism, their fear of the young person becoming over-westernised and about sexual permissiveness in the Deaf clubs. They also saw the use of alcohol in social activities at the Deaf club as culturally and religiously unacceptable. Kishore Kumar, a Hindu parent, noted:

I think it is important to keep our own ways and customs. Just because English people do it, it doesn’t mean that we should do it. I want to keep the difference between us.

Such narratives also illustrate how essentialising discourses are also a part of the ways in which ethnicity is produced by people from minority ethnic groups4. Parents also feared that because of better communication between their deaf children and the Deaf community, they might find it difficult to retain their child’s affection; ‘losing’ the child, both symbolically and literally was a strong fear. This fear was not without foundation. For example, in one of the localities, conversion of several young South Asian deaf people to a Christian group with strong networks in the white Deaf community terrified the parents. That some of these converts were involved in an official capacity with deaf young people damaged the integrity of local services in parents’ view.

Young people, although finding their parents’ views restrictive, shared at least some of their concerns. Twelve-year-old Salma Yousef noted:

[White deaf people] mess around, they’re silly, they say rude things. There are pubs there and boys and a lot of messing about.

As part of this some of the older deaf children were also beginning to be aware of possible tensions between their wish to identify with the culture of their parents and associating with Deaf culture. That this was a response as much to the white and Christian culture as to the Deaf culture is clear from parents’ and young people’s more favourable views about South Asian (largely Muslim) Deaf clubs. Not all localities included in our study had such facilities. One, however, was particularly lively with a strong and regular membership. The perceived role of the Deaf club in relation to respecting religious and cultural sensitivities, in providing gender appropriate activities, observing food and drink rules and safeguarding moral identities of the young people was an important arbiter of its acceptability. Ahmad et al. (1998) note the popularity of Deaf-led social groups among minority ethnic deaf people with most concentrating on reaffirming and celebrating their religious and cultural heritage. In the present study, young people as well as parents perceived the South Asian Deaf clubs as vehicles for re-socialising young people into their religion and ethnic culture. The one well-established club, with recent success in securing funding for two half-time development workers, was holding sessions for men and women on separate nights. And close liaison had been developed between the project staff and parents, to the extent that parents and young people used project workers as a general resource of advice and support. Deaf identity was also consolidated through attendance at these groups; but, importantly, it was no longer in conflict or competition with ethnic or religious identity. Young people shared parental approval of such clubs. Nadira Hussein, aged 16, had learnt much about her ethnicity and religion by attending the club: ‘My mother says I can come here now because I am learning about Muslim religion’. Others found the club fundamental in explaining the Qur’an to them, something to which they could not have access through the family or the mosque.

South Asian clubs, however, had some limitations. One young attender had stopped using the above club; his mother described how he resented the increasingly religious atmosphere of the club. A few young users expressed a preference for mixed gender groups, which were ‘more fun’. Equally, Ahmad et al. (1998) note the precarious funding mechanisms and limited resources of such initiatives.

Secondly, both parents and young people complained of racism within the Deaf community, something also reported by Ahmad et al. (1998). This functions at the level both of non-recognition of cultural or religious difference as well as overt racist behaviour. For example, 17-year-old Shehnaz Akhtar, wished there was a Deaf South Asian club in her area, as she felt her parents would support her attendance at such a club: ‘Everything is for white people, there is nothing for South Asian people’. This is part of more general concerns expressed by minority ethnic deaf people about the slow progress within the Deaf community in recognising ethnic diversity and tackling racism (Ahmad et al. 1998). Overt racism in Deaf clubs was an important issue. Kishore Kumar described a recent incident, at a Deaf club, involving his son:

There was an English man, he started making comments about Indian people, asking why they came to this country, saying they do all these things. He [son] didn’t say anything and then the man threatened to hit him and he got scared. He ran home and he was crying. He lost a lot of confidence.

Thirdly, gender played an important part in how parents responded to their deaf children’s relationship with the Deaf community. Most, as we have seen, felt that deafness made their children vulnerable. Parents responded differently to young men and women because of the gendered nature of moral identities. Muslim, Hindu and Sikh parents shared these views. Young deaf men were afforded greater freedoms, almost as a compensation for being deaf, than their hearing peers. Conversely, perceived threats to young deaf women’s moral identities were countered by resisting their incursions into the Deaf culture. Female moral identities are perceived to be more easily damaged and less easy to repair within South Asian communities, having consequences for the individual and the family and affecting marriage prospects (Wilson 1979, Mumtaz and Shaheed 1987, Katbamna et al. 2000). While one can bemoan the sexism of these normative values, their consequences for the families and young people are real and serious. Kishore Kumar commented:

They see English people do this so we can do it, children do say that, don’t they. They learn these things. In our culture if a girl does a wrong act then she can’t get married all her life, you know, how bad she is considered to be.

This offers another example of the process of racialisation. Threats to moral identities could be dealt with firmly. Sixteen-year-old Nadira Hussein, described how her family stopped her from attending college because of her friendships with young men:

My family are quite strict and they found out something that was a problem, so they finished college. So I have to stay at home and there’s been quite a bit of problems.

This change had consequences for Nadira: ‘So my confidence is not very good. It’s very difficult and also being deaf as well’. Drury (1991) notes that young South Asian women complain that their male counterparts are afforded greater freedoms, including sexual indiscretions; something certainly true of our respondents.

Finally, not all parents resisted their children’s relationship with the Deaf community. Although they wished to safeguard their children from the perceived excesses and potentially corrupting influences of the Deaf/white cultures, they also recognised the children’s need to develop links with the Deaf world. Concerns about isolation led to some parents encouraging attendance at the Deaf clubs, especially South Asian Deaf clubs.


Young people’s assertion of independence and autonomy is negotiated within the context of family relationships as well as external structures and networks. This informs more specific debates about the construction of Deaf identity. The constructions of identity are often contested, with the tendencies to argue that certain identities are more authentic than others or that one can try out or discard identities at will, as if these were consumable items. The political mobilisations around ‘black’, ‘disabled’ or ‘deaf’ identities privilege these definitions of self-hood over others (Sivanandan 1990, Lane 1993, Oliver 1996). Lane’s (1993) important work, for example, purports the notion of a global Deaf identity or culture; others go as far as to argue that deaf people constitute an ethnic group (see also Ladd 1990). On the other hand, post-modern arguments about identity, emphasising the malleability, situationality, historicity and hybridity of a potentially infinite number of identity claims sometimes fail to locate self-hood within the material and power axis (Papastergiadis 1998, reviews some of this work). There has been specific criticism of those who apply this view to Deaf culture (Smith and Campbell 1997, Wrigley 1996).

The findings from our work show the complex realities of identity negotiation in the lives of young South Asian deaf people and their parents, against the backdrop of ethnicity, religion, gender, racism and deafness (both in its physical and symbolic sense). The structures against which these negotiations take place influence the identity choices to be negotiated. Equally, the struggles to define self-hood in meaningful and fulfilling ways show agency and ingenuity at work. Identities, therefore, were neither totally imposed nor did they represent consumables to be donned or discarded at will.

That language structures thought and is a potent symbol of being is a truism. Having a shared language symbolises much more than an ability to communicate; it signifies a shared identity, a collective heritage, and facilitates the imagining of ties (Anderson 1983). Language is also inextricably linked to defining out-groups and of experiencing religion as a lived phenomenon (Ahmed 1992). Having a deaf child in a hearing family can seem for some, to threaten all these imagined certainties. Family-based learning, religious observance, establishment of religious and social institutions, minority ethnic media and businesses all play a part in this cultural maintenance and reproduction (Rex 1991, Anthias 1992, Modood et al. 1994). Alongside this, parents and families protect their younger members from the perceived threats from outsiders (Ahmad 1996). Having a deaf child poses threats to these certainties. Deafness is thus more than a physical phenomenon; it is perceived to be a threat to the deaf young person having full membership of the family and community. The sense of loss experienced by parents, the resistance to recognising the difference of their child and, for most parents, objection to learning BSL (described as ‘their’, i.e. deaf people’s language) all symbolise this threat.

However, the strategies employed to deny ‘deafness’ serve young deaf people poorly. Cultural isolation, religious marginalisation and the loneliness of family life were the sad realities for some young deaf people. Some aspects of the ‘social death’, described by Finklestein (1993), were symbolised by their more diminished role in the family and community. This, however, was far from straightforward or universal; some parents and young people described strong and loving relationships, in which parents were trying to secure the best opportunities for the child. The negotiation of deaf and ethnic/religious identities had to take place against this complex process.

Possession of social and cultural understanding is an important marker of identity. Having limited cultural understanding is, for example, reported to hinder minority ethnic deaf people’s attempts to negotiate behaviour (Ahmad et al. 1998). Both the parents and young people confirmed problems in acquiring cultural and religious understanding. The conversion of some young people to a Christian minority sect, was seen by families as a symbol of having weak religious and cultural roots. Equally, it symbolised the threats posed by the white/Deaf world. Most young people, however, felt they had developed sufficient religious and cultural roots to enable them to live their lives, to negotiate behaviour and protect their identities. Some young people, for example, articulated arguments about the cross-cutting and conflicting values of religious doctrine and cultural traditions to counter one against the other. Some young women could provide sophisticated articulations of the importance of dress appropriate to female modesty, dress which covered the body. Using this construction, arguments could be mounted to wear long skirts and tops as opposed to shalwar-kameez; the latter formulated as ‘ethnic’ dress. Equally, being deaf did not threaten the negotiation of marriages within their own ethnic and religious group. These aspects of identity were non-negotiable to most young people and parents alike. Where they differed was on the potential desirability of deaf (preferred by young people) and hearing partners (favoured by parents). To this extent, South Asian deaf young people seem no different from their South Asian hearing peers (Modood et al. 1994).

Gender played an important part in both family life and excursions into the Deaf culture. The enhanced role of mothers and siblings as interpreters or ‘relay stations’ between the family and the deaf young person was not surprising. This resides perhaps in the mothers’ role as ‘carers’ and keepers of tradition. However, the relative absence of the fathers from the lives of young deaf people had consequences for family life and social relations. Deaf young women more readily mixed with female family members and seemed much better socialised into their ethnic and religious culture than young men. The latter were often lacking in family-based role models. In the absence of a shared language, developing social relationships with family members (other than the go-between) was difficult – young people’s complaints of being marginalised within the family are thus easy to understand.

Gender was also important in how parents responded to their sons and daughters. This difference resides in differential importance of damage to male and female identities (Wilson 1979, Drury 1991). Deafness was talked about by parents as making young people more vulnerable to the perceived harmful influences of the ‘white’ Deaf culture – difference in sexual morality between South Asian and white cultures was a major concern. Parents seemed to respond to this differently for young men and women. Deaf young men faced fewer restrictions in liaising with Deaf peers and attending Deaf clubs, although parents remained worried about their activities. Such ‘risks’ were less commonly taken with daughters’ moral identities – damage to which was perceived to be impossible to repair. As reported by others, similarities in views between parents and young people were more common than conflicts (Drury 1991, Modood et al. 1994). However, as Drury notes some young women resent and resist the harsher policing of female moral identities.

Young deaf people’s and their families’ encounters with Deaf culture raise important questions about singular identity claims. The marketing of the notion of a global Deaf culture may deny the importance of other identity claims. Recognising and responding to this diversity is at the heart of increasingly separate organisation of minority ethnic deaf people in Britain (Ahmad et al. 1998, see also Steinberg et al. (1997) account of Hispanic deaf children and their families, in the USA). Deaf culture was perceived to be an extension of white and Christian cultures by parents, and ambivalently imagined by young people. Deaf culture seen as potentially threatening to religious, ethnic, linguistic and moral identities. White Deaf culture was also perceived to be marginalising and racist by some. Deaf culture was equated with a hostile white and Christian culture which was contrasted with the more positive relationship with the few South Asian Deaf groups. Whereas the ‘white’ or mainstream Deaf clubs were seen to undermine ethnic and religious identification, the South Asian Deaf groups underlined this. Buying a ‘Deaf identity’ at the potential cost of sacrificing religious or cultural heritage was seen as too high a price for parents. Perhaps because of this, many young deaf people retained an ambivalent relationship with the white Deaf culture.

Exploring identities is a complex undertaking, especially when the potential axes of identity claims are so numerous and contested, as in our study. Our work offers no support to notions of singular identities or of a hierarchy of identifications. Nor does it show that identity claims of deaf young people were negotiated and contingent, allowing freedoms within contexts in which ethnicity, religion, gender, social status, racism, generational relations and the symbolic meaning of being Deaf were important considerations.

Address for correspondence: Karl Atkin, Centre for Research in Primary Care, University of Leeds, Nuffield Institute for Health, Hallas Wing, 71–75 Clarendon Road, Leeds, LS2 9PL e-mail:


This research was funded by the ESRC (Project number 000237122) Our thanks go to the many young people, parents, teachers and other professionals for their time; to Ranjit Singh, Tasneem Ahmad and Ghazala Mir for advice and help with interviewing; and to Margaret Bairstow, Sheila Caley, Alan Haythornthwaite, Morag Donnelly, Carol Kyle, Kyra Pollitt, Clare Marsden and Pauline Ridgeway for BSL interpreting. We would also like to thank the three referees for their helpful and constructive comments.


  • 1

    The terms ‘Asian’ or ‘South Asian’ are largely a British construction, putting together ethnicities, nationalities and religions perhaps better known for their mutual antipathy rather than fraternal relationships. Consequently, such ‘fictive unities’, dressed up as authentic identities, often obscure ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity (Werbner 1990). Our sample was predominantly of Pakistani Muslim respondents. However, we still had a sizeable sample of Hindu and Sikh respondents of Indian origin. Analyses showed that many perspectives and experiences were shared across these different groups.

  • 2

    The parents we interviewed were all hearing. Deaf parents are reported to have more positive views about having a deaf child (Ladd 1990). However, it is important to note that most deaf children are born into hearing families.

  • 3

    BSL is usually taught by the ‘immersion’ method and ideally by a d/Deaf BSL native language user. Theoretically this means that English is not used in classes and that just as in a French or Italian class, the teacher uses only BSL as the medium of teaching. It is, therefore, interesting to note that most of the parents see English as a prerequisite of learning BSL. In a previous study it became apparent that some BSL teaching for South Asian mothers was being provided by hearing teachers who used spoken language as the medium of teaching (Ahmad et al. 1998).

  • 4

    Young people and their parents often used essentialising discourse in making sense of their ethnicity. This often disguised the complexity of the respondent’s narratives and the ways in which essentialist themes can come to reflect a variety of different concerns, often utilised with reference to a specific context. To this extent ethnicity came to embody notions such as language, culture, religion, nationality, and a shared heritage. Ethnicity was also increasingly recognised as a political symbol; one which defines not just exclusion by a powerful majority but also self-identification as a symbol of belonging, pride and mobilisation.