Pamela R. Conley

Solving Mysteries of Language Access and Power with Nancy Drew

In September 1971, on her 11th birthday, my sister Brenda was given Carolyn Keene’s The Mystery of the Old Clock by our mother and father. Bored, I took the book from the dresser in the bedroom we shared and began reading it. I first saw an illustration, then a caption below it, and my curiosity was piqued. I proceeded to read the next few pages and immediately noticed the dialogue. Suddenly the world of people talking became accessible to me, as I was drawn into the characters’ conversations. Sketches accompanied by captions, with new words throughout the book, helped me follow the storyline along the way and expand my previously limited vocabulary.

I quickly became a Nancy Drew fan. With her loyal friends Bess and George, Nancy was determined to solve mysteries. I was also committed to solving mysteries, but of a different kind: those of spoken communication with my hearing family and friends. I was struggling to talk with them, and they were struggling to talk with me. I wanted to be able to talk with anyone who didn’t know how to talk with Deaf people freely, but I was not able to – and vice versa. Nancy Drew gave me a set of words, phrases, and sentences typically spoken by hearing people for conveying ideas in the form of written communication. With paper and pen in hand, I began using Nancy Drew’s vocabulary to talk with my family, friends, and neighbors who were unequipped with an eye-hand language. And they wrote back. Nancy Drew helped connect me with hearing people I cared about in my life.

I was literally prohibited from having deeply intimate conversations with hearing people by the 200-year-old American deaf education system deeply rooted in oppressive sound-based ideologies. Before I met Nancy Drew, we struggled in talking with each other with the support of gesturing, fingerspelling without speech, and speechreading.

My school became a conflicted place for me. I was among other Deaf students, but we were also locked in a struggle with an institution that persistently tried to assimilate us. Classes for speech and music were pointless for us. Even the subject classes were infiltrated by speech instruction. But we found peace, happiness, and comfort in other spaces. The hallways before school, between classes, and after school, along with the cafeteria, were the only non-colonized spaces where my schoolmates and I felt fully free to express ourselves in American Sign Language. Hearing teachers and administrators were oblivious to these refreshingly accessible spaces.

Thanks to my school’s incessant phone calls, my mother and father tried to teach me speech at home. I threw temper tantrums in protest. One day, I finally rejected home speech exercises and flung my hearing aid in my bedroom dresser, finding it useless for spoken conversations. To my surprise, my mother and father supported me, recognizing the futility of my speech training early on. They dropped at-home spoken English lessons.

My speech teachers persisted, but I also persisted, lying to them that I forgot to bring my hearing aid in. Despite daily lessons at school, my performance in speech was horrible. The school administrators and teachers claimed that my poor progress was due to lack of practice. My mother and father got phone calls from my school, being politely asked to “reprimand” me for not bringing my hearing aid to school and not practicing speech at home enough.

My house was also a conflicted place for me. Although my family wanted a better life for me, they knew nothing of communication debates in deaf education. I was unintentionally left out of meaningful family conversations during meals and evening times. However, the other rooms in the house provided bonding with my vicarious friends. In these spaces, Nancy Drew and her friends included me fully in their spoken conversations in print English.

At times I felt more liberated at home than I did at school. I escaped school to avoid speech persecution. However, I also felt more liberated at school than I did at home. I escaped home to avoid language deficiency. Neither place was an absolute respite from the other.

Having navigated between accessible ASL and unfathomable spoken English all my life, I still work in the spirit of Nancy Drew on the mystery of cracking the code of the speaking world.

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About the Author

Pamela Conley (BA in English and Education, MS in Deaf Education, MA in English Literature, working toward a PhD in Humanities and Culture) is an Associate Professor, RIT/NTID; coordinator of academic support for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students taking courses within the College of Liberal Arts; and coordinator of the Associate in Science (AS) degree in Applied Liberal Arts program for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing students. Pam’s areas of specialization include literary representations of Deaf people and interdisciplinary studies of Deaf people.