Friday, May 1, 2015

Deaf People and the Hearing World

As a deaf person in the United States, I live in a kind of deaf world where I can see different communities and individuals interact and clash and collaborate, where I can see deaf accomplishments and struggles shared on a daily basis. It makes me wonder how much a hearing person knows about any of this if they only have a secondhand impression of deaf people. There's so much that goes on, and I hope to provide some insight in this email.

To be Deaf, with a capital D, is to see one's deafness as a cultural trait instead of as a disability. (Hence the term "Deaf culture".) Today, there are hearing aids and cochlear implants that treat hearing loss, but before this technology, sign language was (and still is) the linchpin of Deaf people.

The advent of this technology has led to a clash of perspectives: disability vs. cultural. Hearing people see deafness as a disability that needs to be fixed. Deaf people do not see deafness as a disability to be fixed. These differing perspectives have formed a very large gap in understanding.

Oralism is a system that teaches deaf people to hear and speak instead of using sign language. From a disability perspective, this sounds good, since the rest of the world hears and speaks. However, this system has long overlooked the cultural aspect of deafness. There is a very rich and close-knit Deaf community, Deaf people do live full lives (as hard as it may be for hearing people to comprehend). Oralism has long been anathema to Deaf people when they see a deaf child that could be part of their community instead be assimilated away from them, with no connection to Deaf people before them. Look past the disability perspective for a moment and consider this with other underrepresented groups. Children of indigenous peoples have been put through assimilation. Gay people have been put through assimilation. Sex-selective abortion takes place to ensure a boy instead of a girl. To put it another way, oralism is hearing people representing the deaf community.

This does not mean that oralism does not work. Deaf children can grow up with hearing aids or cochlear implants and be assimilated in the hearing world. Sometimes that assimilation is complete. Sometimes that technology is not good enough, and such oral deaf people can be left out, especially in noisy and/or crowded environments. They bond with others like them in a kind of sub-community. While the technology is a way of them accommodating themselves for the hearing world, the hearing world still needs to accommodate them -- and Deaf people who are not oral. Both groups need translation-based services like captioning and oral or sign interpreting, yet despite these commonalities, the gap in perspective (disability vs. cultural) prevents compelling alliances to foment change in the hearing world to accommodate them.

This does not mean there are no hearing aid or cochlear implant users in the Deaf community. Bilingualism is an approach in which a deaf person can both speak and sign. Unfortunately, this approach is relatively novel, since oralism and sign language were historically seen as mutually exclusive. (Oralism's conventional wisdom, which persists to this day, is that sign language should be excluded for oralism to work. Imagine how the Deaf community feels about that.)

There's much more to cover, though. Hearing people who become deaf later in life and may be in denial or fear stigma. A notion called audism about superiority based on being able to hear. Et cetera. If you have any questions and comments, please email me.


--Keir
deaf.listserve[AT]gmail.com
Washington, DC

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