Monday, May 1st, 2017

Deaf Gain: Why being Deaf is not a disability

Posted on April 18, 2017 in Perspectives
By USM Free Press

By Mary Ellen Aldrich, Community Editor

In a recent conversation, someone tried to argue that being Deaf is a disability. I found this to be rather frustrating.

I’ve been learning American Sign Language (ASL) and studying Deaf culture for the past five years. Because of this, I often forget that what seems like common sense to me is not quite so to everyone else. Before taking that into account, though, I had launched into a verbal case against this person’s claim and what resulted was more of a disorganized mess of half-thoughts than an explanation. If I had taken a few minutes to set aside the feeling of indignation, it could have been a beneficial and educational conversation.

When most hearing people think of being Deaf, they tend to think of the loss and the “can’t” rather than the gain. However, being Deaf is more about the “can” and the gaining of culture and community. When “deaf” is spelled with a lowercase “d,” it refers to the audiological condition of not hearing. When “Deaf” is spelled with a capital “D,” it refers to the people and culture that are the Deaf community.

As a hearing person, I cannot speak for the Deaf community. However, I can share what I have learned and observed. Part of what I’ve learned in my years of studying ASL and Deaf culture, as well as interacting with the Deaf community, is that being Deaf is in no way a disability. It is not the loss of hearing (although for some who identify as a person who is deaf, rather than Deaf, things can be different) that defines their identity; rather what they gain from being part of the Deaf community makes up a part of their identity. These gains include ASL, history, poems, stories, fables and mythology, cultural norms and more.

In America, as well as in much of Canada, the official language of the Deaf community is ASL. ASL has a syntax, grammar and morphology of its own and is a real language, despite some misconceptions that continue today. From my perspective, ASL is perhaps the most treasured piece of Deaf gain.

So where does the label “disabled” fit into such an amazing culture and community? My belief is that because Deaf culture is so rich, there is no room for that label.

The ”disabled” label comes from the limitations and barriers that are put in place by the hearing majority. If a hearing person who didn’t know any ASL were placed into the Deaf community, that hearing person would need accommodations in order to navigate the language barriers and cultural differences. The same would go for a person who spoke only English if they were to be dropped off in a community which spoke only German. These individuals would not be considered disabled. It’s baffling to see hearing people label members of the Deaf community as being disabled for reasons no different than the above examples.   

The Deaf community is a visually oriented community, just as the hearing community is auditorily oriented. In the Deaf community there are TTYs (devices allowing phone conversations to be typed back and forth rather than spoken) and videophones. There are alarms and doorbells that have flashing lights and alarm clocks that vibrate. In the hearing community there are voice phones, ringers and doorbells and alarm clocks with sound. These are merely different ways of living. Neither is superior to the other.

Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, two Deaf authors, wrote:

“[Being Deaf] is not simply a camaraderie with others who have a similar physical condition, but is, like many other cultures in the traditional sense of the term, historically created and actively transmitted across generations.”

Being Deaf is not a disability. Neither is being hearing. Both have challenges and benefits. The status of one being disabled is dependent upon the limitations and oppressions enforced by the other. The oppressed then have a choice to either rise up and fight, or sit back and let it happen. From what I’ve learned, the Deaf community has no intentions of sitting back and allowing anything to just happen. They’ve come a long way in trying to make the world see them as a community and culture rather than as disabled, and they will continue to stand up for Deaf culture as long as the need is there.

Next time you think of Deaf people as being disabled, try changing tracks for a moment. Perhaps you are signing-disabled, signing-impaired or hard-of-signing. Ask yourself, how well would you fare in the Deaf community without knowing ASL if no accommodations were allowed? My bet is, you would be at a great disadvantage.

Mary Ellen Aldrich is a hearing student majoring in linguistics with a concentration in ASL/English interpretation and a minor in Deaf studies.