For most deaf Americans, being deaf is not the inability to hear but rather the ability to perceive life in a different way from hearing people. For many, it’s a blessing.
I first decided to take up American Sign Language as a teenager. Sadly, I had no deaf friends or family members with whom to practice ASL. I didn’t know any deaf people at all, in fact. I was driven mostly by fascination with the silent language itself, which is powered by a clarity and expressiveness absent from everyday spoken English.
There is an illustrated diagram in my ASL textbook explaining that to properly ask a question in ASL you first make a statement and then shrug your shoulders, cock your head to one side, and open your eyes wide, perhaps adding an inquisitive expression to your face. To a hearing person, this feels like overkill—like donning a Greek theater mask every time you need to find the bathroom. But communicating with your whole body is a fundamental part of ASL. It’s a visual idiom, a language of the eye.
Modern deaf poetry is filled with intense imagery, as in J. Schuyler Long’s “The Poetry of Motion”:
What deaf people have realized about themselves in the past century is that being deaf opens up a new mode of experience. ASL is the language of that experience. They are creating their own world. But it’s a world they have to defend.
Deaf activists have argued for decades that deafness is not a defect but a character trait, even a benefit. In their 2011 book The People of the Eye, authors Harlan Lane, Richard C. Pillard, and Ulf Hedberg go one step further. They assert that deafness is an ethnicity that, like all officially classed ethnicities, must be given its due politically and culturally [and grammatically, which is why the classification is capitalized throughout the rest of this piece].
Deaf identity is based not on religion, race, or class, say the authors, but “there is no more authentic expression of an ethnic group than its language.” And language is the core of American Deaf life. With the emergence of Deaf schools, literacy allowed Deaf people to better communicate in the hearing world. As ASL developed, Deaf Americans could better communicate with each other, and with this came the creation of a Deaf culture, even a new way of being.
ASL signers say that they spend much more time thinking about and dealing with language than most Americans, resulting in a rich and independent tradition of Deaf literature, theater, and journalism. Deaf people have their own clubs, their own rituals, their own places of worship, their own newspapers, and their own sense of humor. In The People of the Eye, readers learn how the fully embodied language of ASL and Deaf pride created a culture of storytelling in the Deaf-World, and how this storytelling developed a unique narrative structure based on the particularities of ASL.
American signers also share a common history and even ancestry. Indeed, The People of the Eye is chock-full of ancestral accounts and pedigree diagrams that would make a Mormon genealogist proud.
Americans have been searching for ways to eliminate deafness for a long time. These remedies have ranged from the abusive to the absurd, from so-called “oralism” (forcing Deaf people to speak and lip-read instead of sign); to sticking twigs, urine, or electricity in the ears; to divine intervention. Charles Lindbergh reportedly would charge $50 to take Deaf people up in a little plane and perform acrobatic stunts to “rouse the slumbering hearing apparatus.”
Today, thanks to the cochlear implant, deafness can, in effect, be “cured.” An estimated 71,000 adults and children have had the treatment, and daytime television is rife with heartwarming stories about people whose lives have been dramatically changed by the device.
The cochlear implant resembles a sea parasite escaped from Radio Shack and looks like it is feasting on the side of the human head. But unlike a hearing aid, which rests outside the ear and amplifies sound, the implants are surgically attached to the cochlea. On its website, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders explains that cochlear implants “bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. Signals generated by the implant are sent by way of the auditory nerve to the brain, which recognizes the signals as sound.”
Recognizing signals as sound is not a restoration of complete hearing capacity, but cochlear implants do seem to help those who want to better perceive sound, as well as increase their ability to communicate orally. And the technology is improving all the time.
It seems as if all of this progress is good progress. For adults who have grown up in the Deaf-World and live in it as happy citizens, though, the suggestion that they should get a cochlear implant can sound downright insulting, prejudiced even. After all, the authors of The People of the Eye posit, if one accepts the argument that Deaf is an ethnicity, aren’t plans to eradicate it to be seen as an act of genocide? And even if Deafness is a choice, does this make it any less valid than, say, Judaism? Many of the qualities we hold inviolable, as true to our identities, to our “ethnicities,” are mutable, after all. (As the Inquisition demonstrated, even white Protestants can be cured.) But because they can be changed does not mean they must be.
These are tough, uncomfortable questions. Are cures an acceptable way to address human diversity? Are deviations from the norm to be embraced, with education and social sensitivity, or eliminated? What of Deaf children, who are too young to understand the implications of the potential loss of their Deaf identity? Or who may not want to grow up in the Deaf-World but are unable to make the choice? And what of the hearing parents of a Deaf child? How could they encourage their child to be Deaf, especially given the option of a cochlear implant? Even the most permissive, who might accept their Deaf child’s different ethnicity as one would for an adopted child, would have to come to terms with leaving their child to the unfamiliar Deaf-World. In doing so, would they lose their own connection to the world of their child?
What authors Lane, Pillard, and Hedberg want hearing people to understand is that most Deaf Americans would not assimilate even if they could. Deaf people tend to marry other Deaf people, go to Deaf schools, have Deaf friends and even surrogate Deaf parents when hearing parents are insufficient to bolster a Deaf identity (or who threaten that identity by attempting to cure them). The Deaf-World, born of necessity, has now become a fortress against the invading hordes of the hearing. There are ASL signers who dream of a Deaf homeland, where visual communication is the norm. Deaf people who gain too much success in the hearing world or marry into it can be looked on with suspicion.
In Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, author Paddy Ladd draws a distinction between deafness and what he calls Deafhood. Deafness, says Ladd, is a term given by the hearing. It presents being Deaf as a finite state. “Deafhood is not, however, a ‘static’ medical condition like ‘deafness,’ ” Ladd writes. “Instead, it represents a process—the struggle by each Deaf child, Deaf family, and Deaf adult to explain to themselves and each other their own existence in the world. In sharing their lives with each other as a community, and enacting those explanations rather than writing books about them, Deaf people are engaged in a daily praxis, a continuing internal and external dialogue.”
When we look at it this way, maybe considering Deaf as an ethnicity is itself a process of reconsidering what a Deaf person is or can be. Maybe it’s not an end but a beginning, for hearing and Deaf alike.
Stefany Anne Golberg, a writer, musician, and founding member of the art collective Flux Factory, lives in New York City. Excerpted from The Smart Set (May 23, 2011), an independent online magazine supported by Drexel University that features sharp, vibrant writing on the arts, culture, and other curiosities. www.thesmartset.com
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Utne Reader.