Meet Me in the Middle: Rights of the Deaf vs. Convenience for the Hearing

by Grace Chandra

The question “Heads or tails?” is often asked when people need a straightforward and efficient way to decide on something. But what if, after the toss, the coin landed on its edge? An outcome that is neither heads nor tails, but instead both sides and the edge altogether. One might think that this is not possible, that groups are always separate and distinguishable. However, this third party may not be as unordinary as expected. Those living within the marginal world are all around us—whether persons of mixed race, immigrants, or the abled disabled—and many are balancing on the edge of their two identities. 

In particular, the line between the Deaf community and the hearing one is forceful and unforgiving. However, somewhere in the middle, the hearing deaf, those who have undergone procedures to enhance their limited or nonexistent abilities to hear, have to navigate life as part of both communities without fully belonging to either (DeHahn).1 This clash between the Deaf and hearing communities is not only of medicine and technology, but of culture, and society has yet to address this conflict (McWilliams). Impacting over 4.6 million Americans who use some form of hearing aid or cochlear implant, and the 466 million people worldwide who deal with some form of hearing loss, this conversation is one that needs to be had (“Deafness and Hearing Loss”). The medicalization of deafness needs to go beyond simply existing as a controversial topic, but should be one that is constantly in the discussion of policymakers, healthcare professionals, and both the Deaf and hearing communities. Before that, however, the controversy surrounding these communities cannot simply be dismissed. 

With the steady progression of technology and medicine, more and more opportunities to remedy disabilities have become available. Bridges to the hearing world have opened up, allowing deaf people to leave their community and join the hearing world. Whether in the form of hearing aids, cochlear implants, or a variety of speech therapies, there are now various options that deaf people can choose to ‘fix’ their lack of sound. Although all of these medical advances aid the disabled person, cochlear implants have been the object of most scrutiny (McWilliams). Unlike hearing aids that make the noise one already can hear louder, cochlear implants pick up sound through an external microphone, streamline the sound into its different frequencies and send it to the brain through an internal chip (Santina). The largest distinction is that while hearing aids allow for louder sound for those with hearing loss, cochlear implants can act as a ‘bionic ear’ to those who cannot otherwise process sound or hear anything at all (Santina). Although many believe that this technology can act as a ‘cure’ to deafness, the road to better hearing is much more complex. Patients with cochlear implants need to undergo intensive therapy and training for the brain to be able to decode the electric signals, and even then, those with implants hear differently than how the rest of society does (Matsos). As these technologies progress and more innovation occurs, researchers are finding more ways to allow members of the Deaf community to seamlessly transition into the hearing one; there is even an invisible cochlear implant in development by researchers at MIT (Hardesty). With this type of ‘progress,’ society’s belief that there is a desire to not only cure this disability, but also to conceal it is all too apparent. ‘Passing’—a term to describe those who are disabled but appear able-bodied—is easier than ever, but in doing so, one risks rejecting the culture and pride of being Deaf (Selznick).

There is a sign in American Sign Language, the right index finger circling forward in front of the eyebrow, parallel to the eyebrow, which translates to a deaf person who thinks like a hearing person. In a New York Times article, Felicity Barringer expresses that this sign is not a compliment (Barringer). The negative emotions brewing between these two communities is complex and furthered by rapid medical advancements. The new procedures, in the eyes of many Deaf persons, threaten the Deaf community and the culture that has been built around it (DeHahn). In the scope of a larger disability perspective, medical intervention within a disability that is otherwise not terminal feeds into the medical view. This view, in its efforts to eliminate the disability, places the burden of disability upon the person (Power). It alienates the disabled person by pushing the notion that the ideal human is the one without physical variations, and is an insult to those who are well adjusted with their disability (Power). Undergoing medical intervention is therefore seen as an act of physically removing oneself from the Deaf community. The community perceives those who choose to be implanted as someone who also believes that deaf people are inferior to those who can hear, effectively cutting their ties with one another. On the other hand, those who are against medically intervening with their disability follow the social model, the belief that it is not the individual who is disabled, but the environment that is disabling (Power). This is the belief that the deaf person is not disabled in any way; rather, the majority of society communicates in a verbal language that is not accommodating to Deaf people. Therefore, the disability is not in their lack of hearing, but the lack of accessible means of communication for them. This perception allows Deaf people to escape from the inferiority that is often attached to disabilities. This issue divides the deaf community, as one side believes that it is easier to adapt to the hearing world, the other half is determined to preserve the culture and pride of being Deaf by staying deaf (Brody). 

The culture surrounding the Deaf community is in itself an extremely unique one. First formally discussed in the 1960s, when the Dictionary of American Sign Language was published, it has now grown beyond sign language and into a deeper means of communication (Jay). Deaf culture has expanded into a set of values, a deep pride, and a sense of strength that is found in a shared perceived weakness. There are rules within the language, jokes, phrases and actions that are all unique within Sign (“Community and Culture”). Unlike most other physical disabilities, deafness takes away not only sound, but also the ability to communicate with most of society. In a world where integration is dependent on connection, and connection dependent on communication, people who cannot speak the de facto language are effectively shut out. The de facto language is almost always verbal. Hence, on top of a lack of accessibility for deaf persons, another layer of marginalization exists against them, one that bars them from being able to connect with most of the hearing world. Socialization for Deaf people, therefore, mainly occurs with other people who can understand them without hearing, who can speak to them without sound (“Community and Culture”). Unlike other disabled groups, Deaf people have a shared dominant language, Sign, and many of those who partake in Deaf culture choose to live in strong Deaf communities. Within these communities, they are able to communicate with others easily and feel more secure in their linguistic identity. A comradery, a sense of pride, is built between those who are in this position, a feeling of community born not only out of a similar disposition but also that of a similar culture (“Community and Culture”). It is no surprise then, the tightness of the Deaf community and their negative reactions towards the medical advances that offer, with steep prices a bridge to the hearing world, one that has rarely made attempts to understand them. 

In short, the hearing community demands that deaf people speak to them in a language designed for hearing people, whilst for the most part not attempting to understand the Deaf culture and language. There is something inherently wrong about the societal expectations that the deaf person should not only alter their physical state but shoulder the burdens of leaving their community, all for an opportunity of acceptance in the hearing world. And what does the hearing community do? We seem to find more and more ways, technologies, and systems that encourage this, pushing deaf people to leave their culture behind, to let them ‘pass’ as able-bodied hearing individuals. 

While a lot of the conversation addresses whether these medical interventions should be encouraged or not, the same arguments of the social versus medical model have been recycled for years. What is needed to move forward is not a newer, sleeker solution, but a shift in perspective. Instead of focusing on ways to make deaf persons into hearing ones, society should evaluate the larger picture and focus its resources upon exploring ways that allow the Deaf community to interact with the hearing community without altering their natural state. Through legal and educational systems, society can find ways to encourage the hearing world to learn the language and culture of the Deaf, instead of focusing only on the opposite. Only then would deaf people enjoy the benefits of both worlds, without having to leave the other behind. Whereas the deaf person would require implantation (at the cost of thousands of dollars) and give up the culture and pride they had grown accustomed to, the hearing person can communicate in the language of the deaf– Sign Language– with just some time and learning.

The ability to communicate in Sign Language, the dominant language of Deaf communities, is an extremely valuable skill to have. Not only does Sign language allow the hearing world to communicate with people with hearing loss, but it also has many benefits for the people themselves. A study carried out by Dr. Linda P. Acredolo and Dr. Susan W. Goodwyn found that children with early exposure to ASL had a 12-point higher IQ than the average child (Acredolo and Goodwyn). Moreover, there are also countless more benefits related to learning Sign language, including promoting speech development, spatial reasoning, fine motor skills, and cognitive development within the individual (Goudarzi). Over time, activist groups have vouched for more legitimacy in the consideration of Sign as a useful language that has many benefits, but the progress has been slow and gradual. ASL is still not recognized as a foreign language in multiple states such as New Hampshire and Mississippi (“States That Recognize American Sign Language.”). Despite international laws protecting the Deaf community, such as in Article 2 of the Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities that defines Sign as equal to any other languages, and Article 24.3b that promotes the linguistic identity of these communities, these laws only exist in theory and are often not enforced (“Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”). For instance, although American Sign Language is a course offered to students here at Boston College, it does not count towards foreign language credit. This effectively discourages students from taking that class, thereby closing opportunities for communication with those who are hard of hearing. In this sense, society is still able to undermine the language and culture that Deaf people have spent decades building, and the hearing world is much overdue in extending a helping hand. 

Creating a community that is more inclusive of Deaf people lies in the responsibility of the hearing world. It is apparent that the Deaf community have done all that they can in their advocating and activism for inclusion, but true inclusion can only occur if those with the most power choose to include them in the discussions moving forward. Instead of forcing deaf people to choose between staying in the Deaf community or crossing the bridge to the hearing one, the hearing community should go to them, meeting them halfway through both worlds by being proactive in a move towards inclusion. Deaf communities have been successfully integrated into society before in some pockets of the world. In the documentary Sound and Fury, Deaf couple Chris and Mari Artinian choose to move to Maryland—where a large Deaf community exists—to find a more supportive environment in which to raise their deaf children. (Sound and Fury). However, in addition to the many Deaf people who lived there, many of the hearing persons have also learned how to communicate with the deaf because of the prevalence and need to do so. This makes them more able to respond appropriately and welcomingly towards deaf people and opens doors for connections between these two worlds. Moreover, on Islington Road right here in Newton, Massachusetts, CBS reports that in early 2019 a whole neighborhood was learning sign language because a deaf child was born there, and neighbors wanted to be able to communicate with her (Hartman). These are great examples of the way society can be proactive in contributing to bridging this rift, and it shows that these two worlds do not have to be distinctly separate. 

In the end, whether a deaf person should or should not seek the ability to hear is their personal choice and their decision to make in terms of what they prioritize and what they are willing to sacrifice. While the debate currently forces them to choose between culture or communication, the rest of society should focus on striving to ensure that they do not have to sacrifice either one. Integration is the responsibility of the majority, and in this case, the hearing community can learn the deaf community’s communication methods.  While learning a whole new language might prove to be a challenge, at the very least, educating oneself of the ideals within Deaf culture can be done. In learning the appropriate ways to greet a Deaf person, the way to get their attention, or even by learning some ways that allow them to understand you better, such as talking slowly to aid in their lip reading, for example, their burden might be lessened, showing them, at the very least, that one is respectful and understanding of their culture (O’Shea). With the hearing community’s inclusion and effort, the two worlds can finally bridge this rift, operate in a balance, and settle the decades-long culture clash that has done far too much damage towards the hearing, the Deaf, and the hearing deaf.

Footnotes

1. The use of the capitalization in the word ‘deaf’ is intentional, as there is a distinction between a deaf person, and a Deaf person. The former refers to anyone with a hearing disability, but the latter refers to someone who is a member of the Deaf culture and community. The capitalization exists within the cultural context.

Works Cited

Acredolo, Linda P., and Susan Goodwyn. Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby before Your Baby Can Talk. McGraw-Hill, 2009.

Barringer, Felicity. “Pride in a Soundless World: Deaf Oppose a Hearing Aid.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 May 1993, www.nytimes.com/1993/05/16/us/pride-in-a-soundless-world-deaf-oppose-a-hearing-aid.html.

Brody, Jane E. “Unlocking the World of Sound for Deaf Children.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/well/live/unlocking-the-world-of-sound-for-deaf-children.html?module=inline.

“Community and Culture – Frequently Asked Questions.” National Association of the Deaf, www.nad.org/resources/american-sign-language/community-and-culture-frequently-asked-questions/.

“Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Enable.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html.

“Deafness and Hearing Loss.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/deafness-and-hearing-loss.

DeHahn, Patrick. “How Technology Could Threaten Deaf Identity.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 16 May 2014, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/05/how-technology-could-threaten-deaf-identity/361604/.

Goudarzi , Sara. “Sign Language Improves Mental Abilities.” LiveScience, Purch, 3 Nov. 2005, www.livescience.com/460-sign-language-improves-mental-abilities.html.

Hardesty, Larry. “Cochlear Implants Without External Hardware.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 23 Apr. 2014, www.technologyreview.com/s/526226/invisible-cochlear-implants/.

Hartman, Steve. “This 2-Year-Old Deaf Girl Loves People – so Her Whole Neighborhood Is Learning Sign Language.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 15 Feb. 2019, www.cbsnews.com/news/samantha-savitz-newton-massachusetts-neighborhood-learning-american-sign-language/.

Jay, Michelle. “Deaf Culture Essentials .” American Sign Language, Start ASL, 4 July 2019, www.startasl.com/deaf-culture/.

Mary, O’Shea. “Communicating with Deaf People: A Primer.” The Transformation Center, Sept. 2012, www.transformation-center.org.

Matsos, Shena. “Cochlear Implant Rehabilitation.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, Based in Baltimore, Maryland, 15 Nov. 2017, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/otolaryngology/specialty_areas/listencenter/cochlear_info/rehab.html.

McWilliams, James. “When Deafness Is Medicalized: Inside the Culture Clash Over Cochlear Implants.” Pacific Standard, 5 Jan. 2018, psmag.com/news/the-culture-clash-over-cochlear-implants.

Power, Des. “Models of Deafness: Cochlear Implants in the Australian Daily Press.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 6 July 2005, academic.oup.com/jdsde/article/10/4/451/363413.

Santina, Charles D, director. Introduction to Cochlear Implantation: Johns Hopkins Listening Center | Q&AHopkins Medicine Org, Johns Hopkins Medicine, 18 Apr. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=0wYUd24x248&feature=emb_title.

Selznick, Hilary. “Reflections and Explorations of Passing.” Disability Studies Quarterly, Illinois State University, 2014, dsq-sds.org/article/view/4363/3657.

Sound and Fury. Directed by Josh Aronson, performance by Jaime Leigh Allen & Jemma Braham. Artistic License Films, 2000. Amazon Prime Video, https://www.amazon.com/Sound-Fury-Jaime-Leigh-Allen/dp/B00KUI42YC

“States That Recognize American Sign Language.” National Association of the Deaf, Education Policy Counsel, 15 Feb. 2016, www.nad.org/wpcontent/uploads/2018/06/List_States_Recognizing_ASL.pdf.