This paper explores the origins, history and importance of Deaf culture and Deaf identity in relationship to proponents of oralism (the teaching of spoken language and hearing skills to deaf people) and audism (prejudice against the deaf). The notion of the distinction between ‘deaf’ and ‘Deaf’ is defined: “deaf” being the medical condition of not hearing and “Deaf” referring to a member of Deaf Culture or Deaf Culture itself. This text analyzes personal accounts and medical journals in relation to Deaf Culture, its history, and explores the notion that many deaf people choose not to be ‘fixed’ by modern medicine. ASL can be defined as American Sign Language, the primary language among the American Deaf. TC is defined as Total Communication, a method of teaching and communication that includes speech, lip reading, and signing.
Keywords: American Sign Language, deaf, oralism
The Other Side of Deafness:
Where Physiology Ends and the Person Begins
The term ‘deaf and dumb’ is not a new one. Today, it is generally used in joking manners or as insults without much thought to the history behind those words. Years ago, it was a term seriously applied to deaf people as their condition: deaf and dumb. As the medical institutionalization of the deaf grew in popularity, it was almost as if these two words were inseparable (Edwards, 2005, p. 897). But with time and experience, we have fortunately opened our minds ever so slightly to realize that ‘deaf and dumb’ is not a legitimate diagnosis or an excuse to mistreat another person. However, in many cases this stigma has remained; deafness is often connected with weakness, the need for change, helplessness, sadness and being disabled. Though the general perception of the deaf has changed, they still tend to be a forgotten minority, and a minority that has the opportunity to have their disability fixed or improved. Many deaf individuals do not choose to be fixed. Deafness is not just a disability or a condition, it has become a culture. The Deaf community has created and shaped their own language, grew from oppression and discrimination into a proud group they call Deaf.
Lacking a sense, whether in its entirety or in part, can be frightening to many. Fear of change, fear of the unknown, and fear of being different have all contributed to ‘cures’ and ‘rehabilitation’ for these deaf individuals. There are many resources available to the deaf to gain some, or most of their hearing, and learn to speak and hear as well as a hearing person but there are still so many people that consider themselves Deaf. Why do these Deaf people shudder at the simple thought of hearing aids and cochlear implants? Why would they not want to be cured of their ailment, the differences between two cultures dissolved, to be fixed? Perhaps they are not broken and being different is not wrong. Deaf culture was forged out of a need to communicate and grew from oppression. Deaf culture and sign language provide Deaf people with a community, a history, and a culture that they would lose if they were to strive to hear.
A distinction must be made between the terms ‘deaf’ and ‘Deaf’. ‘Deaf” refers to those that are clinically deaf or hard of hearing that are within the Deaf community. These individuals use American Sign Language primarily instead of spoken language and immerse themselves within Deaf culture and their Deaf friends. The term ‘deaf” refers to only the medical condition describing the lack of the ability to hear (Padden & Humphries 1988, p. 3). Some individuals are deaf but are not Deaf. These include those that are profoundly deaf but may use cochlear implants or hearing aids, and use spoken language. They chose to immerse themselves in the hearing world rather than Deaf culture.
Deaf culture is not something that is popular in media or even considered by many hearing individuals. It is often news to hearing students in Sign Language classes that there is such a thing as Deaf Culture. In books, deaf characters are often portrayed as being disabled, rather than a culture of people. In a study by Debbie Golos, who studies communication disorders and Deaf education, 20 children’s books were examined. 71% of them focused on the pathological definition of ‘deaf’ and half of the selected books contained less than one reference to Deaf culture (Golos 2012). Media portrayal of deaf individuals tends to focus on the pathological aspect of them, their inability to hear, and they are no longer seen as a person but as a condition. This dehumanization of deaf people contributes to the idea that deaf people are helpless and do not function like the majority in mainstream society. They are a separate and often ignored minority.
The roots of deaf culture can be found in the history of audism. Audism is defined by Tom Humphries, a lecturer on Deaf culture and communication, as an oppressive attitude that some people hold against deaf people, even going so far as to say that hearing people are superior to deaf (Padden & Humphries 1988, p. 34-36). Audists have been around for many years, the most famous one being Alexander Graham Bell. He was against deaf intermarriage and fought to eliminate sign language and supported the sterilization of deaf people. Eventually, his dream came true and it was shameful to sign in public and only oral methods were taught in deaf schools. He lobbied Congress to reduce funding for ASL education and by 1927 oral teaching was the only available schooling for the deaf (Maher 1996, p. 16-17). Deaf children in boarding schools for oral teaching were punished for using any forms of signing with detentions and physical punishments. If children could not successfully produce the assigned sound or word, they could be punished with slapping, beatings, and simulated drowning (Padden & Humphries 1988, p. 34-36, 51-53). Deaf children that struggle with speech are made fun of for their stuttering and mumbling of the language and are left behind in the school system; their difficulty with speaking English impedes their ability to read and comprehend lessons in this language (Hermans 2007). These methods are trying to integrate deaf people into the mainstream society. However, children and adults often feel as though they are stuck between two worlds; they are neither hearing nor deaf. They did not grow up learning sign language and struggled to speak and comprehend spoken language. They do not belong to either community and they do not grow up with a language. Often, children that undergo oral education are robbed of a language, a way to express themselves and communicate with others. Already isolated from much of their family and communities by their deafness, their lack of language robs them of any sense of connection with another person.
People use language to define their world and to build and share a culture. Language provides the mechanism for which we put words, or images, to our surroundings and our unique experiences. With spoken language proving to be a hurdle for many deaf individuals, signing systems were created in order to relate to one another. American Sign Language is the primary signing system of the American Deaf. Until 1984, American Sign Language (ASL) was not considered an actual language; it was thought to be a random conglomeration of signs without grammar or syntax. William C. Stokoe is credited with discovering the linguistic properties of American Sign Language and is considered a hero of the Deaf community (Maher 1996, p. 50-54, 114-116). Before this, and even occasionally today, ASL was considered a poor substitution for spoken language, mimicking English and a sub standard method of communication. With the linguistic discovery and recognition of ASL, Deaf culture was beginning to flourish. ASL teaching methods began to gain popularity and Deaf individuals began to form their own identity, created by themselves and not outsiders.
For those that argue deafness is a severe disability, rehabilitation and correction of this disability is a given. Developments in the last 50 years have given the world cochlear implants and hearing aids. For years these were considered a ‘cure’ for deafness. In fact, according to Michael Dorman, a professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science, people who are post lingually deaf, meaning they lost their hearing after learning a spoken language, can receive these implants and return to nearly the same standard of hearing and speech as before (Dorman 2012, Geers, et. al 2009). Post lingual deafness is an entirely different situation from being born profoundly deaf. For those that go deaf, slowly, they already have a concept of spoken language. They still think in words, they can write and understand the grammar and rules of their spoken language and have experience in creating sounds with meaning. The auditory cortex of their brain has been used to interpret sounds and the person has a background in interpreting what they hear. For those that are born profoundly deaf, the arrangement of letters to form “chair” rarely means anything to them. They cannot think of the sound, only the image of the word or the picture of a chair. Individuals who were born deaf think in pictures, rather than in arrangements of letters and words because they do not pronounce or hear it in their head. Because of this, people who were born profoundly deaf and are taught spoken language often find it very difficult because it does not fit with how their brain has evolved. Among deaf people that use sign language, the hearing portions of their brain are not devoted to hearing any longer, but the brain extends the other senses and language perception into this area (Hauthall 2011). Not only would they have trouble learning a language, they would have to learn how to hear and how to discern different sounds and not just hear noise. Their brains would have to reorganize themselves and learn how to accept, interpret, and respond to auditory stimuli. This can take years with a speech-hearing or speech-language pathologist and it is expensive and success is not guaranteed. The surgery removes all residual hearing which cannot be restored if the surgery is not successful or the patient cannot understand the stimuli. Hearing is not simply a switch one can turn on and off, it is a skill that many deaf people feel they can function without.
The linguistic education of the deaf has been long controlled by outsiders and lawmakers, rather than the Deaf community itself. When the signing schools were run out by audists like Alexander Graham Bell, the Deaf community fell victim to years of abusive oral training, prejudice, and deprivation of language. The failure of oral teaching has left many deaf people unable to put words to their thoughts and feelings, unable to connect with family and friends, and even themselves. The struggle can continue into later life with poor speech, language comprehension, and the difficulty of learning a new language as they get older and with this lack of language, they can also lack a community and culture. With American Sign Language, language acquisition has improved for deaf people. A combination of signed language and oral methods, Total Communication (TC), was developed to branch the differences between hearing and Deaf cultures. TC includes signing, hearing aids, lip reading, and speech. This method is ideal for many deaf and newly deaf individuals in that it allows them to discover what works best for them. If they find that speech and lip reading works best for them, they can pursue that, and if sign language provides for them a language and a culture, then they can pursue ASL. Deaf Culture is thriving, intriguing, and effective way for Deaf people to connect. However, forcing one to choose deafness is no better than forcing one to choose hearing. Rick Mangan, a hard-of-hearing/Deaf man who has worked with the Deaf for years says that oralism is “external determinism” (R. Mangan, personal communication, 11 March 2014). This can apply to many methods of deaf education. Most deaf residential schools and oral programs for the deaf have greatly improved. As always, however, there is more that can be done to ensure the successful education of the American d/Deaf. The education and ultimate outcome of an entire culture is being decided by people who do not know what it means to be deaf or Deaf. The fact that these decisions have not been made by the Deaf community or the deaf person themselves reveal the attitudes that are put on deaf people. Again the stigma often remains that deaf people must be helped, cannot fend for themselves or make responsible decisions by themselves. The hearing people must lend a hand and bring language to these unfortunate and disabled people. To be unable to make decisions about your own life is not freedom. Whatever the learning method may be, it should not be force onto someone once it has been deemed unsuccessful for that person. Deaf Culture, their tight community and history, give an insight into why many Deaf people choose to remain deaf but for others, Deaf Culture may not fit into their lifestyle, learning style, or their family. Education should not be either ASL or speech, but deaf people should be exposed to multiple methods of communication and language and figure out what suits them best. This means that both the Deaf Culture and hearing culture need to be more open and relax their beliefs on what it means to be ‘deaf’ or ‘Deaf’. There can be no right or wrong in their choice, but their choice should be up to them alone and not be controlled by people who want them to assimilate into either culture. Supporters of Deaf Culture do not need to be anti-hearing or anti-audiology, and supporters of oralism do not have to be anti-deaf. It cannot be avoided that everyone has different learning styles, some people cannot adjust to hearing just as others cannot adjust to ASL/deafness. Improvements in education can always be made and educators should never stop looking for more and better solutions. The learning tools of any cultural group should not be banned or sought to be removed from the educational system as long as there are people benefiting from these methods.
Cochlear implants and hearing aids can be useful to some who are deaf. Perhaps they do not feel as connected to the Deaf community as they do to hearing individuals, or they have hearing children or parents that they cannot communicate with via sign language well. But calling these technologies ‘cures’ for deafness gives terrified hearing parents with deaf children and hearing people becoming deaf false hope. Many patients and parents go into these surgeries with high hopes of restoring completely normal hearing and dreams of being able to walk out of the surgery conversing in fluent spoken language. For some, their world will remain without noise and their inner ear destroyed beyond repair by the cochlear implant. Offering a cure for deafness is giving the impression that deaf people are in some way inadequate and must be fixed in order to be ‘normal’. Rick Mangan, an ASL instructor and a hard-of-hearing/Deaf man, says that “Deaf people are not hearing people minus hearing” (R. Mangan, personal communication, 11 March 2014). This is a simple but important distinction. Mangan continues to say that “Deaf people are normal people who experience the world visually.” Deafness is not a state of being in which there is something missing. Deafness is seeing the world slightly differently from another group, like how women see the world as compared to men, or how a white person defines their experiences as compared to a black person. White people are not described as ‘people missing color’ and brunettes are not defined as ‘people without blond hair’. People cannot be defined or judged upon what they do not have because this is not an accurate representation of who they are. The simple fact that they do not hear does not give hearing people liberties to say they are not important, or to belittle d/Deaf people. They are not less of a person because they are Deaf. They are different, but they are not wrong.
The term deaf is a physiological description of the inability to hear. It is by definition a label given to those who do not use auditory stimuli to define their world and it is an acknowledgment that they are different. With years of audists and supporters of oralism trying to destroy their culture, history, families and communities by isolation and attempts to ‘fix’ them, the term Deaf was born. The Deaf culture was finally officially acknowledged and was, and continues to be, adamantly defended by its members. This culture has given a family to those that are excluded from their own and isolated from the bigger society in which they reside. The term Deaf is assurance that they are not alone.
Dorman, Michael (2012) The restoration of speech understanding by electrical stimulation of the auditory system The Volta Review
Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com
The text focuses on the advancements of cochlear implants in the last 50 years as well as how deaf children and post-lingually deaf people react to implantation and the most successful education methods of implanted deaf. The research showed that the learning outcomes of implanted deaf individuals have improved and can match people who were born hearing. The author’s claim is that with specialized education, implantation has a much higher success rate than before. The author has a PhD in Experimental Child and Developmental Psychology and a minor in Linguistics and is a professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science and the Program in Linguistics at Arizona State University. The author’s definition of hearing preservation surgery supports my claim that cochlear implant surgery is less dangerous than before and gives deaf people more realistic hearing than traditional implantation methods. I plan to use this to support my claim that cochlear implants help integrate deaf people into mainstream society.
Edwards, R. R. (2005). Sound and Fury; or, Much Ado about Nothing? Cochlear Implants in Historical Perspective. Journal Of American History, 92(3), 892-920.
Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com
The text analyzes the film Sound and Fury in relation to its depiction of Deaf culture and cochlear implants and describes the meaning of Deaf culture and history of cochlear implants. The research showed that the Deaf community is in fact a culture and that Deaf adults are often kept out of decisions and law-making that directly affect their own culture. The author’s claim is that the Deaf should be allowed to remain Deaf and that the decision to hear is ultimately up to them. He advocates for Deaf culture and Deaf pride. The author is an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, a popular college among the Deaf. The author’s exploration into ‘deaf and dumb’ as well as their history supports my claim that the d/Deaf are unfairly represented and the majority is trying to usurp the minority.
Geers, A. E., Moog, J. S., Biedenstein, J., Brenner, C., & Hayes, H. (2009). Spoken language scores of children using cochlear implants compared to hearing age-mates at school entry. Oxford Journals: Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 14 (3), 371-385.
The text focuses on the language skills of implanted 5-6 year olds as compared to the language skills of hearing 5-6 year olds. The research showed that with the combination of cochlear implants (CIs) and enrollment in oral communication (OC) programs, children at this age are often at the same, or nearly the same level as hearing children of the same age and that deaf implanted children can catch up to their hearing peers with specialized therapy. The author’s claim is that the earlier the child is implanted, the easier spoken language acquisition will be, and the language development improves with oral communication programs. The author is the Research Professor at the Callier Center for Advanced Hearing Research in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and at the University of Texas at Dallas and in the Dallas Cochlear Implant Program at the Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. The author’s definition of oral communication programs (OC) support my claim that cochlear implantation is helped by speech therapy. I plan to use this to support my claim that with sufficient educational resources, deaf children can function as well as, or close to, their hearing counterparts.
Golos, Debbie (2012) Culture or Disability? Examining Deaf Characters in Children's Books Illustrations Early Childhood Education Journal, 40(4), 239-249.
This article explores how deaf people are portrayed in children’s books and how that can affect the self-image of a deaf child. The research showed that deaf people are portrayed not culturally but as disabled or having a problem (deafness) that needs to be fixed and can have a negative effect on deaf children. The author shows that people within the Deaf community do not see themselves as disabled, as they can be portrayed. The author is in the Department of Communicative Disorders and Deaf Education at Utah State University. The findings support the conflicting views in my paper that many people argue that deaf people have a disability that should be fixed while those within the Deaf community do not. I will use it to show that not all deaf people want to hear.
Hauthal, N., Sandmann, P., Debener, S., & Thorne, J. D. (2013). Visual movement perception in deaf and hearing individuals. Universitas Humanistica, (76), 53-61.
This text described a study where deaf and hearing participants were tested on their visual acuity skills and visual perception. The author works in the department of Psychology at the Carl Von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, Germany. The author claims that the deaf brain rewires itself to use the auditory sections for visual perception. I plan to use this to show that in order to use a cochlear implant, a deaf person has to rearrange their brain to hear.
Hermans, D., Knoors, H., Ormel, E., & Verhoeven, L. (2007). Modeling reading vocabulary learning in deaf children in bilingual education programs. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 14 (3), 155-174.
This text explores the difficulties many bilingual deaf children face trying to learn written vocabulary and improve their reading skills. The author is a researcher of deaf linguistic abilities for the Royal Dutch Kentalis (a national organization providing care, education, and diagnostics to people with language difficulties). The author claims that deaf children often struggle attaining native-like language skills in either their home spoken/written language as well as sign language, depending on the hearing status of their parents. I plan to use this to show that mainstreamed deaf children often fall behind in class in their reading skills, ability to make friends, and just generally understand the teacher/pay attention to the interpreter.
Maher, J. (1996) Seeing language in sign: The work of William C. Stokoe Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press
This text focuses on the linguistic study of American Sign Language by William Stokoe. The text shows the oppression of the d/Deaf and of teaching ASL and how it affected Deaf culture. The author’s claim is that the linguistic discovery of ASL was a huge leap for Deaf culture and its recognition as an actual cultural group. The author is Assistant Professor in the Basic Education Program at Nassau Community College. The historical account of audism and oral teaching emphasizes my point that the deaf were not allowed to decide their own lives for themselves and that it helped Deaf culture to grow. I plan to use her descriptions of life as a deaf person under oralist rules to show how the deaf have been oppressed.
Padden, C., & Humphries T. (1988). Deaf in America: voices from a culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
The text is an exploration into deaf culture, American Sign Language, and deaf childhoods from the perspective of two deaf adults. The author's claim is that deaf people and Deaf culture flourish under ASL and that American Sign Language is an important way for deaf people to connect with each other. The author, Carol Padden, is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. Her definition of Deaf supports my claim that the deaf have a culture, and also complicates my argument in my alternative perspective paper. I plan to use her descriptions of the challenges of being deaf in my alternative perspective paper.