In mainstream American society, we tend to approach deafness as a defect. Helen Keller is alleged to have said, "Blindness cuts people off from things; deafness cuts people off from people." (rnib.org) This seems a very accurate description of what Keller's world must have been. We as hearing people tend to pity deaf people, or, if they succeed in the hearing world, admire them for overcoming a severe handicap. We tend to look at signing as an inferior substitute for "real" communication. We assume that all deaf people will try to lip-read and we applaud deaf people who use their voices to show us how far they have come from the grips of their disability. Given this climate, many hearing people are surprised, as I was at first, to learn of the existence of Deaf culture. To me deafness is not a defect but a source of connection. Imagine yourself deaf, growing up with a beautiful language, visual literature, humor, and theater. Imagine taking pride in your identity without any desire to become a member of the majority culture. For many deaf people, their community is a comforting relief from the isolation and condescension of the hearing world. However the Deaf community is far more than a support group for people who share a physical characteristic. Members of the Deaf community may have hearing levels that range from profoundly deaf to slightly hard-of-hearing. But no members of the Deaf community are "hearing impaired." Inside this community, deaf people become Deaf, proudly capitalizing their culture. Hearing people suddenly find that they are handicapped: "Deaf-impaired."
From a deafness-as-defect mindset, many well-meaning hearing doctors, audiologists, and teachers work passionately to make deaf children speak; to make these children "un-deaf." They try hearing aids, lip-reading, speech coaches, and surgical implants. In the meantime, many deaf children grow out of the crucial language acquisition phase. They become disabled by people who are anxious to make them "normal." Their lack of language, not of hearing, becomes their most severe handicap. While I support any method that works to give a child a richer life, I think a system which focuses on abilities rather than deficiencies is far more valuable. Deaf people have taught me that a lack of hearing need not be disabling. In fact, it shouldn?t be considered a lack at all. As a h...
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... goal of the Deaf civil rights movement is parity in education; development of an educational system where deaf children can become both Deaf and literate.
Hearing people can have a place in the Deaf community. Each minority group tends to welcome genuine allies and the Deaf community is no exception. But it is important for people who hear to remember our role as allies. We join the community to show our support, not to lead. We can help educate other hearing people, but we are not missionaries to bring Deaf people into the mainstream. Deaf people are the appropriate leaders of their own civil rights movement and teachers of their children. Our role is not to give Deaf people a voice; it is to make sure that the voice already present is heard. And we can do that. We can teach other hearing people to listen.
Helen?s Legacy, 22 December 2004. The Life of Helen Keller. 24 Mar. 2005 http://www.rnib.org.uk/xpedio/groups/public/documents/publicwebsite/public-keller.hcsp
Breaking the Federal Glass Walls, 2 April 2000. National Association of the Deaf. 24 Mar. 2005 http://www.nad.org
Deaf Culture, Deaf Culture. 1996-2005. 24 Mar. 2005
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