Although deafness has and continues to be viewed as a medical diagnosis or disability, there are people in the United States whom are members of a minority group that takes pride in being Deaf, with a capital ‘D’. Of 35 million people who are considered deaf or hearing impaired, 500,000 of these people view deafness as a culture (Williams & Abeles, 2004). Deaf people still continue to face discrimination in housing, employment, and education. Movies, documentaries, literature, and television have highlighted these difficulties, growth, triumph, and overall culture.
According to Gallaudet University, Deaf culture revolves around the use of American Sign Language and the unity between others who are Deaf. Dr. Barbara Kannapel, a Deaf sociolinguist defined Deaf culture as a set of learned behaviors of a group of deaf people who have their own language, values, rules, and tradition (Williams & Abeles, 2004). Deaf culture promotes vision as the primary sense, encourages American Sign Language above all other modalities of communication, and focus on film and literature that preserves their culture.
In an age where there is significant research regarding the benefits of being an oral deaf individual or receiving amplification technology, it’s easy to point fingers and shame those who disregard the aforementioned. As a budding Speech-Language Pathologist, I understand “language”. Language is a system of communication used by individuals to send and receive messages; both spoken and sign language fit this criteria. However, the benefits of oral language are not to be over-looked given research in this area. Ibertsson et al. (2009) findings agree with most researchers in this area: speech recognition and spoken language contribute to efficient communication. When working with children who are hearing impaired, we as Speech-Language Pathologists should be aware of the importance of language acquisition for social scenarios and academic instances while challenging the children to encounter different conversational settings in a less structured way.
However, some members of the Deaf population feel so strongly about becoming oral or even receiving amplification. Cochlear implants and additional amplification technology are looked upon as instruments to “cure” deafness (Sparrow, 2005). They’re offered as treatment options of both children and adults who were either born deaf or became deaf. A portion of the deaf community poorly reacts to these devices. There has been numerous protests against the use of amplification devices specifically against the use of young children. Protestors
It’s difficult to argue the benefits of receiving amplification and gaining oral language given the adversity that the Deaf have faced in the past; various voices in Deaf Culture have stated in “Through Deaf Eyes” that the Deaf is often treated as an ethnic group that needs to be assimilated (Avon, 2006). These issues present the question; If a deaf person is completely fine with their current way of life, why is it necessary for them to change? Some may view that hearing people encourage this assimilation to make it easier on themselves so that there is no need to accommodate the hearing impaired.
As literature and popular culture allows us to see, deaf individuals have been denied the rights to own property, have children, drive cars, be educated, or even communicate through sign. Deaf people have rarely been treated with simply human dignity. Humphries, a Deaf scholar, created a word in 1975 that properly defines the discrimination that hearing impaired individuals have and continue to face. “Audism” is when people judge deaf individuals’ intelligence and success based on their ability in the language of the hearing culture; additionally, an assumption is made about the deaf persons’ happiness based on them acquiring fluency in the hearing culture’s language (Hamil & Stein, 2011). Audism, although a fairly recent word, stands for something that has been occurring for a long time.
Although the Deaf have clearly been discriminated against, there are informative and delightful resources that continue to advocate for the Deaf and keep Deaf Culture alive. The American Society for Deaf Children, National Association of the Deaf, and the World Federation of the Deaf (Golos & M, 2012) all provide an outlet for those who are hearing impaired. But arguably more importantly, these organization serve as a source of information for hearing individuals who aren’t educated enough to fully understand the Deaf, their culture, and the importance of preserving it. Additionally, in an age where we gain exposure from movies and social media, prominent deaf athletes, scholars, actors, and even musicians shine a light on the narrow difference between deaf and hearing individuals. Often times, these people teach a lesson that a typically hearing person can follow: the importance of focusing on what you can do, rather than what you cannot do.
Lisamarie Ricigliano M.S. CF-SLP, TSSLD