I’ve always considered deafness a disability. And I’ve always felt sympathetic, at times even condescending, toward deaf people. It was, I thought, such an unimaginable loss not to be able to hear the sweet laughter of a child, or the melody of a beautiful song, or the voice of a loved one.
Lately, I found out how misguided I was…
I had thought that deafness was something that needed to be fixed, healed, corrected. I was surprised to hear a resounding, “Not so!” from some in the deaf community. They caught my attention and now I see, there are deaf people who take pride in what I consider an impairment. And as they are the ones with the experience, I choose to listen to them.
It was a positive albeit worldview-shattering thought. Some deaf people, through years of having to adapt to not being able to hear, embrace their own language, their own community, their own way of life. And it was just the way they liked it, thank you very much.
Despite the discomfort of having to shift worldviews, I admit it was a pleasant surprise to learn that what I see as a state of debility is actually wanted and owned by those experiencing it. Although it makes me feel like such a weakling, it also inspires me to see such strength and positivity in others.
I guess it is part of living in this diverse world that I’m just now beginning to understand. I mean, there really are all sorts of normal, all ways of being. And yet, sometimes we’re tempted to take each one and scrutinize it under the lens of our own preferences and prejudices.
But when it comes to differences of a physical nature, like deafness, I’m realizing that I am sadly ignorant. It is not just the difference in skin or eye color, in height or in weight that we need to accept. It is also the differences in what we can or cannot do, differences we didn’t ask for but can learn to live with and accept, that we need to understand.
There’s nothing like taking a class in Special Education to drive this home.
So anyway, Deaf pride was such a novel and unexpected concept that I just had to read up on it. I got on the internet and learned a few fascinating facts. I’m going to share them with you. The list will start off with some depressing information that show a bit of the struggle deaf people have endured through the years. Keep reading, however. You will see how things changed, thanks to people who cared enough to make a difference. And while a long way from perfect, it’s slowly but gradually getting there.
From the Time Line of Deaf History on the PBS website, I learned that:
- Aristotle believed that without hearing, learning can’t take place. As a result, a deaf son of a certain King Croesus of Lydia was not recognized as heir.
- St. Augustine taught that having deaf children meant God was angry at the sins of the parents. I suppose at that time, finding out your baby wasn’t deaf was cause for celebration–for more than the obvious reason.
- Benedictine monks who took a vow of silence, out of necessity, developed their own form of sign language.
- During the time period of 1690 – 1880, many families in Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts, carried hereditary hearing problems. This also led them to develop their own form of sign language.
- Charles Michel De L’Epp, a priest, developed the French sign language. He also started a shelter for the deaf in Paris, and a school for deaf children in Truffaut, France. In 1788, he published a dictionary of French sign language.
- Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, inspired by De L’Epp’s legacy, founded the first American school for the deaf with Laurent Clerc, a teacher from France. The school was located in Connecticut.
- John Flournoy, a student from the Connecticut school, proposed to Congress that land in the western territories should be set aside to create a deaf state where deaf people can live unhindered by the hearing society.
- In 1892, the electrical hearing aid was invented.
- Deaf players changed the way baseball, and football, is played. Umpire hand signals and signed instructions are given in a huddle.
- In 1964, the phone for the deaf was invented. It was called the teletypwriter and allowed deaf people to type out their conversations.
- Total Communication, a combination of manual and speech-based instruction for the deaf was developed, leading to mainstreaming deaf children into the public school system.
- In 1980, close captioning was developed!
- In 1985, Cochlear Implants were approved.
- In 1987, Marlee Matlee, a deaf actress, won an Oscar.
- In 1995, Heather Whitestone, a deaf woman, was crowned Miss America.
Wasn’t that quite the journey? And it’s not over. Far from it. More and more deaf people are starting to hear the message that deafness is not a disability. It does not need medical intervention. And they are trying to get this message out to the public, including other deaf people.
Susan Donaldson James and Grace Huang, writers for ABC News, wrote an article entitled, Deaf and Proud to Use Sign Language. They tell the story of Lizzie Sorkin, a young deaf lady born to deaf parents. When Lizzie was in high school, her mother asked her if she wanted cochlear implants. Lizzie’s response? “I am deaf first before being a woman, before my faith, my sexual preference, my interests…I didn’t see my deafness as a problem. I didn’t need to be fixed.”
Lizzie Sorkin’s attitude is reflected by a growing number of deaf people. In fact, according to experts and cited by James and Huang in the same article, there are currently two sides to the issue that exist in the deaf community. One side sees their world as pathological, considering deafness as a disability that they must overcome. And then there are those like Lizzie who take pride in the cultural aspects of being deaf, in using sign language and in sharing their own set of values.
So what does this mean to you and me? I suppose, after reading through all these paragraphs, you’ve come to some sort of conclusion over deafness. But it probably won’t hit home unless someone you care about experiences it personally. Still, knowledge is power. And because we live in such a small world, taking time to think about this issue might come in handy some unknown day.
Also, as we saw, it took all kinds of people to make a difference for the deaf community. What can you do?
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