Hearing Without Listening: Problematizing “Disability”
About a year ago, my 18-year-old sister decided to learn American Sign Language on a whim. Just to be clear, she was not losing her hearing, and no one in our family is going deaf. Being incredibly gifted, she is now capable of having full conversations in ASL. Other than having achieved something amazing and extremely useful, my sister gained an enormous amount of knowledge about the deaf community by attending ASL classes at the Bob Rumball Center for the Deaf (just north of Glendon on Bayview).
I’ve spoken to her several times over the course of the year about her new hobby, and the issue of cochlear implants came up in conversation. With the utmost respect, I told her deaf people should embrace this technology in order to better their lives and the lives of hearing people who interact with them. Having seen first-hand what the deaf community believed about these implants, she had a different opinion. Suffice it to say, what she told me gave me food for thought, which I am now sharing with you.
Deaf people do not see themselves as disabled, and do not think that they need to be ‘fixed’. They believe that their rich culture and language allows them to live full and meaningful lives, as full and meaningful as hearing people. Therefore, the invention of any device aimed at ‘fixing’ deafness would seem to imply that there is a problem with deafness to begin with. This goes against all of the fundamental beliefs of deaf pride. Some deaf individuals embrace the technology and appreciate what it offers: the chance to experience both the world of the deaf and the world of the hearing. However, other individuals consider the device to be an attack on their culture.
This issue becomes even more complicated given that 90% of deaf individuals are born into hearing families. These families are often unaware of the existence of the deaf community, and, as hearing people, have the common (and destructive) belief that deafness must be ‘fixed’. Then take into account the fact that a cochlear device is more likely to successfully adapt to its recipient the earlier it is implanted. So, many deaf infants born into hearing families receive implants, without moral or ethical questioning. This is another reason that the deaf community sees cochlear implants as a threat.
If 90% of deaf individuals are born into hearing families, and cochlear implants are becoming more common every day, there is a potential chance of ethnocide. That is, if every deaf infant is implanted and never gets to join the deaf community, said community will eventually cease to exist. Given all this, it’s understandable why this is a frightening possibility to this vibrant community, whose members have fought for years for acceptance and equality (see the horrible oppressive history of deaf people).
Suffice it to say, I was wrong to assume that people facing a disability (either from birth or something developed later in life) are to be immediately victimized and coddled. In fact, people who overcome legitimate hardship are often stronger as a result. It’s only natural that deaf people feel a certain amount of pride for both their achievements and their community. Why should the hearing world impose its will on a community it barely understands or acknowledges? As I said, food for thought.