The Definition of Deaf

Only one in a thousand are profoundly deaf before eighteen. Add that to the fact that deafhood is not worn on the sleeves makes it particularly unimposing on the lives of hearing. Yet it is a hearing society that has defined the deaf “what to do about them.” Imagine living by an outsider’s definition. Even if it is subtly biased, even if it is well-meaning, it would profoundly alter your reality. For most of deaf history, it has.

The majority of the world hears. Such a majority that for perception and communication systems, hearing is taken for granted: ambulance sirens, ringing phones and voice-mails, much of the world’s dialog. Indeed, we are creatures built this way- babies cry using a voice box that is a profound evolutionary development. Without explicit consideration of the deaf, our social world operates on oral and auditory communication. For most of us, it is an integral part of the whole in our experience of the world.

Looking at the deaf, then, the hearer might balk at the idea of functioning without sound. They might try to generate a system of accommodations for the deaf to process verbal speech visually, and avoid auditorially demanding environments. After all, how would you drive or answer the phone? Historically the solution had been to try to rigorously train deaf children to read lips and enunciate words (deafness doesn’t affect the voice box), and prohibit sign.

While possibly well-meaning, this had sweeping negative effects on the deaf. The first was that a system of verbal-aural adaptations is still grossly ineffective for daily communication. More detrimental than training these skills was the prohibition of sign for many deaf. Most schools until recent decades disallowed sign in hopes that it would corral efforts to learn adaptations. Instead it stunted language learning during crucial developmental years, and further isolated the deaf. (In another article I’ll carefully outline these cultural and linguistic barriers.)

These factors had a cascading effect on measures of cognition on the deaf. They reinforce the false intuition that deaf people are inherently disabled and/or disadvantaged. While limitations may exist they are not intrinsic to a brain system without auditory input. Instead, it is increasingly clear that the deaf match the hearing on many central cognitive measures when you remove effects of language bias and cultural deprivation. Unfortunately, these negative factors have a continued influence on the deaf, reinforced by those hearing definitions.

Hearing is defined at the ears. But four other perceptual senses still plug into the same sort of brain that defines all humans. If the brain is essentially the same, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine the potential of a deaf person to be fully functioning. Among the deaf, some visual-spatial skills are better, suggesting a learned additional sensitivity for visual information. Suffice to say differences in higher cognitive functioning are the result of external factors more than internal.

If you ask the deaf who are also Deaf (capital ‘D’), even the anatomical definition is unfair. Deafhood is a way of life. It’s a group of friends, social behaviors, shared experiences, values. So that’s fine. They got their culture, we (hearing) got ours, no problem, everybody respect each other. Not so.

The anatomical definition of the deaf says a lot when you talk about group membership. So long as the majority is effectively disinterested in creating a rising deaf population, personal and societal choices are directly crippling the deaf way of life. Would you accept a deaf child? What if there was a way to try to make them hearing? Deafhood is unique in that nature defines a cultural divide. As an extreme hearing majority, we have a serious ethical question at hand if we think the right thing to do is to reach across and try to pull the deaf into a hearing world.

It’s one thing to accept another’s way of life. It’s another, much harder thing, to embrace it. I’m an outsider. I’m hearing, but I’ve found deaf people are quite huggable.

Next: Dealing with the Deaf
: Talk about deafhood

Related: A world without music

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