Talk about Deafhood: Treating Hearing Status

I recently had the honor of sharing my experiences with Deaf culture in a classroom of students interested in being involved in the Deaf community. A lot of discussions have come from the visit, which is exactly what I hoped for. Below is a lengthier response to a few key ideas that have been raised, which I think are useful for thinking about some of the aspects that, in my eyes, end up being problematic.

I’ll summarize the position I’m addressing more generally as the following: Because we evolved to have the capacity to hear, we are wrong to think hearing is not an inherent advantage. Further, because the technology exists, it seems sensible to employ the technology to improve the life limitations of having a lower hearing level.

My response:

There are obviously inherent differences to experiencing the world that stem from differences in hearing level. I sympathize with the intuition to think about hearing as a function of species survival, and that hearing serves as an evolutionary advantage. In order for ears to have evolved in a species, the trait had to have enabled increased survival within a species, relative to members without the hearing trait and therefore is by definition advantageous.

However, humans have far outpaced many evolutionary pressures of our world. I think hearing status, aside from the imagination and occasional accident, is not a salient threat for the person who is deaf. Even the most obvious adaptations are no longer taken at face value. We evolved to be mobile and dexterous (legs and arms) and yet there are many equalizers such as cars, wheelchairs, and improved community safety that make legs not necessary for a long, happy life. The human drive for sex and fatty foods are examples of things we often need to actively suppress, despite their initial evolutionary benefit. This is our existence- an awareness that we are made a certain way, and that our identity is the choice to integrate some (but not usually all) aspects of our biological tendencies into our way of life.

Thinking about maximizing survivability is terribly important, it’s just that there are often more important, universal concerns relevant to survival than hearing status. To be clear, deaf people not hearing a tornado warning has never appeared on a list of common fatalities. Conversely, deaf people, just the same as hearing, are susceptible to much more threatening fatalities: car accidents, alcoholism, diabetes, cancer, disease. I can only assume there are numerous other causes of death that appear on a list before “accidents related to hearing status” does.

Yet, you probably would be willing to grant the average human, even a diabetic, the right to eat something unhealthy AND the right to not be challenged. What’s fundamentally different about being deaf? There exist sophisticated interventions for health concerns such as diabetes and STDs, issues which can pose a threat for societal and personal well-being, and yet a person is allowed to want to eat more, have more sex. A person is allowed to appreciate who they are, on their own terms. I’m arguing this right should extend to being deaf.

But certainly there are those who would prefer to benefit from what aid the medical community has to offer. The best way to insure a deaf person knows a tornado is coming would be to make sure they receive text alerts. If you paid for their phone, their phone plan, and necessary training, the effectiveness per dollar spent would still dwarf any fully reliable hearing aid, cochlear implant, and/or related therapy. Fortunately, deaf people today typically have phones, phone plans, and an active texting life, making the costs and lifestyle adjustment potentially a non-issue.

And here’s what’s most important. There is nothing different about a deaf person and a hearing person receiving a text. Text messaging is equalizing, and promotes similarity across hearing status. And while it may be a no-brainer for anyone (hearing or not) to receive text-alerts, no one ought to be forced to, because that’s infantilizing (new word I learned in discussions about white privilege). No technologies, for someone who is independently functioning, should be encouraged without the request of the individual. Pushing a product suggests it is needed, and worse, that there is a deficit, not simply a difference, without it.

3 thoughts on “Talk about Deafhood: Treating Hearing Status

  1. Hi! Thank you so much for coming and speaking to our class! As a (hopefully) future audiology student, your presentation taught me a lot about deafhood and its impact on the family. Most of all, it taught me that the impact is surprisingly small! After hearing your talk, it seems like your childhood was pretty much perfectly “normal” (if we can even measure normality), with a few minor exceptions. This is something that I will keep with me for my future career in the field. Regarding this post, it makes sense to me that some may feel like hearing is an evolutionary adaptation, however I never thought of it as something that was so optional. I of course knew that some Deaf individuals choose not to receive any hearing intervention, however I never considered it to be so similar to something like a car or wheelchair, something that can help some but that others can very easily live without. Thank you for your insight on this subject and on your life as a CODA, it has been enlightening!

    1. Emily, I am glad you were able to take away some points that will help you as you pursue a career in audiology! I really appreciate that you recognize the point I was trying to raise about the option of receiving aid, and also that in order to respect the dignity of the individual, one that should be carefully made by the informed individual.

      Regarding my childhood and the experiences I shared I want to briefly mention that, while the larger point to be illustrated is the overwhelming similarity to others’ childhoods, I don’t want to trivialize the differences. A CODA identity/community would not exist unless also there were meaningful differences, and having deaf parents has with it many inherent differences, like having to interpret at parent/teacher conferences, for example. Good luck, and don’t hesitate to reach out as you continue to think about these topics!

  2. Hi Mark! First off, thank you for coming into our classroom and bringing in such an insightful and thoughtful dialogue. The points brought up throughout the discussion will be beneficial for myself as a future clinician, as well as for me now as just an informed member of society. I have taken a variety of courses that addressed aspects of Deaf culture but your discussion framed Deafhood in a new perspective that went beyond the ideas taught inside the classroom. So thank you for that. In regards to your post, it definitely fostered a new idea of thinking for myself. You took the idea of looking at hearing through the lens of a safety issue or survival and brought up several valid and thought provoking notions. Bringing in this idea of what begets our identity as a choice and just because we have traits that have been developed throughout our evolution does not make it an essential feature of our identity. I thought a great example was your discussion on the fact that we as humans have genetic tendencies for fatty foods and sex, yet we at times actively suppress these evolutionary traits and thus make conscious choices on which biological trait to adhere to. Lastly, I appreciated your comments on the fact that forcing a technology that was not requested is making assumptions that the technology is required. Thus, thank you for helping me be a more aware and informed future clinician and for writing such an insightful blog. I look forward to reading your next post. It is always nice to hear a perspective that often cannot be found inside the classroom.

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