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.
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.