Progress in modern medicine is the successful pursuit and discovery of a cure to ailments that are detrimental to life, such as diseases, cancers and disabilities. But when is an ailment considered detrimental to life? When is a problem decidedly worth solving?
I turn your attention specifically to the deaf community, a community that is typically misunderstood and tends to be ignored by the general public. This is in part due to the fact that it is hard to distinguish who is deaf from who is not since they tend to have no physical identifiers — no specific scars, spots or bruises like those of other ailments. Deafness is not typically fatal or detrimental to your health, but since it’s uncommon in the general population, those that have it are considered “different,” while those with the ability to hear are considered “normal.” Members of this community are forced to compensate for their deafness to fit in to a society dominated by the hearing population. As the minority, they are expected to adapt, to learn the dominant forms of communication in order to help them fit in with the majority of persons; to change their lifestyle in order to make others feel more comfortable.
The Cambridge British Dictionary defines disability as “an illness, injury, or condition that makes it difficult for someone to do the things that other people do.” Unbeknownst to the common person, a deaf person is able to function much like those with the ability to hear. They can listen to and create music, participate in sports and even can socialize and exist among both communities. Their ways of life may be unconventional, but there are many doors open to them and being deaf does not automatically cut them off from experiences that life offers. Therefore, would you still consider being deaf as a disability when they are capable of doing so many different things?
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Whether or not you answer yes, these types of questions are viewed differently within the medical community. Doctors tend to approach deaf patients with the goal of “curing their hearing loss,” rather than supporting the acclimation of their new identity as a deaf person and helping them adapt to their new environment.
One of the best ways to help them adapt would be to suggest the learning of a form of communication dominant within the deaf community, such as sign language. There are a variety of sign languages used worldwide and in North America, but ASL, or American Sign Language, tends to be quite popular, Communication involves the use of phonemic components that include the movements of the face, the torso and the hands without having to speak. “Speakers” use their whole body to convey their message. The language is very much like an art, requiring one to become attuned with the body and familiarize themselves with the movements of others.
Hand movements are used as symbols while facial expressions are used to express specific emotions related to a topic of conversation, to signal whether they’re asking a question or merely saying a statement. The language exists on its own and is not specifically related to the English language, with the exception of using finger spelling to refer to certain people or places. Each sign is not assigned to one word but has multiple meanings attached to it depending on the context of the conversation. Sign languages also differ by dialect and regional areas.
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To disregard the use of ASL in the 21st century would be to disregard hundreds of years of progress made towards better living for deaf individuals. There is a long history of prejudice and cruelty towards the deaf community, and many misconceived notions clouding the judgement of those with the ability to hear in their own attempt to “cure” deafness. Deaf education had been a source of debate starting in the late 19th century, arguing between using the oral method of teaching and the manual teaching of American Sign Language. After the invention of ASL by Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet in 1817 at the American School for the Deaf, this debate lead to the belief that by allowing deaf people to have their own language, they would be unable to thrive in society. The oral method was then adopted and children were forced to communicate through oral speech and lip reading. They were taught to sit on their hands to prevent them from using any type of sign language and forced to repeat words and sounds over.
To disregard the use of ASL in the 21st century would be to disregard hundreds of years of progress made towards better living for deaf individuals.
Few people know that Alexander Graham Bell, though a revered hero for Canadians due to his invention of the telephone, is actually despised in the deaf community due to his involvement and impact on the debate of their education. He was one of the advocates for finding a “cure”, having been raised by a deaf mother and seen firsthand the hardships that accompany deafness. He believed that the deaf should marry the hearing in order to lessen the chance of inheriting it, which has been proven to be somewhat of a myth as not all deafness is hereditary.
Attempting to cure deafness is a long and sometimes impossible process. Today, there are advances in technology attempting to find this “cure”. Hearing aids are usually provided but most doctors will suggest the use of a “cochlear implant,” which is described to be – “an electronic medical device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear.” It is done by performing a cochleostomy, which is the procedure of drilling a hole into the skull and into the cochlea where the device is then planted. There is a piece outside the skull that attaches to it and must be removed when the person is asleep or entering water. Also, the “hearing” ability does not occur in the patient’s ears but from somewhere near the top of their skull.
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Some people are born with their deafness and this surgery cannot be performed after the patient is 12 months old, since it tends to be more accurate at an early age. Yet, it is a hard process that occurs unnaturally and is dependent upon technology; it can also unpleasant for the patient. The act of removing the outward piece is described to be uncomfortable and painful, as a loud noise occurs each time as it attempts to connect to a frequency. It is also forewarned that the patient may never be acquainted to all types of sound.
Though it is not uncommon for patients to achieve success with a cochlear implant, it is more likely that a person who develops hearing loss later in life will benefit, as they have previous knowledge of sound can know what to expect. Yet, in any circumstance, the success of the cochlear implant is never guaranteed. Doctors should be letting patients know of all their options, most importantly the use of a sign language as a way to get in touch with their new identity and to help them take part in this culture. Why deprive them of a right that was created by and for them, simply due to the possibility of a cure?
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I am not arguing that technological advancements are destroying the deaf community and should not be attempted. I am not arguing that sign language will be the cure to all of the problems deaf individuals encounter. However, I am providing an alternate perspective that might not be common, where deafness is not a disability, and not something to be changed or fixed. Many deaf people find that in a way, their deafness is a gift and a unique experience that teaches them to live in a world attuned with their body. It brings them closer to human beings, teaching them to understand people by the way they move and the way they act without as many distractions that hearing can provide.
I believe that ASL is a right that the deaf community has fought for and deserved, a language for themselves that accommodates their needs and brings them comfort. Why is it their responsibility to accommodate hearing people by learning to read lips and pronounce words?
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It has only been in the last several decades that changes in deaf culture have been brought to the forefront of history. In 1988, there was a protest at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. named Deaf President Now. As a University for deaf students, Gallaudet had been run by hearing individuals since it was first established in 1864. All decisions for their students were being made by those who did not have their experiences or their struggles. When Elisabeth A. Zinser won the presidency over the only deaf candidate, Dr. I. King Jordan, students of the university, as well as some encouraging staff, began to shut down the school, barricading entrances in order to keep out Zinser and the board of trustees who voted her in. The students had four demands in exchange for ending the protest and by the end of the week, they succeeded and Jordan became president.
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I ask you again, should deafness be a disability when the supposedly disabled are happy with the way they are?
If you ask those that were born with their deafness, many, if not most, choose to remain deaf, to live the way their parents do, to embrace that which makes them special. They learn to navigate the world using their other senses, to not get distracted by noise but become keen observers. They aren’t missing out on something that they never had — they haven’t lost anything to begin with. When you’re listening to your favourite song or the sound of the rain and think, “some people will never know what this sounds like,” instead try to wonder what it is that they see.