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  • August 2, 2011

Hear This: The Deaf Have Much to Say, But We’re Not Listening

by Andrés T. Tapia –

Sign LanguageIt was a first-time experience for me: the lecturer at a breakout session during the Indiana Conference on Cultural Competency for Behavioral Healthcare was presenting in American Sign Language (ASL) on deaf culture to a roomful of mostly hearing people like myself. Two translators were taking turns translating from ASL to English.

As I focused on watching the lecturer and listening to the translators, it dawned on me that anytime I had seen ASL being used in a public setting, it was to translate spoken English, Portuguese, or Spanish into ASL for the handful of deaf attendees. This time roles were reversed. And it was about time.

In one of my keynotes speeches, I talk about our current upside-down world, and I make the point that to be disabled is instead to be differently abled. But that afternoon, in Indianapolis, I understood this at an even more profound level than I had ever before.

As I paid attention to Ann Riefel, the ASL chair at Vincennes University, I heard about the differences between hearing and deaf cultures and I began to enter a learning space where I awoke to a new paradigm.

Deafness is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood dimensions of diversity not just outside the diversity and inclusion field, but actually within it. As you continue to read think about how we may be inadvertently reinforcing audism—the discrimination of those who are deaf—even as we advocate on behalf of the deaf.

What the Deaf Want

Here is the clincher: the deaf don’t want to be seen as people with a disability, but rather as a linguistic minority with its own language and culture. This stance has vital implications for the work of diversity and how we approach the deaf.

Riefel’s lecture laid out ways in which ASL is not a manual way of turning English words into hand signs, but rather how ASL is a separate language altogether. Like differences between various spoken languages, the syntax, word order, and even the words used in a sentence can be quite different between ASL and English. Also, ASL is not a universal language. For example, there is Portuguese Sign Language and French Sign Language just to name a couple of the hundreds of different sign languages that exist.

Riefel also explained how the deaf form a different culture compared to that of the hearing. As I listened to her explanations, the descriptions matched the framework used by interculturalists such as Fons Trompenaars.

In deaf culture, communication is much more direct. Body language is more expressive (featuring the highly animated use of all facial muscles, especially the eyes) and demonstrative (hugging is quite common). When in comes to social events and time, the deaf tend to be more event oriented than clock oriented and they are more group oriented than individualistic when it comes to their sense of identity. And more likely than not, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual orientation, the deaf tend to first identify with the deaf culture before they identify with their other multidimensional identities.

Riefel referred her listeners to a couple of books by Harlan Lane, which I downloaded into my iPhone’s Kindle app as she was wrapping up her lecture. When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf, compellingly describes how, for centuries, the deaf have been an oppressed language minority group. In his second book, The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community, Lane makes the case that the deaf continue to be marginalized as he draws parallels between how ASL and spoken languages such as Tamil in India, Turkish in Denmark, Basque in Spain, Spanish in certain parts of the United States have been suppressed in societies where there is a different dominant language. For the deaf, this is always the case.

This point of view is not without controversy, even among those who advocate for the deaf. A New York Times article explores some of this controversy that is getting renewed attention because of state budget woes. But here I want us to lean into their case to really understand its premises. As Lane explains it:

“Language [can] be expressed . . . by movements of the hands and face just as well as by the small, sound-generating movements of the throat and mouth. Then the first criterion for language that I had learned as a student—it is spoken and heard—was wrong; and, more important, language did not depend on our ability to speak and hear but must be a more abstract capacity of the brain. It was the brain that had language, and if that capacity was blocked in one channel, it would emerge through another.”

This reality is suppressed by a “disability” label that, used in the spirit of inclusion, actually creates exclusion:

“With the cultural frame changed [to the infirmity model] the deaf pupil was now an outsider. Spoken language in the classroom and speech therapy failed to make him an insider, while it drove out all education, confirmation the child was defective. Unsuccessful education of deaf children reinforced the need for special education, for experts in counseling of the deaf and in rehabilitation of the deaf. Finally and most devastatingly, deaf children in America, starting in the late 1970s, were increasingly placed in local hearing schools. Having cut off the deaf child from his deaf world, having blocked his communication with parents, peers, and teachers, the experts have disabled the deaf child as never before in American history. The typical deaf child, born deaf or deafened before learning English, is utterly at a loss as he sits on the deaf bench in the hearing classroom.”

Lane also points out how in the name of helping the deaf (defined as those born deaf versus those who have become hearing impaired through illness, accident, or age), the interests of the deaf have not been met, as the hearing are the ones who decide what is best for them. It’s the hearing who own the schools for the deaf, have advocated for mainstreaming the deaf into classrooms for the hearing, and are most likely their teachers. This puts the deaf at a significant disadvantage by forcing them to operate with their second, and not their primary, language. Plus, they are instructed by a hearing teacher who often does not know ASL and, therefore, cannot fully communicate with them.

And what happens when individuals cannot communicate in their native language or the world around them does not know their native language? Yes, of course, they are seen as less smart, less capable. Asking them to learn English and not teaching them in ASL is to impose the values and approaches of the hearing onto the deaf.

Riefel, Lane, and others, take this even further in contending that deafness is not a disability. In fact, labeling deafness as a disability has done significant harm to deaf self determination and identity. This travesty was further reinforced when deafness was thrown into the Americans with Disability Act. By framing it within a deficiency model, the deaf then must be helped paternalistically.

On the other hand, when deafness is seen as a culture it takes on a different mode. It must be respected and understood as being as equally valid as other cultures, including such as the Asian-American, African-American, and hearing cultures. Therefore, to engage with those who are deaf we all need to demonstrate greater crosscultural skills in order to be inclusive of one another.

Do We Really Understand?

This mind-bending understanding of deaf culture raises questions not only of ways in which we may have been advocating—if we have at all—for deaf employees, but also where we may be having significant blind spots around other groups whose abilities are different from the majority’s.

Do we really understand what the blind need, what those with Down’s Syndrome need, what the quadriplegic need? Do we understand when something is a disability and when something is not? When making decisions that affect these communities, how much of a voice do they have in the decision-making process?

Just because the deaf can’t hear, the blind can’t see, and those in wheelchairs cannot walk, their voices about their needs and their identities must be heard as the first and primary order of business. If not, those of us who are hearing, have vision, and can walk will not hear the message, see the possibilities, or walk the talk.

I hope you will carry this message with you as you strive to advance diversity and inclusion within your organizations.

Adelante (onward) in the work!

  1. Wonderful article! Thank you. We applaud the opening of a door to understand our cultural diversity and multiple authenticities.
    We would like to make a couple of comments or additions; among millions of us who are deaf, the majority of us do not use sign language, about 95% of all millions of us worldwide. (this includes deaf, deafened, and people with hearing loss). This is due to acquired hearing loss at all ages, and does not detract from the article at all, yet it’s a vital issue for most of us because we need other resource urgently, e.g. real time captioning at all meetings for full equal communication access.
    The word disability is indeed a concern for us all – yet we are internally diverse, and we aim to become better advocates to reduce common myths and assumptions, and for the next generation to have the resources needed for all.
    We invite you to review the CCAC webpages, also, since captioning benefits many others also.

    • Deaf from Birth
    • November 30, 2011

    I disagree with the fact that deaf people are automatically a linguistic minority. People who use ASL as their primary/predominant language can be considered a linguistic minority, and this group can include CODAs, SODAs, etc., as well as NERDAs*. Plus, I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of people with a significant hearing loss/impairment (moderate-severe ranges) DON’T sign. So how can you lump all deaf people into a linguistic minority group when most people with hearing loss don’t sign ASL fluently?

    Now, if we’re talking solely about profoundly deaf people, who make up what, less than 1-3% of the population, even not all of them use ASL as their primary language, or even sign as their primary mode of communication. Many profoundly deaf people are predominantly oral and use spoken English/language to communicate. Still others use cued English. Or a combination of communication modes.

    I hate to say it, Andrés, but I think you swallowed some kool-aid without really researching everything. One lecture and a couple books by Harlan Lane don’t make you a sudden expert.

    By the way, to other readers — please keep in mind that the American deaf community is not the same as the deaf communities in other countries around the world. Ours is unique.

    CODA: Child of Deaf Adult
    SODA: Sibling (or Spouse)of Deaf Adult
    NERDA: Not Even Related to a Deaf Adult

    • Chris
    • November 29, 2011

    Mr. Tapia, I am glad that you had a wonderful exposure to Deaf culture. American Sign Language is a beautiful language that I think everyone should learn — even those with no hearing loss! However, I must say that Deaf culture does not represent the entire population of people with hearing loss. It is important to note that there are various groups of people with hearing loss, some who identify themselves as culturally Deaf, and some who do not. (Of course, it depends on their hearing background, if one exists, and how they use technology like hearing aids and cochlear implants.) I recognize that your conference was focused on culture, and it makes sense to discuss Deaf culture here. However, there is not a clear divide, and it may not be fair to speak of one.

  2. Reply

    I really like this articles and good thing to be reconized as view for the deaf

    • MM
    • November 28, 2011

    Part of the issue is using ‘audism’ as an blunt tool to attack people who aren’t ‘in the ‘Deaf’ community’ by misguided zealots. Using an scatter gun approach ignoring collateral casualties. It isn’t just this very minor but quite effective little group of ‘Deaf’ people getting discriminations but everyone with loss even from them. There is an definite polarisation of Deaf versus deaf, which suggests far from acceptance, it is NON acceptance unless you fit some vague criterion of image and lifestyle. E.G, some one who supports an Sign English approach as averse to an ASL one, or, someone who’s deaf supporting an CI or Lip-reading approach or inclusive education, why these deaf suffer the slings and outrageous condemnations of the few isn’t good to see at all. Some of the rhetoric is hateful, and thus no-one can support any area that uses that approach. What it does to validate culture is highly debatable.

    • Dr. Eddy Laird
    • November 11, 2011

    Thanks, first and foremost, for having such an eye-catching heading (‘Hear This: The Deaf [People} Have Much to Say, But We’re Not Listening’) and for your sincere thoughts about people who are Deaf, especially those who embrace their culture and American Sign Language (ASL).

    Ann (Riefel) mentioned your book (The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity) when she first met you earlier this year at a conference that you both went. I bought the book and little did I realize how much the book had truly transformed me! Consquently, I decided to use your book as one of the texts for one of my courses this semester (Fall 2011). One of the best books, I must add, since it generated a lot of discussion among the course mates.

    As a Deaf person growing up in a Deaf family and being taught in a school program that did not promote ASL as language of instruction, I am pleased that you have taken incentive from your end to encourage individuals who wish to embrace diversity and inclusion by validating that Deaf individuals prefer to be viewed as part of linguistic and cultural diversity.

    Thanks, again, for listening and for mentioning Ann since she is also making significant contributions to the field – that is, to embrace and leverage diversity.

    • Reply

      Eddy – Thanks for your note. The most rewarding dimension of this work is the opportunity to make connections that touch people and influence new thinking. It’s always affirming and celebratory to hear of times when that happens. Here’s to many more identity affirming conversations and actions. – Andrés

  3. Reply

    I would have to agree with the “labeling” of deaf individuals. Deaf people want to be seen as a linguistic minority, and not a person with a handicap. Besides, a deaf person can do anything a hearing person can do, except hear. American Sign Language is a beautiful language, and it should be respected as one.

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