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Deaf People: "Psychology of Deafness?"

 

“IS THERE A PSYCHOLOGY OF DEAFNESS?”

A colleague of mine, (Adonia Smith), would likely get riled if she saw the word "Deafness" here.  She would tell you the proper term would be "Deaf People" and that the term "deafness" expresses a pathological viewpoint regarding people who are deaf. A pathological view is one in which the state of being deaf is considered to be like having a disease.  For me the word "deafness" means "the state of being deaf."  Neither the phrase "state of being" nor the suffix "ness" have direct sign equivalents in ASL so it is easy to see how the term "deafness" could fall out of favor. It will be interesting to see if the term "deafness" becomes a "taboo" item similar to the term "hearing impaired." At that point, the title of this article should be changed to "Psychology of Deaf People."

Yes!  There is a field of science known as the “psychology of deafness.” Let’s take a look that the term “psychology.”  The “ology” portion of the word refers to the science of, or the study of something. The term “psych” refers to the “mind and or soul.”  Generally the idea of “psych” when combined with “ology” means the study of the mind and behavior (Funk, 1942).  The phrase “psychology of deafness,” then refers to the field of science that studies the minds and behavior of people who are deaf.

Is there a field of science that studies the minds and behavior of people who are deaf?  Most certainly!  Researchers throughout the world are studying the minds and behavior of people who are deaf.  You can see this for yourself by conducting an internet search using the words “+deafness +research +psychology.”  Most search engines will produce a large number of links.  (For example www.farrell-posner-etc.com/deafness.htm. is just one of many I found.)

A different question is, “Are the minds and behavior of deaf people different from that of hearing people?”

If the minds and behavior of deaf people are substantially different from the minds and behavior of hearing people then there is such a thing as “deaf psychology.” 

Let’s break that down into even more questions and take a look at each one.

Are the brains of deaf people structurally or organizationally different from the brains of hearing people?  Do they process language in the right hemisphere because they are deaf?  No.  The brains of Deaf people process sign language in the left hemisphere of the brain just as hearing people process spoken language. (Neville, 1988)  But that is not the question we need to ask in relation to psychology.  Instead we need to ask, “Are the minds of deaf people different from hearing people?”  To that we would answer, “Yes.”  Consider a prelingually deaf person who grew up using ASL as his native language.  This person thinks in signs rather than words.  Thinking in signs or pictures rather than words constitutes a mental process that is radically different from the norm.  It is not within the scope of this “final” to delve into the many ramifications “picture thinking.”  Suffice to say that this is one example that the minds of deaf people are different from the minds of hearing people.  This is not to say that the brains of deaf people are different from hearing people. (Bellugi1988)

Is the behavior of deaf people different from that of hearing people?  From personal experience as a hard of hearing person I can assure you my behavior is different if I am wearing my hearing aid and if I am not.  My behavior is also different depending on whether I’m with hearing people or Deaf people.  My involvement with the Deaf education program at Lamar University and choice of a profession is directly tied to my status as a hard of hearing person.  I can earn much more money in the field of computing technology than I can in the field of Deaf Studies.  I choose to involve myself with Deaf Studies because that is where I find the most freedom of communication and the strongest sense of acceptance.

Culture is widely defined as a set of learned norms, values, and behaviors, passed down from generation to generation in a society.  If there is such a thing as “Deaf Culture,” then there exists a set of learned behaviors associated with membership in the Deaf Community.  For purposes of this discussion--every deaf person in the world doesn’t have to participate in this behavior.  We simply need to show that a substantial number of deaf people have developed or learned a set of behaviors that are different from the set of behaviors used by the mainstream hearing society in which they live.  Who decides whether or not there is such a thing as Deaf Culture?  Cultural anthropologists would be a good start.  Dr. Virginia Harrington, a cultural anthropologist formerly at Weber State University, has stated that Deaf Culture does indeed exist. (Harrington 1990)   Dr. Barbara Kannapell of Gallaudet University teaches that members of the Deaf Community do share a culture and think differently than hearing people. (Kannapell 2000)

  The minds and behavior of Deaf people are different from the minds and behavior of hearing people.  That would indicate the existence of a “deaf psychology.”  The study of the minds and behavior of deaf people is then accurately and appropriately referred to as “Psychology of Deafness” or the more culturally appropriate "Psychology of Deaf People."

Bibliography:

Bellugi, Ursulla (1988) [Interview]“The Mind: Language” [film]. The Mind Series, Vol. 7.  WNET/New York: Educational Broadcasting Corp.

Funk, Wilfred & Lewis, Norman. (1942)  “30 Days to a more powerful vocabulary” New York: Pocket Books, Inc.

Harrington, Virginia (1990)  Personal conversation with William Vicars.

Kannapell, Barbara (2000) “EDU 795” Online course. Gallaudet University.

Neville, Hellen (1988) [Interview]“The Mind: Language” [film]. The Mind Series, Vol. 7.  WNET/New York: Educational Broadcasting Corp.

 


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