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Is being Deaf a disability?



Dear Dr. Bill,
My ASL teacher tells us in class that deafness isn't a disability.  But that doesn't make sense. Obviously if you can't hear you "lack" that particular ability. So, by definition you have a "disability." He keeps talking about "Deaf Culture" and the "Deaf world." Why don't deaf people just get cochlear implants so they can function in both worlds?  I don't mean to be offensive, I just think he is misguiding people and that it is better to face reality.
-- Jennifer

Dear Jennifer,
Let's put it this way: "Being Deaf isn't about having a disability.  It is about navigating through life with your eyes and hands."

Or how about this:  "Deafness doesn't have to be a disability. The knowledge, habits, and approaches to life used by members of the culturally Deaf community allow a person to live without needing to hear. Thus the ability or lack of ability to hear can be made to not matter."

A quote for you:

"Do you see how I feel like Im on the fence, like Im pretending to fit into both worlds and not feeling that I fit into anything?"

-- Shane Spurlock, (a Deaf man who killed himself in 2005)

Source: (Beckner, Chrisanne, Thursday, June 08, 2006) "Can You Hear Me Now?" Sacramento News and Review. Retrieved 6/20/2006 >)

 

While "being deaf" is considered by most  to be disability, I encourage you to reflect upon the fact that of the larger deaf population there is a subset who have to a considerable extent mitigated (lessened the impact of) the disabling aspects of deafness via the development of behavioral norms, sign language usage, and approaches to daily living that make being deaf akin to simply being a member of a visual-communication-based community rather than being a "broken" member of the larger community.

When considered from a sociological point of view this "visual community" does indeed qualify as having a distinct and separate culture.

 

Let me share a scenario to you:  Suppose you see, hear, and move around just fine. Suppose you do not feel that you have a disability.  This is your life, you are fine, and you are generally more or less like your friends, neighbors, and parents.  Now suppose instead of having been born on Earth -- you were instead born on a planet where almost everyone has "ESP" (extra sensory perception).  They have this sixth sense that you lack.  The adults on this planet consider you to be a broken individual. They spend countless hours trying to teach you to "perceive." They implant you with a "perception" device that when you include evaluation, surgery, the device, and rehabilitation can cost as much as $100,000 and provides a semblance of "perception" but is quite limited and very different from the real thing.  You go through life on this ESP planet being made to feel like an impaired half-person always asking for people around you to "think louder" or "more clearly" so that you can understand them with your implant (which only provides a strange simulation of ESP, not a crisp clear ESP).

 

Then one day you meet a girl (or guy) and instead of "thinking at you" she talks to you (with her mouth) and you understand her perfectly without strain. You find out that she was born like you and communicates with her voice instead of telepathic projection (ESP).  She introduces you to her friends who also talk. For the first time in your life you feel normal. You feel like you belong. You feel not like a broken person (an ESP impaired person) but rather like a person period.  You feel accepted for what you are. You wish that you had felt like this your whole life. Your lack of ESP is no longer a disability because everyone in your new circle of friends talks.  You find yourself turning off your ESP implant much of the time (since it is not needed in your new community) and start to think that maybe that $100,000 had could have been better used for college tuition, to buy a condo, invest in stocks, or maybe save the lives of a hundred starving kids in a 3rd world country who can't afford an ESP implant much less food and mosquito netting.

 

I hope you will be open-minded enough to allow for the possibility that those of us in the Deaf community who have firsthand experience with signing and Deaf culture have not been misguided and are not misguiding others but rather have simply found an alternate path on this journey through life. A path wherein we (Deaf) are not broken versions of you needing to be fixed so we can become more like you. Rather we are fine versions of "us."

 

I'm not against cochlear implants. I'm also not necessarily against breast implants. Nor hair implants. Or any of the wide varity of other physical enhancements available. (I had Lasik. I don't plan on getting hair.)  My wife has considered getting a cochlear implant. If she decides it is best for her life's journey I will support her in her decision.

 

I do however think that those who promote, sell, and profit from the sale of breast implants tend to hype the benefits and then do as much damage control as possible when the silicone leaks.

 

Or in the case of cochlear implants: the facial nerve is paralyzed, altered ear structures lead to meningitis, cerebrospinal fluid leaks, perilymph fluid leaks, vertigo tinnitus attacks, taste gets messed up, or reparative granuloma occurs (from when the body rejects or tries to reject the implant) and/or other long term problems that we cannot predict at this time.  (Just as it was hard to predict later toxic shock syndrome in people receiving breast implants.)

 

Remember, I'm not against implants of whatever kind -- including cochear.  I know a lady who is thrilled with her breast implants.  I have several friends who are very satisfied with their cochlear implants. Same goes for hair implants.

 

On the other hand there are those who wish they had never gotten implanted and who feel they were "misguided" about the benefits and misled (by doctors who drive expensive cars and vacation in far away places) regarding the dangers of implantation. 


That isn't to say there aren't many dedicated, hard-working physicians who indeed put the best interests of their patients first. (There are and I'm grateful for them.)  Rather it is to suggest that is not as simple as saying one solution is better than another.

 

I wish you well and encourage you to consider further study of and involvement with the (culturally) Deaf community. 

Cordially,

Dr. Bill

_____________________________

William G. Vicars, Ed.D

Associate Professor of Deaf Studies

California State University - Sacramento

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