Morris, W, “Theology without Words”, 2008, Ashgate
The Deaf community does not include everyone in society who has a hearing loss. The RNID suggests that one in every seven people in society lives with some level of hearing impairment, which amounts to somewhere in the region of nine million people1.
This group should be distinguished from the 50,000 to 100,000 members of the culturally Deaf
I will firstly outline the medical and social models of disability, and the impact these models have had on the Deaf community and the articulation of the Deaf identity.
Traditionally, both disability and Deafness have been understood among many people in the UK as primarily medical conditions or illnesses. Over the past thirty years or so, disabled people and Deaf people have made considerable efforts to distance themselves from such a perspective and have made reference to themselves using a ‘social’ rather than a ‘medical’ perceptual framework2.
Pamela Knight describes the ‘medical model’ as a response to disability that, in effect, understands impairment as an illness and places the responsibility for the condition and its consequences, political and social, with disabled people themselves. She explains:
It is their functional limitation which is the root cause of the disadvantages experiences, and these disadvantages can only be rectified by treatment or cure”3.
Based on guidelines from the World Health Organization14, McCloughry and Morris label and then define three dimensions to the way disability is understood in the medical model4:
- Impairment: Any loss or abnormality of psychological or anatomical structure or function.
- Disability: Any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.
- Handicap: A disadvantage for a given individual resulting from an impairment or disability, that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a role (dependent on age, sex, social and cultural factors) for that individual.
Both disabled people and the World Health Organization no longer work with these definitions, though they continue to reflect the attitudes of many towards disabled people in society – that impairment and its consequences are the problem of disabled people and that any difficulties they experience are their own responsibilities.
The term ‘handicap’ demonstrates another attitude towards disabled people as it derives from ‘cap-in-hand’ implying that disabled people are the objects of charitable benevolence rather than empowered individuals with a contribution to make to society. This benevolence that arises from the sense of pity of non-disabled people towards the ‘tragedy’ of disabled people should be seen as a consequence of the medical model. Many in the medical profession and many in society at large still
live with the perception that disability is an illness that needs to be cured and if this is not possible, the individual disabled person is to be pitied5. This model ignores the experiences of many disabled people who live relatively happy lives as disabled people and do not necessarily seek or hope for medical intervention to change their condition. Most impairments cannot be cured medically, and so disabled people are perceived as an ‘abnormal’ and an undesirable presence in society with little to offer.
The social model of disability, while recognizing that impairment exists at the level of the individual person, though is not the fault of a disabled person, argues that many problems that disabled people experience in terms of leading a full life in society are due to social inequalities6. The language of ‘Impairment’ and ‘Disability’ has been redefined by disabled people, and the term handicap, at least in official documents in Britain, has largely been dropped. McCloughry and Morris again outline the language used in the social model of disability as follows:
- Impairment: Lacking part or all of a limb or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body.
- Disability: The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities7.
I would add to the definition of disability that individuals as well as organizations can disable people with impairments. By challenging the medical model, the social model advocates a perspective on disability that does not place the blame on to the disabled person for her inability to participate in society. It recognizes that disabled people are an oppressed social group who, if social and environmental barriers are removed, can participate in the mainstream of society8.
The social model aims to achieve greater equality in society by recognizing the social barriers that limit disabled people from participating in society equally.
Based on the work done by disabled people9) and the World Health Organization, a new approach is needed which brings together these two perspectives of the medical and social models. This approach would involve respecting disabled people as unique human beings with gifts and abilities. It would accept that social barriers suppress the ability of many disabled people to participate fully in society. It would recognize that medical intervention can be useful for many disabled people, provided it is not imposed on disabled people. Choice and freedom are paramount. This new approach would also recognize that disabled people are a diverse group of people and no single model is realistically applicable to all. Sally French (above) shows that the social model, like the medical model, cannot be applied universally to all disabled people. To understand the nature of the Deaf community, therefore, a particular approach is needed that recognizes that Deaf people are a unique group of people and should not be lumped together with all other disabled people, thus homogenizing and consequently trivializing their experiences.
Knight argues that the ‘medical scenario is the first experience of deafness for most parents’10. With 90 per cent of Deaf children born to hearing parents11, who are likely not to be informed or prepared for the birth of a Deaf child, it is inevitable that they will look to the medical experts who are immediately around them for help and advice. Like the medical model of disability, Knight sums up the medical response to Deafness as follows:
“The diagnosis and degree of deafness in a child is a medical issue. Efforts are made by the medical profession to find the cause of deafness and if possible a cure. If no cure is possible then provision of appropriate amplification devices is made to compensate for the degree of deafness”12.
Diagnosis of hearing loss is crucial in order for an assessment of a child’s needs to be made. Unless it can be confirmed that a child is unable to hear, and to what degree, no adequate response can be made. As will be seen later, an early diagnosis of Deafness can be crucial in terms of language acquisition. As Knight indicates, once diagnosis is made, in the medical model, a cure is usually sought. If a cure fails, then technology is introduced and many Deaf people do make use of hearing aid technology. The medical model’s goal is one in which it is assumed to be ethically right that the Deaf child is enabled to be as much like a hearing child as possible. Ladd comments:
“Playing on those parents fears of “abnormality” and their desire to achieve “normality”, they (proponents of the medical approach) then present their medical model which claims that normality can only be achieved by denying the realities of deafness and keeping their children away from Deaf communities lest they be “contaminated” by them”13
The quest for a cure for Deafness has both historically and in contemporary society had negative
consequences for Deaf children.
In the USA, this procedure [CI implantation] was only licensed in 1990 and was expected to be popular among Deaf people.
However, it has been met with strong resistance by the Deaf community in America, Britain and across the world who argue that this is yet another attempt to turn Deaf people into sorry imitations of hearing people14. One of the main objections of the Deaf community to using the cochlear implant in young infants is that they do not
have any choice about whether to make use of the procedure15.
Deaf people do not perceive the condition of Deafness purely in terms of being like a hearing person who is unable to hear. Rather than determining their identity in these negative terms, a more positive framework is used as will be outlined shortly.
One point that is important to note, however, is that medical diagnosis should remain as a factor in the lives of Deaf and disabled people. A quick diagnosis that a child is profoundly Deaf, for example, can lead to action being taken quickly by parents to ensure that their child is exposed to BSL as their first language16.
Without this, parents may be in ignorance about their child’s Deafness and not be able to do anything positive or negative for the first few crucial years of life when language is most readily learned.
As explained in chapter 2, Deaf infants acquire BSL at a much faster rate than English. Medical diagnosis should continue to be important for Deaf children and this is happening with the introduction of the ‘Newborn Hearing Screening Programme’ where all babies will have a hearing test within the first few weeks of life17.
However, what will need to change is what happens after the diagnosis has taken place, for Deaf people to be able to develop in terms of Deaf culture using British Sign Language, rather than being forced to become more like hearing people.
Many Deaf people acknowledge that the social model of disability has had many positive consequences for the Deaf community. It recognizes that being unable to hear, like being unable to see or walk, should not be perceived as a reason for exclusion from society.
The social model has acknowledged that the primary reason that Deaf and disabled people have been excluded from participating in society has been to do with society itself, like the lack of awareness shown towards the man’s needs when he was in hospital and the lack of resources to respond to those needs. Ladd explains, however, that,
“Deaf communities have been swept along with the social model movement largely because they lacked the power to make their own views known18.
He criticizes the social model for including Deaf people only because they live with discrimination as a result of physically being unable to hear. If inclusion with and identification with disabled people in the social model ultimately comes down to what appears to be medical diagnosis alone, then Deaf people are not interested, Ladd argues.
However, disabled people do not use the social model in this way either. Like Deaf people, disabled people are searching for and beginning to define their own identity in terms of what is positive about their lives as much as by the limitations their impairment presents them with. Full inclusion of Deaf people in
society will not be achieved by flashing doorbells, textphones and such like, or even by the provision of BSL interpreters for Deaf people in every context in society.
Likewise, a person using a wheelchair will never feel included in a context where other people, regardless of how accessible the building is, do not receive him/her in a positive way.
Inclusion and equality in society for Deaf people and disabled people cannot be brought about simply by introducing acts of parliament that legislate for the provision of what the Disability Rights Commission calls, ‘Auxiliary Aids’19, but by a more fundamental transformation in the perception of Deafness in society and the response that emerges from that.
There have been small but important examples of Deaf people being full members of a community alongside hearing people. In the last century, in a place called Martha’s Vineyard in the USA, there was a high proportion of people living there who were profoundly Deaf. In that community everyone could sign. It is reported that if a couple of hearing people were speaking and a third Deaf person joined them, they would usually slip into using sign language so that the Deaf person did not feel marginalized. Everyone signed there and Deaf people were included at every level of society20).
To try to replicate this model throughout Britain would be a mammoth task, and some may think it is not worth it for the relatively small number of Deaf people who live in the UK. To teach even basic sign language in schools, however, would mean that should a hearing and a Deaf person meet, they would be able to communicate. Generations of teaching Deaf children for most of
their school life how to speak, has not realized that possibility, but teaching hearing children some signing may begin to break down the communication barriers.
Ladd argues for a new perspective on Deafness that he defines as the culturo-linguistic model of Deafness. He explains that this model
“requires that Deaf communities are seen as intrinsic “dual-category members” – that is, that some of their issues might relate to issues of non-hearing [impairment and disability] whilst others relate to language and culture”21. Rather than seeing the Deaf community as a disabled group, or as a language minority, Ladd argues that Deaf people are a distinct group which cannot be categorized alongside disabled people or linguistic minorities, but only in their own terms as Deaf people22. What distinguishes the Deaf community as a distinct group is what Ladd terms as ‘Deafhood’. Ladd explains this concept as follows:
“Deafhood … represents a process – the struggle by each Deaf child, Deaf family and
Deaf adult to explain to themselves and each other their own existence in the world. In
sharing their lives with each other as a community, and enacting those explanations rather
than writing books about them, Deaf people are engaged in a daily praxis, a continuing
internal and external dialogue. This dialogue not only acknowledges that existence as a
Deaf person is actually a process of becoming and maintaining ‘Deaf’, but also reflects
different interpretations of Deafhood, of what being a Deaf person in a Deaf community
What Ladd terms as ‘Deafhood’ and defines so succinctly here, is the reality of the struggle I have found present in the Deaf communities I have been part of.
Both Ladd and Alker criticize heavily the way that many people in British society ‘lump together’ the Deaf community, deafened people, and people who are hard of hearing as all ‘Deaf’, under the more general category of ‘the disabled’. This homogenization assumes that all Deaf and hearing-impaired people along with all disabled people pretty much share the same experiences, but there are important marked differences.
Any human being can become a disabled person at any stage of their life, and as people get older, many people do become disabled. The disability movement have coined and use the phrase ‘non-disabled’24 and I have heard some talk about
‘temporarily non-disabled people’ to point to the reality that no non-disabled human being is exempt from the possibility of becoming disabled because of age, illness, accident, etc. The Deaf community has and uses no such equivalent phrase.
Unless people are born Deaf or become Deaf at an early age, there is generally no possibility that a person can become Deaf at any other time in their life because they will have acquired English as their first language.
On the whole, disabled people, while living a different life experience to non-disabled people, usually find few problems in communicating orally with one another, though some disabled people do have speech difficulties.
The fact that Deaf people use a different language distinguishes them considerably from disabled people in terms of their cultural framework for life as well as the way they interpret the world. Many of the campaigns that Deaf people are engaged in to try to gain equality in society25 are connected with the issue of language and so this shapes their identity differently.
For the Deaf community, being ‘Deaf’ will usually not involve coming to terms with a loss as it usually does for deafened people because, as I explained earlier, Deaf people become Deaf at birth or in infancy. Similarly, however, many disabled people do not live with a sense of loss either. Many disabled people, like Deaf people, do not want to be ‘non-disabled’ and grieve because they have a disabled body. Rather, some often prefer to positively define their identity in terms of their existences as disabled people.
Deaf and disabled people find common ground in the fact that they experience discrimination because of social attitudes to impairment and are searching for something positive about their identity in a world that often does the opposite.
However, differences must be recognized between Deaf and some other disabled people such as, for example, the way that Deaf people will not generally experience pain as a result of their Deafness, unlike a person with another impairment – such as multiple sclerosis – who might.
Some people who were born profoundly Deaf or became Deaf at a pre-linguistic age do not use and have resisted using BSL as their preferred language. Mairian Corker points out that such a position is often not tolerated by the Deaf community26. Similarly, however, there is usually a level of suspicion coming from non-sign
language using pre-lingually deaf people towards members of the Deaf community – in other words the suspicion of each other among people with a hearing loss is present in all groups.
Many people with a profound hearing loss from birth still leave school having been taught orally, many of them only begin to be a part of the wider Deaf community and find a home among Deaf people later in life27 though many already know sign language and have been part of a smaller Deaf community at school28.
As explained earlier, the Deaf community in Britain consists of between 50,000 and 100,000 Deaf BSL users. On the periphery of this community are approximately 250,000 hearing people who use BSL29. It may be argued that certain hearing people could be included in a definition of the Deaf community such as, for example, hearing children of Deaf parents.
I suggest, however, that the Deaf community can be envisaged as a series of concentric circles. At the centre are profoundly Deaf sign language users, then moving outwards, would be hearing children of Deaf parents, hearing parents of Deaf children, other hearing family members, hearing friends of Deaf people, BSL interpreters, hearing employees who work with Deaf people.
Together, all of these people influence the lives of Deaf sign language users, though not always necessarily in a positive way. And so, for a study of the Deaf community, it may be helpful to distinguish between profoundly Deaf sign language users and other more peripheral members of the Deaf community because Deaf sign language users do not live in isolation from the rest of society.
BSL is a full language with its own grammar and that it has the ability to communicate complex and detailed ideas. For Deaf people it is their first or preferred language for communication. BSL is not the majority language in this country and so at first glance, it would appear that there would be no problems in defining Deaf people as a linguistic minority. However, the main difference between BSL users in Britain and say, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Polish or Welsh speakers, is that not everyone is convinced that BSL is a language, least of all, those who advise parents of Deaf children, many Deaf educationalists and many politicians.
“Why is it we [Deaf people] who must strive to raise funds in order to accumulate evidence which “proves” that our sign languages are bona fide languages, and that the collective lives of Deaf people are bona fide cultures?”30
After years of campaigning by the Deaf community, in March 2003, the British government officially recognized BSL as a minority language in the UK31. One million pounds (an extraordinarily small amount) was consequently set aside to fund work to improve access for Deaf people to society through BSL and much of the money has been allocated to training interpreters and BSL tutors32.
In practice, this recognition has yet to make any impact on British society in the short term, but its long-term ramifications will be especially interesting in education, employment legislation and access to work, medical care, the legal system, social services and all sectors of society where Deaf people use a service or are employed as part of the provision of those services. So while Deaf people are a linguistic minority and term themselves as such, society has for so long refused to accept what Deaf people have always known – that BSL is a full and complete language. Instead, hearing people have preferred to attempt to normalize Deaf people, thinking they should speak and be as much like hearing people as possible (see the discussion in chapter 2 on education).
Deaf people’s experience, therefore, includes the dual oppression of being a cultural-linguistic minority group, whose language society has only just recognized, alongside the treatment of Deaf people as a disabled group who should be normalized.
- Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Facts and Figures on Deafness
- SWain, J., et al, “Controversial Issues in a Disabling Society”, 2003, Buckingham pp 22-5
- Knight, P, ‘Deafness and Disability’, in Gregory, S. et al (eds), “Issues in Deaf Education”, 1998, London, p 215
- McCloughry, R. and Morris, W., Making a World of Difference: Christian Perspectives on Disability, 2002, p 9
- Swain, J. et al., Controversial Issues, p.23
- Ibid, p 24
- UPIAS, Fundamental Principles of Disability, 1976, pp 3–4
- Swain, J. et al., Controversial Issues, p 24
- Significant discussions of the Social Model of Disability include, Oliver, M., Disabled People and Social Policy: from exclusion to inclusion (London,1998), and many of the papers in Shakespeare, T. (ed.), The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives (London, 1998
- Knight, P., ‘Deafness and Disability’, p.217.
- Ladd, P., Understanding Deaf Culture, p.42
- Knight, P., ‘Deafness and Disability’, p.217.
- Ladd, P., Understanding Deaf Culture, p.35
- Ladd, P., Understanding Deaf Culture, pp.30–1
- Ibid., p.31
- The benefits of introducing BSL early in a Deaf child’s life are demonstrated in
Watson, L. et al., Deaf and Hearing Impaired Pupils, pp.33–4
- National Health Service, Newborn Hearing Screening Programme: Information for parents to be and parents of new born babies (London, 2002)
- Ladd, P., Understanding Deaf Culture, p.15
- Disability Rights Commission, Code of Practice, p.61. An auxiliary aid may include BSL Interpreters, loop systems and other assistive technology.
- See the account of this community in Groce, N.E., Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988
- Ladd, P., Understanding Deaf Culture, p.16
- Ibid., pp.15–17.
- Ibid., p.3
- This phrase is used by government departments and disabled people. See, for example, Grewal, I. et al. ‘Disabled for Life?’ Attitudes Towards and Experiences of Disability in Britain.
- For example, one major campaign of many Deaf organizations including the Federation of Deaf People (FDP) and the British Deaf Association (BDA) was to gain recognition of BSL as a language of the UK. See British Deaf Association. BSL Recognition (London, 2003).
- Corker, M., Deaf Transitions: Images and Origins of Deaf Families, Deaf Communities and Deaf Identities (London, 1996), pp.200–1
- Ibid., pp.200–1.
- Taylor, G. and Darby, A., Deaf Identities (Coleford, 2003). p.41
- Alker, D., Really Not Interested in the Deaf, p.27.
- Ladd, P., Understanding Deaf Culture, p.1.
- British Deaf Association, British Deaf News, (London, 2003), p.6
- British Deaf Association, BSL Recognition