Lane, H, “The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community”, 1992, Alfred A. Knopf
The present hearing views of how best to describe, educate, and rehabilitate deaf children and adults are closely interrelated, as are the numerous professions that, proceeding on these views, shape and even regulate the lives of deaf people.
Those views reveal a common premise: deaf people are disabled. The deaf community has quite a different premise, the deaf community is a linguistic minority.
The best I can do is to juxtapose my view of deaf people as a linguistic and cultural minority with the contrasting view, dominant in our society, that deafness is a tragic infirmity, and let the reader judge which conceptualisation is more coherent and compassionate.
[Deaf people] see themselves as fundamentally visual people, with their own visual language, social organisation, history, and mores – in short, with their own way of being, their own language and culture. Scholarly research since the 1970s in fields such as linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and history supports them in this claim.
Yes, the deaf child faces many obstacles in life, but the lack of communication at home, inferior education in school, discrimination in employment, are obstacles placed in his way by hearing people who, if only they came to know the deaf community, could readily remove them.
Deafness is a bad thing. In hearing society, deafness is stigmatised.
The sociologist Erving Goffman distinguishes three different kinds of stigma: physical, characterological, and tribal.
All three categories of stigma are ascribed to deaf people. Physically they are judged defective; this is commonly taken to give rise to undesirable character traits, such as concreteness of thought and impulsive behaviour. Hearing people may also view deaf people as clanish – even, indeed, an undesirable world apart, social deviants like those Goffman lists: prostitutes, drug addicts, delinquents, criminals, jazz musicians, bohemians, gypsies, carnival workers, hoboes, winos, show people, full-time gamblers, beach dwellers, gays, and the urban unrepentant poor.
In the hearing stereotype, deafness is the lack of something, not the presence of anything. Silence is emptiness. The deaf community, say Padden and Humphries, recognises that “silent” “is part of a way of viewing deaf people that is pervasive in hearing society; they accept it and use it as an easy way for others to recognise them”.
In the parlance of hearing people, ordinary deaf people can’t really communicate; for them to attempt it is to engage in a dialogue des sourds – a deaf dialogue, meaning mutual incomprehension.
Late-deafened people who make an effort to speak English and lip-read, to overcome the hurdles of their handicap, are must less discomfiting to hearing people than the members of the deaf community, with their distinctly different ways and language.
Goffman points out that the stigmatised are expected to keep a bargain: “they should not test the limits of the acceptance shown them, nor make it the basis for still further demands”. Thus, the person who is disabled (in our eyes) is expected to be disabled; to accept his role as such and to conform, grosso modo, to our representation of him. In return we will class him not among the bad but among the sick. The sick and the infirm have a claim on our tolerance and, even more, on our “reasonable accommodation”, or compassion, our help.
So the members of the American deaf community are not characteristically isolated, or uncommunicative, or unintelligent, or childlike, or needy, or any of these things we imagine them to be. Why, then, do we think they are? This mistake arises from an extrapolative lead, an egocentric error. To imagine what deafness is like, I imagine my world without sound – a terrifying prospect, and one that conforms quite well with the stereotype we project onto members of the deaf community.
I would be isolated, disorientated, uncommunicative and unreceptive to communication. My ties to other people would be ruptured.
Deaf identity itself is highly valued; deaf people seem to agree that a hearing person can never fully acquire that identity and become a full-fledged member of the deaf community.
Their dignity as deaf people, who, more fully than hearing people, operate in a visual-spatial world – their unique identity. Otologists and audiologists affirm that identity to be an illness and conduct heroic surgery on deaf children in a futile effort to change it.
In the following interview with a hearing educator (translated from ASL), a deaf adult tries to make explicit her feelings of belonging to a cultural minority:
Many people think that deaf and hearing are the same. It’s true, yes, but it’s different. Deaf culture is more deaf. [If] you’re deaf, [and] I’m deaf – we’re family … How often do you see some of your old high school classmates? You don’t see them for a long, long time, right? How often do I see my old classmates? Often! Deaf culture is always more involved with family, we’re deaf family … When you see hearing and deaf, they’re the same, but in the way of family ties, they’re two types of families and they’re not the same. It’s the same thing with Italians .. Russians .. different ethnic groups. Some of those people don’t understand English, so they stick together. I can’t have a good time with my [hearing] cousins. The brothers and sisters say, “Hey, come on, let’s have a good time,” and I say “Uh …” But with teh deaf, there’s always good things to do and [so] we go with the deaf.
This positive sense of deaf identity and community is not easily or widely acquired, however. For, as the deaf child grows up, two things become clear to him: that the hearing values purveyed by the audist establishment are different from his own; and that hearing people are generally successful.
“The oppressed accepts the judgment of the other,” Sartre writes, “incorporating into himself the very standard which decrees him a pariah. He actively consents to oppression. In response to the look of the other, he looks down.”
Deaf people must overcome this acceptance of the judgment of the other. Jeff McWhinney has argued, and must acquire a deaf consciousness “before we can achieve political equality. In other words, to destroy the dangerous relationship between hearing people’s control and deaf people’s learned inadequacy, we have to overcome our own fear of helplessness in the face of the apparent power of hearing people”.
Despite its devastating impact on deaf children and adults for over a century, the Milan meeting was merely a brief rally conducted by hearing opponents of sign language. The congress amounted to two dozen hours, in which three or four audists reassured the rest of the rightness of their actions in the face of troubling difficulties. Nevertheless, the meeting at Milan was the single most critical event in driving the languages of deaf communities beneath the surface; I believe it is the single most important cause of the limited educational achievements of modern deaf men and women.