The relationship between equality law and Deaf studies

This post is the third part of a series considering why equality law and Deaf people don’t get on. Having established in general terms what equality law is, before going on to consider what equality law is in relation to Deaf people, it is necessary to clarify the relationship between equality law and the field of Deaf Studies, so that relevant Deaf Studies discourse can be brought to bear in this critique of equality law.

Readings in the field of Deaf Studies appear to focus on discrimination1, dignity2, social inclusion3 and as a challenge to oppression (or audism as it is known in the Deaf-World)4.

Therefore, we will explore concepts of equality, focusing solely on discrimination and disadvantage, equal worth and dignity, social inclusion, and the challenge to oppression. We will also explore equality of opportunity, as according to Schaar, it enjoys the most popularity among politicians, businessmen, social theorists, and freedom marchers5, which suggests that this perspective could be of particular use to the Deaf-World. These will therefore be the perspectives of equality examined according to their particular application to aspects of the Deaf-World.

Respect for worth and dignity plays a central role in the modern discussion of human rights with the UDHR and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the general consensus is that in order to recognise human dignity, one must treat everyone with respect due to our common humanity6.

Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan contend that Deaf people around the world are deprived of fundamental human rights7, with the WFD and the national organisations of Deaf people that are its members, such as the BDA, are engaged in a ceaseless struggle to gain fundamental human rights for Deaf people. In a 1994 presentation to the Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights of the United Nations, the WFD affirmed that Deaf people are not accorded equal dignity and “there are even many who want to get rid of us”8.

Lane further argues that Deaf people do not generally have the “chance at self-creating to the best of his or her abilities”9, and should be crucial participants in the discussion and agreement concerning the lives of deaf children and adults and the roles of the professions that serve them. This hereby suggests that Deaf people are generally not treated with dignity, and Ladd suggests that Deaf (and hearing people) experience difficulties in penetrating the barriers around certain discourses in order to achieve change, with lay people on the other side of a media wall without sight of the Deaf community, which means that it is professionals within the science, medicine, education and social welfare spheres, as well as capitalist and economic influences, that have the ear of government and legal discourse, rather than Deaf people themselves10.

If Deaf people’s dignity is affronted as suggested above, is it realistic to expect the Deaf-World to be involved in the decision-making process when it comes to their rights? There is clearly an urgent need for the Deaf-World to gain media prominence, so that their cultural beliefs and actions can be conveyed to both lay people and parents of new deaf children11, and in turn raise awareness of the barriers that confront them in order to be involved in the decision-making process when it comes to their rights. If one looks at the example of the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015, during its passage through the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Parliament sought to engage directly with BSL users and the Deaf community, published various key documents in BSL, broadcast evidence sessions with live BSL/English interpretation, and set up a BSL Facebook group to invite BSL users and others to share their views12. On an international level, the WFD had a direct input into the formation of the CRPD, and in particular, articles 2, 9, 21, 24 and 30, all of which specifically refer to sign languages13, which was perhaps the first the Deaf-World was involved (and continues to be involved) in a decision-making process at UN level.

Batterbury, in her report considering the legal status for BSL for the BDA, explores social inclusion through an exclusion lens, and argues that social exclusion for Deaf people is a direct result of linguistic exclusion14, which has manifested itself in the fact that Deaf people in the UK have experienced below average levels of school leaver achievements and access to health information, and higher than average levels of acquired mental ill health and exclusion from employment, criminal justice and civic engagement15, although no statistical data about the social exclusion of Deaf people has been collected at a national level in the UK16.

It was Humphries who coined the term ‘audism’, and he defined it in an unpublished essay as the “notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or behave in the manner of one who hears”17, further elaborating that it appears in the form of people who continually judge Deaf people’s intelligence and success on the basis of their ability in the language of the hearing culture, where there is an assumption on the part of the hearing person that a Deaf person’s happiness is dependent on acquiring fluency in spoken English18.

  1. SCE Batterbury Magill, ‘Legal Status for BSL and ISL’ (BDA 2014) 8. []
  2. H Lane, R Hoffmeister and B Bahan, A Journey into the Deaf-World (DawnSignPress 1996) 419-420. []
  3. Batterbury Magill (n 1) 22-4. Batterbury argues that Deaf sign language users are socially excluded, therefore social inclusion is relevant to this examination of equality law. []
  4. H-DL Bauman, ‘Audism: Exploring the Metaphysics of Oppression’ (2004) 9 Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 239. []
  5. J Schaar, ‘Equality of Opportunity, and Beyond’ in JR Pennock and JW Chapman (eds), Equality (Atherton Press 1967) 163, as cited in P Westen, Speaking of Equality: An Analysis of the Rhetorical Force of “Equality” in Moral and Legal Discourse (Princeton University Press 1990) 163. []
  6. B Hepple, Equality: The Legal Framework (2nd edn, Hart Publishing 2014) 20. []
  7. Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan (n 2) 419. []
  8. WFD, ‘Violations of Human Rights’ World Federation of the Deaf News (1993) 14, as cited in Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan (n 2) 419. []
  9. H Lane, The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community (Vintage Books 1999) 23. []
  10. P Ladd, Understanding Deaf Culture (Multilingual Matters Ltd 2003) 187-9. []
  11. ibid 189. []
  12. Education and Culture Committee, Stage 1 report on the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill (SP 2015, 711-I) paras 4-5. []
  13. SCE Batterbury, ‘Language justice for Sign Language Peoples: the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ (2012) 11(3) Language Policy 253, 262. []
  14. Batterbury (n 1) 22. []
  15. ibid 22-3. []
  16. ibid 23. []
  17. H-DL Bauman, ‘Audism: Exploring the Metaphysics of Oppression’ (2004) 9 Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 239, 239. []
  18. ibid. []


Deaf, hubby to Rachel, dad to Corey, Libby and Emily, Solicitor, Lecturer in Legal Practice at University of South Wales, PhD student at University of Leicester.

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