Discovering Ethnicity in the Deaf World by Ava Ploeckelman
There is a world that exists right next to ours, with ours, but with its own unique qualities. To be a part of this world, one needs to speak the language, learn the culture, and take part in the community. This is the Deaf world, with a capital ‘D’. Someone without hearing is ‘deaf’; someone without hearing who has discovered the Deaf world and has become a part of that community is ‘Deaf’. It is undeniable that the Deaf have their own culture, but can that idea be expanded into the idea of a Deaf ethnicity? The first step to answering this question is to look at the idea of deafness in hearing culture.
Deafness is often described as a disability. Defining deafness as a disability can take many forms, like the medical model and the rights model. The medical model of disability focuses on fixing the perceived deviation and moving people closer to the accepted standards of health. This model makes sense with some conditions, for instance, if a child is born with a defective heart. However, under this model, there would be no question of whether to give a child cochlear implants, a controversial issue in the Deaf world. An implant would leave a child not completely eligible for the deaf community or the ‘hearing’ community. ‘Hearing’ with a cochlear implant is not the same ‘hearing’ as we know it. Despite having improved over time, it is still very robotic. The operation also destroys any residual hearing in the ear it is in, and even may not work. There is much to consider before deciding to have a cochlear implant, which is why many deaf people are against putting implants in children. An implant would leave a child not completely eligible for the deaf community or for the hearing community. The medical model of disability only considers a person’s body, not their social well-being or right to choose. This makes it inadequate to describe the deaf community.
The rights model focuses on disabled people asserting their rights in society. People collaborate with the government to get their right to the same opportunities available to others. An example of this approach would be the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which required wheelchair ramps on public buildings. “Generally, to gain the rights that legislation grants, an individual must openly accept society's perception that he has a disability…if the government or advocacy groups assert the rights for an individual who denies that he or she has a disability, society has regressed to the medical model where the individual is an object that is acted upon.” (Harvey 43) The rights model, while giving the individual more agency, forces that individual to identify with having a disability. With the development of a strong Deaf community, there is a rise of people who view themselves as ‘differently abled’, rather than ‘disabled’, and this model does not consider that perspective.
While neither the medical model nor the rights model adequately addresses deafness, the idea of a deaf ethnicity might. Similar to other ethnic cultures, “...there are rules for managing language, for gaining status, for managing information, for constructing discourse, and more.” (Lane) There is deaf art, poetry, theatre, and literature. Additionally, the Deaf world has social institutions that mimic those of conventional ethnic groups “...including a network of schools, Deaf clubs, churches, athletic organizations, publishing houses, and theater groups, as well as associations, focused on profession, leisure, politics, and socializing.”(Lane). In many ways, the Deaf world functions as an ethnic community. As the article “Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World” points out, if we consider a deaf ethnicity, then discourage a child from using sign language and trying to reduce the rate of deaf births would be unethical.
One argument against a deaf ethnicity is that deaf children are rarely born to deaf adults. Rather, they are born to hearing parents that may not have any idea about the Deaf world at all. (Christiansen, 1) Those children often discover the Deaf world at residential schools for the deaf, where they learn Deaf culture and how that fits into the hearing world. Residential deaf schools are especially important because deafness does not occur in clusters or only in certain places, a child might be born in a town that is not equipped to support them. It is fairly standard to view deafness as a disability, especially in the hearing community. This view could affect deaf education, which is highly important to developing Deaf culture. In the US, they aim to integrate children with disabilities into standard classrooms, instead of isolating them, which makes sense. This means that there is opposition to having deaf only schools. (Mitchell and Karchmer) Viewing deafness as a disability means it would be wrong to isolate deaf students from the normal population, but to force deaf children into hearing schools would prevent them from finding the Deaf community.
Acknowledging a deaf ethnicity would mean acknowledging the mistreatment of deaf people across history. It would mean accepting new ideas about what the term disability actually means, and what it implies. Most of all, it would mean learning to better accept and understand the Deaf-world that has been right next to ours all along.