Rebekah Honeycutt

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Essay: Deafness: Disability or Ethnicity?

Here is an essay I wrote recently- Hope you enjoy! Feel free to comment.

Deafness: Disability or Ethnicity?

US President, Barack Obama, made an address on July 24th, 2009 that stated Americans with disabilities were still measured by what folks thought they couldn’t do — not by what [they] can. (Office of the Secretary Press)  His address went on to talk about the need presented to establish the Disability Act of 1990.  He also stated, “So I’m proud of the progress we’ve made.  But I’m not satisfied, and I know you aren’t either… As long as we as a people still too easily succumb to casual discrimination or fear of the unfamiliar, we’ve still got more work to do.” (1)  Is disability truly the best way to define those persons that have hearing impairments?  Deaf Culture has progressed steadily into mainstream society, but should their classification change from disability to an ethnicity?  The purpose of this essay is to, in fact, show that Deaf Culture should be equally seen as persons with a disability and an ethnic group.

The term ‘disability’ is defined by the Disability Act of 1990, amended in 2008, as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. (“Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended”)  The phrase ‘major life activities’ within the document includes 3 aspects that effect deaf persons: hearing, speaking, and communicating.  The following provides evidence that deaf and hard of hearing individuals may or may not speak, but they are able to communicate either through ASL, Oralism, or other learned signs/signals.

Hearing:

The SIPP (Survey of Income and Program Participation) reports that nearly 10 million Americans are hard of hearing and close to 1 million are functionally deaf. (Mitchell 112)  This statistic was found in 2001. Many people have varying degrees of deafness. Some may become deaf later in life, childhood, or from birth.

Speaking:

Deaf persons can usually choose whether to use their voice or to be silent.  Some families raise their children without teaching speech; others choose speaking as the only communication. Oralism is a teaching method that has been used for many years to instruct deaf students how to read lips and verbally communicate.  These are a few of the personal preferences used by the individual and their families.

Communicating:

The statistics for using American Sign Language (ASL) in the home vary considerably.  The issue that causes the uncertain amount of ASL users can be placed within the hands of the US Census Bureau according to Mitchell: “…U.S. Census practice is to code ASL to English when it appears on its forms, so an analysis of ASL use is not possible.” (Mitchell)

Harlan Lane, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University placed a table in her article, Ethnicity, Ethics and the Deaf-World, showing the criteria created by social scientists for characterizing a social group as an ethnic group. (Lane 291-310)  This table includes: a collective name, feeling of community, norms for behavior, values, knowledge, kinship, customs, social structure, language, art forms, and history.

Collective Name:

The collective name for people included within the deaf community is known as the Deaf-World. (291)

Feeling of Community and Kinship:

Humans, in general, attempt to find others that can relate to their personal experiences, another they can be themselves around. This is strongly portrayed within deaf culture.  When two people meet and they have the same trait, in this case the inability to hear, these two share a feeling of kinship.  This feeling of automatic inclusion was deterred by many believers of Eugenics.   In 1883, well known scientist and Eugenics supporter, Alexander Graham Bell, wrote an article that was presented to the National Academy of Sciences at New Haven.  Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, expressed that deaf persons should be separated from one another, and be taught articulation and speech-reading [lip reading]. (Bell)  This became the usual way of life for deaf individuals, to be forced to mainstream, an attempt to be considered ‘normal’.   Luckily, history has a way of evolving.  Today, there are multiple conferences held across America where deaf citizens unite, show their loyalty to one another, and enjoy the communities and kinships that they and their ancestors have created.

Language, Values, Customs, and Norms for Behavior:

The Deaf-World has numerous ways in which they encompass these three aspects. As with any ethnic group they show extreme pride in their culture.  To gain respect within the Deaf-World a person must show their dedication to the group, express their loyalty to it, and become active in maintaining what has been gained in the past while influencing advancements for the future. American Sign Language is the chosen language of deaf culture. Using American Sign Language also promotes the significance of the group.  Megan Jones, a psychologist at the Center of Disabilities Studies in Hawaii states: “The emphasis on the importance of sign language has resulted in the failure of some Deaf people to accept persons who are not “pure” users of the language into the culture.  This lack of acceptance of and the perception of “hearing” people as outsiders demonstrates how prejudice against people who are not members of the Deaf culture can increase the value of membership to the culture.” (Jones)  With using American Sign Language as the form of communication, customs have been constructed such as waiting your turn to ‘speak’, specific questions that must be answered before a conversation can evolve, facing one another with clear signing to ensure understanding.

Social Structure, Knowledge Art Forms:

Countless organizations scattered throughout the United States are devoted to the Deaf-World and the people within it. One such organization is The National Association of the Deaf (NAD). “The mission of the [NAD] is now to preserve, protect and promote the civil, human and linguistic rights of deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States of America.” (“National Association of the Deaf”)  An educational organization is Gaullaudet University’s whose mission statement is as follows: “Gallaudet University, federally chartered in 1864, is a bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution of higher education that ensures the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals through American Sign Language and English.” (“Gaullaudet University”) Art forms are also included under social organization due to the fact that these customs play a critical role in the culture. Art embraces things such as theater, storytelling, ASL, and interpretation of music in the hearing world.

 

History:

A stigma was placed on the deaf of America, referring to them as deaf and dumb, the latter portion was not only insulting but it implied that deaf persons were unable to be educated. (Jaueger 4)  Simi Linton, a well-known author and disabilities activist, spoke of how the disabled stigma affected lives of persons with disabilities in her article Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity.  She wrote: “A host of factors have typically screened us from public view.  We have been hidden- whether in the institutions that have confined us, the attics and basements that sheltered our family’s shame, the “special” schools and class rooms designed to solve the problems we are thought to represent, or riding in segregated transportation…” (3)  Linton advised through her article how this stigma was changing, and how the definitive words of a group of people changed from being labeled as ‘disabled’ to ‘people with disabilities’.  The change was brought forth with the hope that society, when looking upon a person with a disability, would not think the person was dumb, crippled, deformed, or unable to be educated.

The timeline provided for deaf culture can be found on many websites. The records feature many changes that took place throughout American History, most of which were based on the thought process that persons that were unable to hear were considered disabled.  The Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons was opened in 1817.  This created isolated schools for the ‘disabled’ persons.  The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 required accommodations such as interpreters and TTY’s (TeleTYpewriter) phones be made available for the hearing impaired individuals. In 1975 Public Law 94-142 was passed requiring handicapped children in the US be provided with free and appropriate education.  This law began a change toward the ‘disabled’ being placed side-by-side with hearing persons in public schools. A problem arose, deaf students needed interpreters, but the schools were attempting to teach children that could not hear the same way as the hearing students. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, this took a stance against discriminatory employers. The ADA promotes equal rights to those who have a ‘disability’, and that appropriate accommodations must be made by employers.

The fact remains that a deaf person simply cannot hear.  Looking at the evidence above, being unable to hear does not mean being unable to live life to the fullest. Is the ability to hear truly a ‘major life activity’, or could it be considered an extra ability? The disabled stigma has enabled the Deaf-World to grow throughout American history. Laws have been placed to not discriminate against deafness, to encourage others to learn communication techniques such as ASL, to provide interpreters so that deafness can be viewed as its own ethnicity.  The Deaf-World can be best interpreted as not only persons with a disability but also as an ethnic group.

Cited Works:

Bell, Alexander. “Memoir: Upon The Formation Of A Deaf Variety Of The

Human Race.” National Academy of Sciences. (1883): n. page. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://gallyprotest.org/race.pdf&gt;.

Jaueger, Paul. Understanding Disability: inclusion, access, diversity and civil rights. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005. 4.

Web.<http://books.google.com/books/feeds/volumes?q=9780275982263&gt;.

Jones, Megan. “Deafness as Culture: A Psychococial

Perspective.”Disability Studies Quarterly. 22.2 (2002): 51-60. Print.

Lane, Harlan. “Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World.” Oxford Journals.

10.3 (2005): 291-310. Print.

Linton, Semi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York and

London: New York University Press, 1998. Print. <http://courses.washington.edu/intro2ds/Readings/Linton-Chap1-2.pdf&gt;.

“Mission Statement.” Gaullaudet University. Gaullaudet University,

05 2009. Web. 21 Oct 2011. <http://www.gallaudet.edu/about_gallaudet/mission_and_goals.html&gt;.

Mitchell, Ross. “How Many Deaf People Are There in The United States?

Estimates From the Survey of Income and Program Participation.” Oxford Journals. 11.1 (2005): 112-119. Print.

Mitchell, Ross. “How Many People Use ASL in the United States?.”Sign

Language Studies. 6.3 (2006): n. page. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://research.gallaudet.edu/Publications/ASL_Users.pdf&gt;.

National Association of the Deaf. “About us.” National Association of the Deaf, 7 Oct 2011. Web. 9 Oct 2011. <http://www.nad.org/&gt;.

Office of the Press Secretary. Obama, Barack. “Remarks by The President on Signing of U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Proclamation.” Signing of Proclamation. The White House. East Room, Washington, DC. July 24 2009. Web. 9 Oct. 2011. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-rights-persons-with-disabilities-proclamation-signing&gt;.

United States.Dept. of Justice. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended. 2009. Web. <http://www.ada.gov/pubs/ada.htm&gt;.


4 responses to “Essay: Deafness: Disability or Ethnicity?

  1. Would love to always get updated outstanding web site!

  2. I think you have noted some very interesting points , regards for the post.

  3. hiit says:

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