Is Deafness Really a Disability?

A view from the deaf perspective.

Posted Feb 01, 2018

In the 1930s and '40s, the husband-and-wife team of Fritz and Grace Heider conducted educational research at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Massachusetts. Although schools for the deaf had been operating in the United States for over two centuries, they typically offered instruction in the local sign language, so their graduates spent their lives in isolated deaf communities. But as Marion A. Schmidt, a historian of psychology, explains, the Clarke School was new and progressive, and its mission was to integrate deaf children into the mainstream hearing community. To this end, the use of sign language was forbidden, and the children were taught to speak and read lips instead.

The Heiders discovered that these deaf children were just as socially mature and well-adjusted as their hearing peers. In other words, being deaf hadn’t stunted their social or cognitive development in any way. They also learned that the children used sign language among themselves when their teachers weren’t around.

The couple published their findings in a series of papers. But the Clarke administration wasn’t pleased with their reports, and the couple eventually severed their connection with the school. Today, the Heiders are recognized as pioneers in the psychology of deafness. Nevertheless, the controversy they stirred up at the Clarke School still resonates through discussions of deaf education.

This story illustrates the two very different approaches to teaching deaf children. On the one hand, the manualist approach emphasizes the naturalness of using sign language among the deaf. Throughout history, deaf communities have invented sign languages that served not only as an instrument of communication but also as a means of transmitting a rich cultural heritage centered on the experience of deafness. On the other hand, the oralist approach tries to mainstream deaf children into the larger hearing community by teaching them to speak and read lips. Those who are successful can then interact effectively with hearing people. However, they also have to contend with the various misunderstandings and stereotypes that hearing people have about the deaf.

Which pedagogical approach is better depends on your point of view. If you're a hearing person, you no doubt see deafness as a disability that needs to be corrected. Thus, you'll want the deaf to learn to speak and read lips so they can communicate with you and with other hearing people. This is especially true in the case of hearing parents of a deaf child. It’s only natural to want to raise your child in your own language and culture, and it can be heart-wrenching to see your deaf child seek out a sign-language community that seems so alien to you.

But when we take the deaf person’s point of view, the perspective is completely different. Deaf children who are immersed in signing communities learn sign language just as easily as hearing children learn spoken language. And they make friends with others who share similar experiences. Those who were born deaf have no idea what it’s like to hear and, by the same token, hearing people often have no understanding of the deaf experience either. Even if they become proficient at speaking and lip-reading, deaf people are still outsiders in hearing society.

Deafness may exclude a person from hearing society, but it doesn’t have to lead to social isolation. There are vibrant deaf communities in all major cities, mainly centered on schools for the deaf as well as on clubs where the deaf can interact and share their experiences. In fact, researchers make a distinction between deaf with a lowercase d, which refers to the condition of not being able to hear, and Deaf with a capital D, which refers to a community of sign language users. In other words, the Deaf community includes not only deaf people but also hearing friends and family members who can use sign language.

Deaf communities have a rich culture that includes a tradition of storytelling. Two common themes often run through these stories. The first is a rejection of the notion that deafness is a disability. The second extols the virtues of being deaf, typically in the form of a deaf person gaining an advantage over a hearing person. Often these stories are humorous, and they help to create a strong sense of in-group solidarity through shared experiences.

One example of Deaf humor, as cited by Sutton-Spence and Napoli (2012), goes as follows:

A blind man, a man in a wheelchair, and a deaf man are having a drink in a bar. Just then, God walks in and comes over to their table. God turns to the blind man and says, “Be healed!” The blind man looks around at everything he can see, shouting, “Praise the Lord!” Then God turns to the man in the wheelchair and says, “Be healed!” The man in the wheelchair stands up and runs from the bar shouting, “Praise the Lord!” Finally, God turns to the deaf man, but before He can speak, the deaf man signs, “No, please don’t heal me! I don’t want to lose my disability benefits!”

This joke is an example of minority humor, in which a member of a minority group outsmarts someone in a position of power. Such humor is common among minorities around the world, and it's an effective tool for bolstering group identity and self-esteem.

From the perspective of the hearing majority, deafness is a disability that isolates its sufferers from mainstream society. And yet, that’s not the way deaf people view themselves. They certainly understand that they’re outsiders in the hearing world, and no matter how good their skills at speaking and lip-reading, they may never completely fit in. But within their Deaf communities, they lead rich and happy lives full of meaningful relationships with others who share the same experiences and worldview. If the deaf don’t see deafness as a disability, why then should the hearing community treat it as one?

References

Schmidt, M. A. (2017). Planes of phenomenological experience: The psychology of deafness as an early example of American Gestalt psychology, 1928-1940. History of Psychology, 20, 347-364.

Sutton-Spence, R. & Napoli, D. (2012). Deaf jokes and sign language humor. Humor, 25, 311-337.