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An Introduction to Deaf Gain

Shifting our perceptions of deaf people from hearing loss to deaf gain.

Key points

  • Based on a standard of "normalcy," hearing loss is often seen as negative.
  • Hearing loss can be seen as an individual and social gain that guards against the perils of monocultural vulnerability.
  • Adjustments for hearing loss, such as sign language, have brought new insights to science and the making of art.

We welcome you to a new blog for Psychology Today: Deaf Gain. This phrase may seem like an oxymoron to most readers, but we hope that in this and in the many posts to come, the notion of Deaf Gain will challenge and redefine commonly held notions about normalcy, disability, and human diversity.

We begin with this first suggestion of Deaf Gain:

Aaron Williamson is a performance artist who began losing his hearing at the age of 7. He and his family did what was typical for anyone who experiences changes in their body: they sought medical intervention. So Aaron went to a doctor and then an audiologist. After multiple visits to multiple doctors audiologists over the years, he came to a realization. “Why had all the doctors told me I was losing my hearing, and not a single one told me I was gaining my deafness?”

Williamson’s comment upends the paradigm that we have used to understand physical difference. Our understanding of different bodies is largely based on a model that establishes a socially constructed norm—the midpoint of a bell-curved measurement of the human population. What we find is an able-bodied, neurotypical hearing white male, about 6 feet tall with a proportionate weight, who wears size L shirts and size 10 shoes. Deviations from this norm are treated with an increasing degree of concern the further one goes from the midpoint. A girl who is expected to reach a final height of 5 feet (152 cm) is small but can get by. If she goes under 5 feet, she is classified as having a growth deficiency and can receive growth hormone treatment. This standard of normalcy is applied to countless areas of the human experience, from standardized tests to measurements of nearly every aspect of the human body. Based on this standard of normalcy, hearing loss is a bad thing.

Biological loss can be individual and social gain

But Williamson’s comment points to another reality that comes into focus when we see the world through a lens of biocultural diversity as opposed to the dominant lens of normalcy. Just as the health of an ecosystem is measured through the amount of biodiversity, the health of a social ecosystem could be measured through the diversity of cultures, languages, bodies, and minds. In this light, what might normally be seen as a biological loss can actually be seen as individual and social gain in guarding against the perils of monocultural vulnerability.

A case in point: For thousands of years, we have assumed that language is synonymous with speech. We now know, thanks to Deaf signed languages, that the human capacity for language is can just as easily be signed as spoken. As a result, a new map of the brain is needed to account for this linguistic Copernican revolution. Similarly, Deaf individuals experience a host of visual-tactile processing acuities that have the potential to provide insights into the wider practices of say, architecture, filmmaking, video game design, bilingual education, monitoring surveillance videos, and engaging in prolonged eye contact.

We have thus coined the term “Deaf Gain” in opposition to “hearing loss” in order to encompass the myriad ways in which both deaf people and society at large have benefited from the existence of deaf people and sign language throughout recorded human history. The notion of Deaf Gain asks the question: Is the world better off with Deaf people and their signed languages, or should they be diminished to the point of extinction? Is the audiological status of deafness worth preserving or should it be eradicated? What would society lose if it were to do away with hearing loss?

In order to initiate inquiry into the many manifestations of Deaf Gain, we have called upon 42 scholars to contribute to 29 chapters in the volume, Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity, published in October 2014 from the University of Minnesota Press. These scholars have investigated many facets of Deaf Gain, here in the US as well as in Brazil, Uruguay, Finland, Canada, England, and Germany. Together they help to construct a new way of defining human diversity by assigning increasing value to the many forms of human variation.

We look forward to discussing and exploring the many facets of Deaf Gain with the readers of Psychology Today.