I attended a conference last week. Some expert was talking about deafness. He was a good expert too. He has been around for many, many years and has knowledge of deafness that is right up there with the best in the world. I left the conference strangely subdued and headed to the pub. As I drank my beer I analysed what I was feeling. I realised that I was feeling a little uncomfortable because I had just spent the day listening about how deaf people were “deficits”. You see deaf people have deficits and lots of them.
They have a deficit of hearing. They have a deficit of self esteem. They have a deficit in employment outcomes. Their mental health is deficit; in fact it is twice as bad as the general populace. Deaf people have a deficit of money because they have poorer employment outcomes. Consequently people who are deaf are more likely to be in poverty. The stress of life and poverty makes people who are deaf become ill more often. And so it went on. The learned speaker reeled off one deficit after another. It was depressing.
I guess to fix something you have to know what is wrong. If you are sick you cannot begin to be treated until you identify what’s wrong so that a plan of cure can be implemented. Likewise if you have no money, you have to know this and get to the root problem of why you have no money. Only then can you begin to fix the problem. The car breaks down you have to find out what’s wrong so you can get the right part and replace it. Knowing the deficit is important. The problem in deafness is that we seem to focus almost solely on the deficits and not on the successes and solutions.
Deficit mentality in our Society is rife. It is particularly well documented in education. Gorski from the George Mason University describes Deficit Mentality as, “approaching students based upon our perceptions of their weaknesses rather than their strengths.” Gorski believes that the , “most devastating brand of this sort of deficit thinking emerges when we mistake difference—particularly difference from ourselves— for deficit.” And so it often is with deafness or any marginalised group. (Source: http://www.edchange.org/publications/deficit-ideology-scornful-gaze.pdf )
Now Gorski’s view of deficit mentality is one where society highlights the deficits of others to create compliance. The compliance assumes that there is a set way of behaving and to differ from that “accepted” behaviour is deficit. Deficit mentality focuses on stereotypes. For example the Government asserts that people with a disability have a right to work. But the Government also asserts that there are people with a disability who are a “cost” to society because they draw pensions which is a large part of their policy direction to get people with a disability into work.
Now of course the circumstances for each individual person with a disability being out of work are varied. But rather than look at these varied issues the interpretation that people make of people with a disability drawing on a pension and not working is that they’re a burden to society, or worse – lazy. The focus is on fixing the deficit rather than viewing people with a disability as an employment asset. Rarely do we see our policy makers viewing people with a disability with an “asset” mentality.
Now the learned speaker at the conference had no intention of perpetuating a deficit mentality about deafness. He wanted only to highlight that the way society was structured meant that there were several negative consequences for people who are deaf. He highlighted several issues such as poor mental health, poor self esteem and higher incidences of poor health. He pointed out that this was for a number of reasons but the underlying message that came across was that the lot of a person who is deaf is overwhelmingly a negative one. And that is the message that people take away that not only do deaf people have a deficit of hearing but they also have other deficits that include mental health and general health issues.
Now this is ok to a point. It is ok to highlight issues. It is ok to point out that without the right support people who are deaf face many battles. The problem is that this is almost all that we talk about. Audiologist and the medical fraternity talk about “lack of” hearing and focus on “fixing” with technology such as cochlear implants or hearing aids. Deafness is deficit and it is only by becoming hearing like the majority that a person who is deaf can become equal. Very little information comes forward about people who are deaf as assets or even that deafness itself can be an asset. People who are deaf are poor and lacking. No wonder I was feeling depressed.
Some how we need a focus on how people who are deaf can be assets and highlight their assets. In community development asset based approaches are common. Asset Based approaches focus on;
- Appreciating and mobilising individual and community talents, skills and assets (rather than focusing on problems and needs)
- Community-driven development rather than development driven by external agencies
Perhaps it is time to develop further these “Assets Based” approaches to the field of human services. (Source: http://www.synergos.org/knowledge/02/abcdoverview.htm )
In fact this has already happened. Dr Laura B Nissen from the Portland State University has written extensively on the topic of Strength Based approaches for working with troubled youth, particularly in the area of substance abuse. Nissen describes the Strength Based approach as a way of focusing on individuals, families and communities, “In light of their capacities, talents, competencies, possibilities, visions, values and hopes, however dashed and distorted through circumstance, oppression and trauma.”
Nissen explains further that the Strength Based approach is a way, “…to regard each youth, his/her family and community not only as person in need of support, guidance and opportunity, but also in possession of previously unrealized resources which must be identified and mobilized to successfully resolve presenting problems and circumstances.” Nissen describes how support for troubled youth tends to focus on, “….risk and probability of re-offending, the latter on disease models and relapse.” She explains that support to troubled youth does not, “… tend to include norms of regularly seeking out, amplifying and maximizing client, family or community positive qualities in the course of service provision.” (Source: http://www.cimh.org/contentFiles/Strengths%20based%20Approaches%20L.%20Nissen1.pdf )
Nissen could be describing how we focus services and support to people who are deaf. She could be describing how we focus on what is wrong, how sad things are and what we must do to “FIX” these poor deaf people. Usually the focus is on finding ways to make people who are deaf fit with the norms. Very rarely do we focus on the positives and the attributes of people who are deaf.
Let’s try and turn this around and replace parts of Nissen’s quotes with “deaf”. For example by focusing on Strength Based approaches in the deafness area we, “…regard each individual who is deaf, his/her family and community not only as a person in need of support, guidance and opportunity, but also in possession of previously unrealized resources which must be identified and mobilized to successfully resolve presenting problems and circumstances.” In supporting people who are deaf we should, “ … tend to include norms of regularly seeking out, amplifying and maximizing individuals who are deaf, family or community positive qualities in the course of service provision.” As John Lennon sang, “ Imagine, its easy if you try.”
Now our deafness sector overwhelmingly focuses on the negative. In fund-raising campaigns we have TV advertisements of a young deaf person holding his face and screaming because he his frustrated at being isolated in a classroom. A few years ago there was the horrendous Cora Barclay Centre television advertisement. In this advertisement the Cora Barclay Centre filmed a young boy signing laboriously. His message was that in years gone by this was how he would have communicated and then in an almost sing song voice he exclaims, “But now their is a better way..” Implying that sign language was a lesser means of communicating and that the only way to be part of society is to SPEAK. The Hear and Say Centre, to entice people to donate, has the sickening, “Without your help Zoe’s Mum might never hear her say I Love You” As if only by SPEAKING can one express love. These examples are deficit mentality at it’s worst.
Some how in the deafness sector we need to change this around. We need to be discussing deafness and its strengths. Rather than focusing on the sad and the missing we need to focus on achievements and how these achievements came about. For a start, and I have said this often, people who are deaf are a thriving economy. How many people owe their jobs, cars, food on their table and houses to people who are deaf? Teachers of the deaf, audiologist, the massively rich company Cochlear, interpreters, captioners and so on. People who are deaf are no burden. In fact I would say that if any one needs to be grateful it is the people that benefit from the existence of people who are deaf.
How often do we focus our awareness and educational campaigns on successful deaf people and how they got there? Do we speak of the people who are deaf who have completed PHDs? Do we speak of the deaf lawyers, the chefs, the deaf Olympians, the teachers or the social workers? – Hell we even have people who are deaf who are audiologist. Do we speak of what they are contributing to our society? Do we highlight the life skills that they have developed to live their life’s deaf that go above and beyond the ability to hear? Do we highlight how their families nurtured them? Do we pass on this knowledge to other people who are deaf and their families so that they can develop similar skills allowing them to thrive within our society?
Unfortunately the answer is – very rarely. Our fund-raisers use emotional blackmail and aim for the heartstrings. Would fund-raising not be more effective to highlight what is possible with the right support? Our academics roll off statistics about all that is wrong with people who are deaf and what a tragedy that it all is. As far as I know, in Australia, there is only one academic who focuses on strengths and what deaf people can do to become SUCCESSFUL and functioning. That person is, of course, deaf and can’t even get a job in the deaf sector. In fact the sector won’t even utilise that person’s knowledge and skills in educating the public. The person is an asset going to waste.
Jonathan Kozol is a human rights activist and author. He has written often of inequality in America, particularly among the African American population. Kozol also believes we focus too much on human deficits. Said Kozol of African American children living in poverty, “Instead of seeing these children for the blessings that they are, we are measuring them only by the standard of whether they will be future deficits or assets for our nation’s competitive needs.”
And so it is with people who are deaf. By focusing almost solely on what is wrong, instead of what is right our Deafness sector perpetuates this mentality. It needs to change because as American actress and academic, Danica McKellar, states, “There are stereotypes that have been out there for a long time that tell girls that their main asset, the main thing that they are valued for, is their appearance and also that it’s to the exclusion of anything else. “ And this is what we do with deaf people we promote incessantly the stereotypes of deficit to the point where it becomes normalcy. It is anything but the case and the power to change this is with us.