Before I became an active member of the Deaf community I had known some deaf people
from school. I was supported in a Centre for Hearing Impaired from the age of 14. Before that my only memory of a deaf person was seeing two school boys at the movies with those old fashioned hearing aids. You know the ones with a wire that led to the aid that rested inside a specially sewn on pocket.
My first ‘real’ encounters with deaf people at the Centre left me puzzled. You see nearly all of them had poor English. I had lost my hearing around the age of 8 and had no clue of the struggles that deaf people had to acquire English or any spoken language. I had no clue as to what Auslan was. (This was in 1978).
The deaf kids at the Centre could not spell properly. They wrote in a way that was, at best, disjointed. It often made no sense. This triggered something in me. I wanted to know why. I wanted to prevent this happening. A person that was deaf did not have a disability that impacted on their ability to learn, surely?? Why were these young people illiterate??? I wanted to know. I wanted to know because the lack of literacy in these young people left them profoundly disabled. That was the view of my young self.
After I left school I became involved in the Deaf community. Firstly through the Deaf Youth group run by the Deaf Society and then through the Deaf cricket club. From there I regularly attended the Deaf club every Friday night.
At the Deaf club I began to see the diversity in the language skills of its members. There were some who were extremely literate. God forbid, they even laughed at my jokes. But still there were some who were clearly illiterate. I began to see that many actually had poor language overall. Not just in English but with signing too. It puzzled me.
As my own signing improved and I began to converse with more deaf people I would note that many struggled with basic concepts and ideas. I would note that they lacked some maturity. Hell, I remember thinking at the time they were almost infantile in their development. Sadly, many actually were. It egged me. What was it about deafness that was causing these people to be so DISABLED?
Now I know many people with a disability and members of the Deaf community who are reading this will have almost fury on their breath. I can hear them now. “You’re making disability and deafness out to be deficit, Gary.” I say to them, hold your fury, for this was my thinking at that time. I was profoundly ignorant.
There is no doubt that my early experience of deaf people motivated me in my career. Originally I aimed to be a teacher of the deaf. I tried this via England and then Queensland. Three broken legs later I gave up the ghost and returned to Adelaide to study Social Work.
It was during this period that I learnt the most about Deaf people (note the capital D). In Queensland, I struck up a friendship with a Deaf man. He was a native signer from a vast Deaf family. We had endless debates. Back then I thought everyone should learn Signed English. I argued that one uniform language was surely the way to go.
My friend became my mentor. He taught me so many things about the Deaf community, about its history and the richness of its language. I remember being amazed that his sister and brother in-law, both deaf, actually ran a cafe. He taught me about Gallaudet and the oppression of Deaf people. Through him I began to finally see how the system was ruining the lives of so many deaf people.
He didn’t just open my mind; he opened my anger. I could not believe what this hearing society was doing to young deaf people (Note there is no capital here.) It was depriving them of language. It was denying them their right to sign language. It was making them illiterate. Indeed, it was hindering the development of their life in almost every aspect. Be it language, education, maturity and the ability to form healthy relationships. No wonder that deaf people experience mental health issues at more than twice the “normal” population.
The one thing my friend always insisted on was that he was not disabled, he was Deaf. I didn’t get this back then. He couldn’t “speak”. He had minor problems with his English literacy. He needed interpreters. He needed lots of help. He had to be disabled. I told him he was in denial. I cringe at the attitude of my young self.
I began to see that my friend had two lives. He had his life in the Deaf community where he lacked for nothing. He had his language, family, friends and even his sport. His life was rich and full.
But he couldn’t live in the Deaf community full-time. He eventually had to interact with the wider hearing community. It was in the wider community that he was disabled. It was the hearing community that was disabling him. And this is the crux. Deafness is not a disability. It is a predominantly hearing society that disables the deaf.
I was to read later about the legendary Martha’s Vineyard in America. Martha’s Vineyard was unique in that it once had a large population of people who were genetically Deaf. At one time the majority of the people that lived there were either Deaf or related to people who were Deaf. Consequently it is apparent that most members of this community signed. In this community there was no disadvantage for the Deaf. It was a kind of Deaf Utopia.
But society is not like that. Society is hearing. Society does not like to adapt for minorities. Society expects minorities to adapt to them. So if someone is born deaf, the only answer is to make them hearing or as close to hearing as possible.
If you are born deaf no one asks the question; how can our society meet your needs? This question is not asked because we expect that people who are deaf to fit the NORM.
Perhaps we can ensure that a young baby has access to sound and sign. Perhaps we can adequately fund programmes so that they can support the deaf child to be part of the family through sound and sign. Perhaps we could insist that every child, in every school learn Auslan so that if they encounter a person that uses Auslan they can communicate. There are solutions.
Perhaps we could ensure that every video that is placed online has captions. Perhaps every educational resource must, by mandate, be accessible. Perhaps every hospital should have a link up to a service that can assist them to communicate with people who are deaf by sign or by captions. This would be a society taking the disability out of deafness.
Perhaps we can insist that every teacher of the deaf have the skills to be able to communicate with every deaf child in whatever mode. Perhaps we can insist that every deaf child have access to a program that will provide them with knowledge and skills to live life as a deaf person. In short, we adjust the society so that the disability does not exist.
But no! There is only one answer that the majority of people will buy into. And that is that we all must hear. There is no other condition that is acceptable. If by chance the attempt to make people hear fails …. well we will throw a few tidbits their way. Just to make it a little more easy. Those tidbits will be the absolute bare minimum.
The result? Well, we still have deaf kids struggling with the English language. We still have deaf kids and adults socially isolated. We still have services totally inaccessible so that deaf people are at risk. We still have a society that expects everyone to fit the norm and bugger the consequences. This is society disabling the deaf.
It is not just the deaf that society disables. It is every person that has a “disability”. Where I used to work there is a long section of tram stops that have all been raised so that wheelchairs can get onto the trams. There are crossing lights so that people can safely cross to the tram stops in the middle of the road. There are ramps so that wheelchairs can access the stops. There are sound alerts at the crossing lights for vision impaired. YES – people are finally thinking access, except – all the trams that service these accessible stops are the old type that have steps. And then when you arrive at my old work, you access it through a subway which is accessed … by steps. It is not the “disability” that is the disabling; it is the profound lack of foresight that exists in our society.
People don’t have disabilities. They really do not. We, the society, disable them. We, with our obsession with normalcy, expect everyone to fit in with the norm. And that’s how we are Disabling the Deaf .
(And just about every other person that has a physical condition not considered the norm.)