Deafness as Culture

Thanks to Mike Yared for bringing this article to my attention. Written in 1993, it is still timely today given the atmosphere of fear and intimidation that has prevailed in the 13+ years since it’s publication, at Gallaudet University. Fernandes and Jordan have repeatedly and systematically chipped away at the historical ASL foundation of Gallaudet, and the solid evidence of that which a pure ASL mode of education could provide it’s students, favoring instead the criminal dismantling of the Deaf Culture they themselves had never truly felt a member of, even in their middle age. It was always about the money, for Jordan and Fernandes – in order to attract more money to Gallaudet, they had to attract more students. To attract more students, they had to drastically lower admission standards while at the same time publicly promoting higher expectations of it’s students, placing the burden squarely on the Faculty to create modern day miracles. Many students sorely unqualified for higher education are being baby-sat at Gallaudet for 5 – 7 years. Jesus only had to create wine from water, but the Faculty are expected to distill sewer swill into fine scotch.

This is not to say that students of diverse educational circumstances are not welcome at Gallaudet. I have stated in previous postings that students of any of the various modes of education for the deaf should be and have always been welcomed at Gallaudet, but with the understanding that they would come and submerge themselves into the Deaf Culture and ASL that is our foundation and history. The danger has always been those who come with the express purpose of dismantling Deaf Culture, as Jordan and Fernandes and countless others have. This dangerous thinking has been passed on to thousands of sheep who passed through the Florida Avenue gates. Gallaudet needs to return to it’s past, to the days of promoting and fostering an education system firmly planted in the roots of ASL as the primary means of conveying knowledge to it’s students, and a total submersion, with pride and respect, into Deaf Culture. -Ken @ BiblioMarket

The Atlantic Monthly. ISSN: 02769077
Sep 1993. – Vol.272, – Iss. 3; – pg. 37, [12 pgs.]

by Edward Dolnick

In 1773, on a tour of Scotland and the Hebrides
Islands, Samuel Johnson visited a school for deaf
children. Impressed by the students but daunted by
their predicament, he proclaimed deafness “one of the
most desperate of human calamities.” More than a
century later Helen Keller reflected on her own life
and declared that deafness was a far greater hardship
than blindness. “Blindness cuts people off from
things,” she observed. “Deafness cuts people off from

For millennia deafness was considered so catastrophic
that very few ventured to ease its burdens. Isolation
in a kind of permanent solitary confinement was deemed
inevitable; a deaf person, even in the midst of urban
hubbub, was considered as unreachable as a fairy-tale
princess locked in a tower. The first attempts to
educate deaf children came only in the sixteenth
century. As late as 1749 the French Academy of
Sciences appointed a commission to determine whether
deaf people were “capable of reasoning.” Today no one
would presume to ignore the deaf or exclude them from
full participation in society. But acknowledging their
rights is one thing, coming to grips with their plight
another. Deafness is still seen as a dreadful fate.

Lately, though, the deaf community has begun to speak
for itself. To the surprise and bewilderment of
outsiders, its message is utterly contrary to the
wisdom of centuries: Deaf people, far from groaning
under a heavy yoke, are not handicapped at all.
Deafness is not a disability. Instead, many deaf
people now proclaim, they are a subculture like any
other. They are simply a linguistic minority (speaking
American Sign Language) and are no more in need of a
cure for their condition than are Haitians or

That view is vehemently held. “The term ‘disabled’
describes those who are blind or physically
handicapped,” the deaf linguists Carol Padden and Tom
Humphries write, “not Deaf people.” (The upper-case D
is significant: it serves as a succinct proclamation
that the deaf share a culture rather than merely a
medical condition.) So strong is the feeling of
cultural solidarity that many deaf parents cheer on
discovering that their baby is deaf. Pondering such a
scene, a hearing person can experience a kind of
vertigo. The surprise is not simply the unfamiliarity
of the views; it is that, as in a surrealist painting,
jarring notions are presented as if they were

The embrace of what looks indisputably like hardship
is what, in particular, strikes the hearing world as
perverse, and deaf leaders have learned to brace
themselves for the inevitable question. “No!” Roslyn
Rosen says, by shaking her head vehemently, she
wouldn’t prefer to be able to hear. Rosen, the
president of the National Association of the Deaf, is
deaf, the daughter of deaf parents, and the mother of
deaf children. “I’m happy with who I am,” she says
through an interpreter, “and I don’t want to be
‘fixed.’ Would an Italian-American rather be a WASP?
In our society everyone agrees that whites have an
easier time than blacks. But do you think a black
person would undergo operations to become white?”

The view that deafness is akin to ethnicity is far
from unanimously held. “The world of deafness often
seems Balkanized, with a warlord ruling every
mountaintop,” writes Henry Kisor, the book editor for
the Chicago Sun-Times and deaf himself. But the “deaf
culture” camp–Kisor calls it the “New Orthodoxy”–is
in the ascendancy, and its proponents invoke
watchwords that still carry echoes of earlier
civil-rights struggles. “Pride,” “heritage,”
“identity,” and similar words are thick in the air.

Rhetoric aside, however, the current controversy is
disorientingly unfamiliar, because the deaf are a
group unlike any ethnic minority: 90 percent of all
deaf children are born to hearing parents. Many people
never meet a deaf person unless one is born to them.
Then parent and child belong to different cultures, as
they would in an adoption across racial lines. And
deaf children acquire a sense of cultural identity
from their peers rather than their parents, as
homosexuals do. But the crucial issue is that hearing
parent and deaf child don’t share a means of
communication. Deaf children cannot grasp their
parents’ spoken language, and hearing parents are
unlikely to know sign language. Communication is not a
gift automatically bestowed in infancy but an
acquisition gained only by laborious effort.

This gulf has many consequences. Hearing people tend
to make the mistake of considering deafness to be an
affliction that we are familiar with, as if being deaf
were more or less like being hard of hearing. Even
those of us with sharp hearing are, after all,
occasionally unable to make out a mumbled remark at
the dinner table, or a whispered question from a
toddler, or a snatch of dialogue in a movie theater.

To get a hint of blindness, you can try making your
way down an unfamiliar hall in the dark, late at
night. But clamping on a pair of earmuffs conveys
nothing essential about deafness, because the earmuffs
can’t block out a lifetime’s experience of having
heard language. That experience makes hearing people
ineradicably different. Because antibiotics have tamed
many of the childhood diseases that once caused
permanent loss of hearing, more than 90 percent of all
deaf children in the United States today were born
deaf or lost their hearing before they had learned
English. The challenge that faces them–recognizing
that other peoples’ mysterious lip movements are
language, and then learning to speak that language–is
immeasurably greater than that facing an adult who
must cope with a gradual hearing loss.

Learning to speak is so hard for people deaf from
infancy because they are trying, without any direct
feedback, to mimic sounds they have never heard.
(Children who learn to speak and then go deaf fare
better, because they retain some memory of sound.) One
mother of a deaf child describes the challenge as
comparable to learning to speak Japanese from within a
soundproof glass booth. And even if a deaf person does
learn to speak, understanding someone else’s speech
remains maddeningly difficult. Countless words look
alike on the lips, though they sound quite different.
“Mama” is indistinguishable from “papa,” “cat” from
“hat,” “no new taxes” from “go to Texas.” Context and
guesswork are crucial, and conversation becomes a kind
of fast and ongoing crossword puzzle.

“Speechreading is EXHAUSTING. I hate having to depend
on it,” writes Cheryl Heppner, a deaf woman who is the
executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource
Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons. Despite
her complaint, Heppner is a speech-reading virtuoso.
She made it through public school and Pennsylvania
State University without the help of interpreters, and
she says she has never met a person with better
speech-reading skills. But “even with peak
conditions,” she explains, “good lighting, high energy
level, and a person who articulates well, I’m still
guessing at half of what I see on the lips.” When we
met in her office, our conversation ground to a halt
every sentence or two, as if we were travelers without
a common language who had been thrown together in a
train compartment. I had great difficulty making out
Heppner’s soft, high-pitched speech, and far more
often than not my questions and comments met only with
her mouthed “Sorry.” In frustration we resorted to
typing on her computer.

For the average deaf person, lip-reading is even less
rewarding. In tests using simple sentences, deaf
people recognize perhaps three or four words in every
ten. Ironically, the greatest aid to lip-reading is
knowing how words sound. One British study found, for
example, that the average deaf person with a decade of
practice was no better at lip-reading than a hearing
person picked off the street.

Unsurprisingly, the deaf score poorly on tests of
English skills. The average deaf sixteen-year-old
reads at the level of a hearing eight-year-old. When
deaf students eventually leave school, three in four
are unable to read a newspaper. Only two deaf children
in a hundred (compared with forty in a hundred among
the general population) go on to college. Many deaf
students write English as if it were a foreign
language. One former professor at Gallaudet, the elite
Washington, D.C., university for the deaf, sometimes
shows acquaintances a letter written by a student. The
quality of the writing, he says, is typical. “As soon
as you had lend me $15,” the letter begins, “I felt I
must write you to let you know how relievable I am in
your aid.”

Small wonder that many of the deaf eagerly turn to
American Sign Language, invariably described as “the
natural language of the deaf.” Deaf children of deaf
parents learn ASL as easily as hearing children learn
a spoken language. At the same age that hearing babies
begin talking, deaf babies of parents who sign begin
“babbling” nonsense signs with their fingers. Soon,
and without having to be formally taught, they have
command of a rich and varied language, as expressive
as English but as different from it as Urdu or

At the heart of the idea that deafness is cultural, in
fact, is the deaf community’s proprietary pride in
ASL. Even among the hearing the discovery of ASL’s
riches has sometimes had a profound impact. The most
prominent ally of the deaf-culture movement, for
example, is the Northeastern University linguist
Harlan Lane, whose interest in the deaf came about
through his study of ASL. When he first saw people
signing to one another, Lane recalls, he was stunned
to realize that “language could be expressed just as
well by the hands and face as by the tongue and
throat, even though the very definition of language we
had learned as students was that it: was something
spoken and heard.” For a linguist, Lane says, “this
was astonishing, thrilling. I felt like Balboa seeing
the Pacific.”

Until the 1960s critics had dismissed signing as a
poor substitute for language, a mere semaphoring of
stripped-down messages (“I see the ball”). Then
linguists demonstrated that ASL is in fact a
full-fledged language, with grammar and puns and
poems, and dignified it with a name. Anything that can
be said can be said in ASL. In the view of the
neurologist and essayist Oliver Sacks, it is “a
language equally suitable for making love or speeches,
for flirtation or mathematics.”

ASL is the everyday language of perhaps half a million
Americans. A shared language makes for a shared
identity. With the deaf as with other groups, this
identity is a prickly combination of pride in one’s
own ways and wariness of outsiders. “If I happened to
strike up a relationship with a hearing person,” says
MJ Bienvenu, a deaf activist speaking through an
interpreter, “I’d have considerable trepidation about
my [deaf] parents’ reaction. They’d ask, ‘What’s the
matter? Aren’t your own people good enough for you?’
and they’d warn, ‘They’ll take advantage of you. You
don’t know what they’re going to do behind your back.”

Blind men and women often marry sighted people, but 90
percent of deaf people who marry take deaf spouses.
When social scientists ask people who are blind or in
wheelchairs if they wish they could see or walk, they
say yes instantly. Only the deaf answer the equivalent
question no. The essence of deafness, they explain, is
not the lack of hearing but the community and culture
based on ASL. Deaf culture represents not a denial but
an affirmation.

Spokespeople for deaf pride present their case as
self-evident and commonsensical. Why should anyone
expect deaf people to deny their roots when every
other cultural group proudly celebrates its traditions
and history? Why stigmatize the speakers of a
particular language as disabled? “When Gorbachev
visited the U.S., he used an interpreter to talk to
the President,” says Bienvenu, who is one of the
directors of an organization called The Bicultural
Center. “Was Gorbachev disabled?”


Despite the claims made in its name, though, the idea
that deafness is akin to ethnicity is hardly
straightforward. On the contrary, it is an idea with
profound and surprising implications, though these are
rarely explored. When the deaf were in the news in
1988, for instance, protesting the choice of a hearing
person as president of Gallaudet, the press assumed
that the story was about disabled people asserting
their rights, and treated it the same as if students
at a university for the blind had demanded a blind

The first surprise in the cultural view of deafness is
that it rejects the assumption that medical treatment
means progress and is welcome. Since deafness is not a
deprivation, the argument runs, talk of cures and
breakthroughs and technological wizardry is both
inappropriate and offensive–as if doctors and
newspapers joyously announced advances in genetic
engineering that might someday make it possible to
turn black skin white.

Last fall, for example, 60 Minutes produced a story on
a bright, lively little girl named Caitlin Parton. “We
don’t remember ever meeting [anyone] who captivated us
quite as much as this seven-year-old charmer,” it
began. Caitlin is deaf, and 60 Minutes showed how a
new device called a cochlear implant had transformed
her life. Before surgeons implanted a wire in
Caitlin’s inner ear and a tiny receiver under her
skin, she couldn’t hear voices or barking dogs or
honking cars. With the implant she can hear ordinary
conversation, she can speak almost perfectly, and she
is thriving in school. 60 Minutes presented the story
as a welcome break from its usual round of scandal and
expose. Who could resist a delightful child and a
happy ending?

Activists in the deaf community were outraged.
Implants, they thundered in letters to 60 Minutes, are
“child abuse” and “pathological” and “genocide.” The
mildest criticism was that Caitlin’s success was a
fluke that would tempt parents into entertaining
similar but doomed hopes for their own children.
“There should have been parades all across America,”
Caitlin’s father lamented months later. “This is a
miracle of biblical proportions, making the deaf hear.
But we keep hearing what a terrible thing this is, how
it’s like Zyklon B, how it has to be stopped.”

The anger should have been easy to anticipate. The
magazine Deaf Life, for example, runs a
question-and-answer column called “For Hearing People
Only.” In response to a reader’s question well before
60 Minutes came along, the editors wrote, “An implant
is the ultimate invasion of the ear, the ultimate
denial of deafness, the ultimate refusal to let deaf
children be Deaf….Parents who choose to have their
children implanted, are in effect saying, ‘I don’t
respect the Deaf community, and I certainly don’t want
my child to be part of it. I want him/her to be part
of the hearing world, not the Deaf world.”

The roots of such hostility run far deeper than the
specific fear that cochlear implants in children are
unproved and risky. More generally, the objection is
that from the moment parents suspect their child is
deaf, they turn for expert advice to doctors and
audiologists and speech therapists rather than to the
true experts, deaf people. Harlan Lane points to one
survey that found that 86 percent of deaf adults said
they would not want a cochlear implant even if it were
free. “There are many prostheses from eyeglasses and
artificial limbs to cochlear implants,” Lane writes.
“Can you name another that we insist on for children
in flagrant disregard of the advice of adults with the
same ‘condition’?”

The division between the deaf community and the
medical one seems to separate two natural allies. Even
more surprising is a second split, between deaf people
and advocates for the disabled. In this case, though,
the two sides remain uneasy partners, bound as if in a
bad marriage. The deaf community knows that whatever
its qualms, it cannot afford to cut itself off from
the larger, savvier, wealthier disability lobby.

Historically, advocates for every disabled group have
directed their fiercest fire at policies that exclude
their group. No matter the good intentions, no matter
the logistical hurdles, they have insisted, separate
is not equal. Thus buildings, buses, classes, must be
accessible to all; special accommodations for the
disabled are not a satisfactory substitute. All this
has become part of conventional wisdom. Today, under
the general heading of “mainstreaming,” it is
enshrined in law and unchallenged as a premise of
enlightened thought.

Except among the deaf. Their objection is that even
well-meaning attempts to integrate deaf people into
hearing society may actually imprison them in a zone
of silence. Jostled by a crowd but unable to
communicate, they are effectively alone. The problem
is especially acute in schools, where mainstreaming
has led to the decline of residential schools for the
disabled and the deaf and the integration of many such
students into ordinary public schools. Since deafness
is rare, affecting one child in a thousand, deaf
students are thinly scattered. As a result, half of
all deaf children in public school have either no deaf
classmates at all or very few.

“Mainstreaming deaf children in regular public-school
programs,” the prominent deaf educator Leo Jacobs
writes, will produce “a new generation of educational
failures” and “frustrated and unfulfilled adults.”
Another deaf spokesman, Mervin Garretson, is even
harsher. The danger of mainstreaming, he contends, is
that deaf children could be “educationally,
vocationally, and emotionally mutilated.”


In his brilliant and polemical book The Mask of
Benevolence, Harlan Lane, the chief theoretician of
the deaf-culture movement, makes his case seem as
clear-cut as a proposition in formal logic. Deaf
children are biologically equipped to do everything
but hear, he argues; spoken language turns on the
ability to hear; therefore spoken language is a poor
choice for deaf children. For good measure, Lane
throws in a corollary: Since an alternative language,
ASL, is both available and easy for the deaf to learn,
ASL is a better choice for a first language. QED.

For the parents of a deaf child, though, matters are
far from simple. (Lane is childless.) Parents have
crucial decisions to make, and they don’t have the
luxury of time. Children who learn a language late are
at a lifelong disadvantage. Deafness is, in one
scholar’s summary, “a curable, or rather a
preventable, form of mental retardation.”

Osmond and Deborah Crosby’s daughter was born in July
of 1988. “Dorothy Jane Crosby,” the birth announcement
began, “Stanford class of 2009, track, academic
all-American, B.S. in pre-astronautics, Cum Laude.
2008 Olympics (decathlon), Miss Florida, Senate

“You can chuckle about that announcement,” Oz Crosby
says now, “but we all have expectations for our kids.
That card was a message from my unconscious–these are
the kinds of things I’d like to see, that would make
me proud, in my child. And the first thing that
happened after DJ’s deafness was diagnosed was that I
felt that child had died. That’s something you hear a
lot from parents, and it’s that blunt and that real.”

Crosby, fifty, is tall and athletic, with blond hair
and a small, neat moustache. A timber executive who
now lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., he is a
serious and intelligent man who had scarcely given
deafness a thought before it invaded his household.
Then he plunged into the deafness literature and began
keeping a journal of his own.

He found that every path was pocked with hazards. The
course that sounds simplest, keeping the child at home
with her parents and teaching her English, can prove
fantastically difficult. Even basic communication is a
constant challenge. In a memoir called Deaf Like Me, a
man named Thomas Spradley tells of raising a deaf
daughter, Lynn. One Saturday morning shortly after
Lynn had begun school, Spradley and his wife, Louise,
found her outdoors, waiting for the school bus. Lynn
stood at the end of the driveway, scanning the street
every few seconds. After half an hour she gave up and
came indoors. For weeks Lynn repeated the same futile
wait every Saturday and Sunday, until her parents
finally managed to convey the concept of “weekday” and
“weekend.” Words like “car” and “shoes” were easy;
abstractions and relationships were not. The Spradleys
knew Lynn loved her grandparents, for instance, but
they had no idea if she knew who those devoted elderly
people were. When Lynn once had to undergo a spinal
tap, her parents could not explain what the painful
test was for.

As much trouble as Thomas and Louise Spradley had in
talking with their daughter, she was just as
frustrated in trying to communicate with them. “How do
you tell Mommy that you don’t like your cereal with
that much milk on it” Spradley writes. “How do you ask
Daddy to swing you upside down when all he seems to
understand is that you want to be held? How do you
tell them that you want to go to other people’s houses
like [her older brother]? How do you make them
understand you want the same kind of Kool-Aid that you
had two weeks ago at your cousin’s house and just now
remembered? How do you say, ‘I forgot what I wanted’?”

Making matters more frustrating still, no one seems
able to tell parents how successful their child will
be in speaking and understanding English. “I’d ask,
‘What’s the future for us?'” Crosby says, “and they’d
say, ‘Every deaf child is different.'” Though given to
measured, even pedantic, phrasing, Crosby grows angry
as he recalls the scene. “It seemed like such a
cop-out. I wanted to grab them by the throat and
shout, ‘Here’s the bloody audiogram. How’s she going
to talk?'”

The truth, Crosby has reluctantly come to concede, is
that only a few generalizations are possible. Children
who are born deaf or who lose their hearing before
learning to speak have a far harder time than those
deafened later. Children with a profound hearing loss
have a harder time than children with a mild loss.
Children who cannot detect high-pitched sounds have
problems different from those of children who cannot
detect low pitches. Finally, and unaccountably, some
deaf children just happen to have an easier time with
spoken English than others.

Hence few overall statistics are available. Those few
are not encouraging. In one study, for example,
teachers of the deaf, evaluating their own pupils,
judged the speech of two thirds of them to be hard to
understand or unintelligible. Timothy Jaech, the
superintendent of the Wisconsin School for the Deaf,
writes, “The vast majority of deaf children will never
develop intelligible speech for the general public.”
Jaech, who is deaf, speaks and reads lips. “To gamble
12 to 15 years of a deaf child’s life is almost
immoral,” he says. “[My sister] and I were among the
lucky ones. What of the other 99 percent?”

Still, it is indisputable that many profoundly deaf
adults participate fully and successfully in the
hearing world, as lawyers and engineers and in dozens
of other roles. Do these examples show what parents
might expect for their own child? Or are they
inspiring but irrelevant tales that have as little
bearing on the typical deaf child as Michael Jordan’s
success has on the future of a ten-year-old dreaming
of NBA glory?

The case for ASL has problems of its own. ASL is
certainly easier for the deaf child to learn, but what
of the rest of the family? How can parents say
anything meaningful to their child in a foreign
language they have only begun to study? Moreover, many
hearing parents point out, even if deaf culture is
rich and vital, it is indisputably not the majority
culture. Since spoken language is the ticket to the
larger world, isn’t giving a child ASL as a first
language a bit risky?

The choices are agonizing. “I understand now how
people choosing a cancer therapy for their child must
feel,” Crosby says. “You can’t afford to be wrong.” To
illustrate the dilemma, Crosby wrote what he calls a

Suppose that your one-year-old, who has been slow to
walk, has just been diagnosed with a rare disorder of
the nervous system. The prognosis is for great
difficulty in muscular control of the arms and legs
due to tremors and impaired nerve pathways. With the
help of special braces, physical therapy, and lots of
training, she will be able to walk slowly, climb
stairs haltingly, and use her hands awkwardly. In
general, she will be able to do most of the things
other kids do, although not as easily, smoothly, or
quickly. Some children respond to this therapy better
than others, but all can get around on their legs
after a fashion. Even though they will never run or
play sports, they will have complete mobility at a
deliberate, shuffling pace.

There is an alternative, however. If her legs are
amputated right away, the tremors will cease, and the
remaining nerve pathways will strengthen. She will be
able to use a wheelchair with ease. She can even be a
wheelchair athlete, “running” marathons, playing
basketball, etc., if she desires. Anywhere a
wheelchair can go is readily available to her. There
is easy access to a world that is geographically
smaller. On the other hand, she can’t climb simple
stairs, hike trails slowly, or even use public
transportation without special assistance.

“Now, Mr. and Mrs. Solomon,” Crosby concluded, “which
life do you choose for your child?”


Crosby and his wife have chosen a compromise, a
controversial technique called cued speech, in which
spoken English is accompanied by hand signals that
enable a deaf person to distinguish between words that
look alike on the lips. The aim is to remove the
guesswork from lip-reading by using eight hand shapes
in different positions near the face to indicate that
the word being spoken is, say, “bat” rather than

The technique, which is spread by a tiny but zealous
group of parents with deaf children, has several
advantages. It’s easy to learn, for one thing, taking
only twenty or so hours of study. A parent who sets
out to learn American Sign Language, in contrast, must
devote months or years to the project, as he would
have to do in order to learn any foreign language. And
since cued speech is, essentially, English, parents
can bypass the stilted, often useless phrases of the
beginning language student. Instead of stumbling over
“la plume de ma tante,” they can talk to their deaf
child from the beginning about any subject in the

Moreover, because cued speech is simply English
transliterated, rather than a new language, nothing
has to be lost in translation. A deaf child who learns
cued speech learns English, along with its slang and
jargon and idioms and jokes, as his native language.
“It’s a way to embrace English, the language your
whole country runs on, instead of trying to pretend it
doesn’t exist,” says Judy Weiss, a woman in
Washington, D.C., who has used cued speech with her
son since he lost his hearing as a ten-month-old.

This method, which was invented at Gallaudet in
1965-1966, is nonetheless out of favor with the deaf
community. It’s seen as a slap at ASL and as just a
new version of the despised “oralism,” in which deaf
students were forced for hour upon hour to try to
pronounce English words they had never heard. But the
proponents of cued speech insist that these objections
are political and unfounded. They point to a handful
of small studies that conclude that deaf children who
learn cued speech read as well as hearing students,
and they mention a small group of highly successful
deaf students who rely on cuing. Perhaps the most
accomplished of all is a Wellesley undergraduate named
Stasie Jones. Raised in France by an American mother
and a British father, she speaks French and English
and is now studying Russian and Spanish.

But the system is no godsend. “The trap I see a lot of
cuing families fall into,” Crosby says, “is to say,
‘Johnny understands everything we say, we understand
everything he says, he’s getting As at school–what’s
the problem?’ The problem is, Johnny can’t talk to
someone he meets on the street and Johnny can’t order
a hamburger at McDonald’s.”


Cued speech is used only in a relative handful of
schools. By far the most common method of teaching the
deaf today is called “total communication.” The idea
is that teachers use any and all means of
communication with their students–speech, writing,
ASL, finger-spelling. Total communication was
instituted in the 1970s as a reaction to a century of
oralism, in which signing was forbidden and the aim
was to teach the deaf child to speak and lip-read.

Oralism still has zealous adherents, but today it is
used mainly with hard-of-hearing students and only
rarely with deaf ones. Its dominance began with the
Congress of Milan, an international meeting of
educators in 1880, which affirmed “the incontestable
superiority of speech over sign” and voted to banish
sign language from deaf education. The ban, notorious
to this day among the deaf, was effective. In 1867
every American school for the deaf taught in ASL; by
1907 not a single one did.

When total communication came along, the two rival
camps in deaf education accepted it warily. Those who
favored English reasoned that at least teachers would
be speaking to their students; those who preferred ASL
were pleased that teachers would be signing. Today
hardly anyone is pleased, and one of the few points of
agreement in the present debate is that deaf education
is distressingly bad. The Commission on Education of
the Deaf, for example, which reported to the President
and Congress in 1988, began its account, “The present
status of education for persons who are deaf in the
United States is unsatisfactory. Unacceptably so. This
is [our] primary and inescapable conclusion.”

The explanation for these dreary findings, depending
on who is carrying out the analysis, is either that
deafness is so debilitating that poor results are
inevitable or that something is wrong with current
teaching methods. Total communication, its critics
contend, is unworkable. No teacher can speak in
English and simultaneously sign the same message in
ASL, which has a completely different grammar and word
order. “In practice,” Harlan Lane writes, “‘total
communication’ merely means that the teacher may
accompany his spoken English with some signs from
American Sign Language, if he knows a few. While the
teacher is speaking, he occasionally ‘shouts’ a
sign–that is, signs a prominent noun or verb if he
knows it, in the wrong order and without using the
complex grammar of ASL.”

Lane and his allies support an approach called
bilingual-bicultural, In this new and still rare
program (so new that few measures of its success or
failure are available) students are taught in ASL and
eventually build on that knowledge to learn English as
a second language. Since learning to speak is so
difficult and time-consuming, the emphasis in English
courses is on reading and writing rather than on

Neither this new approach nor any other single method
may prove right for everyone. Take Cheryl Heppner, the
director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center. She
was deafened by meningitis as a second-grader, long
after she had become expert in English. Today Heppner
is a great admirer of ASL, which she learned as an
adult, but she says nonetheless that classes taught in
ASL would not have been best for her. “Why should they
have stripped English away from me?” she asks. “I
already had to learn to cope with deafness.”

The objections of many hearing parents to the
bilingual scheme are far more strenuous. ASL is not
simply a different language, they note, but a language
without a written form. Partly as a consequence, deaf
culture has a marked anti-book bias. (Lane himself
confesses that he is “really frustrated” that so few
deaf people have read his eloquent but lengthy
accounts of deaf culture.) “If you give your child, as
a first language, a language that has no written
form,” Oz Crosby says, “and if that language on
average does not lead to good reading skills, then
you’re giving that child a life in which she reads at
a third-to fifth-grade level. She will be in danger of
being exploited, because low-end jobs are all that
will be available to her.”

Two deep and related fears lie at the heart of the
resentment of the bilingual approach. First, many
hearing parents suspect that bilingualism is a Trojan
horse. Once ASL has been smuggled in, they fear, talk
of English as a second language will dry up. Second,
and more important, they resent the implication that
deaf adults know better than a deaf child’s own
parents what is best for her. This is more than
parental paranoia. Lane has written, for instance,
that “most hearing parents make a botch of having a
Deaf child.”

Deaf leaders do their best to defuse such fears. “We
don’t say that hearing parents aren’t qualified to
make decisions about their deaf children,” says Roslyn
Rosen, of the National Association of the Deaf. “We
say that they need to have contact with deaf people if
they’re going to make educated decisions. The way the
system works now is that the first people the parents
see are doctors and audiologists, who see deafness as
a pathology. What we need are partnerships between
hearing parents and the deaf community, so that
parents can meet deaf people who are doing well.”

Even deaf adults who don’t identify with deaf culture
often feel that they have important but untapped
expertise on growing up deaf. “There is a strong
feeling of community, and deaf people feel ownership
of deaf children,” Cheryl Heppner says. “I admit it. I
feel it too. I really struggle in not wanting to
interfere with a parent’s right to parent and at the
same time dealing with my own feelings and knowing
that they have to accept that the child can never be
one hundred percent theirs.”

Such concessions rouse dark fears in hearing parents.
Time and again their talk turns to laments about
“giving up” or “losing” or “turning over” their child
to the deaf community. Even Oz Crosby, who strives to
be open-minded, observes that “sometimes Deaf Culture
looks like the Moonies to me: ‘Your child will be
happy, just don’t expect to see her anymore, she’s too
busy being happy.'”

These fears crystallize around the issue of
residential schools for the deaf, which have far
different associations for deaf and hearing families.
Hearing parents think of residential schools and
conjure up the bleakest scenes in Dickens or the
angriest images in a Frederick Wiseman documentary,
with their child stuck away in a human warehouse. But
among the deaf, residential schools have tremendous
support. Here deaf children will not “drown in the
mainstream,” as Lane puts it, but will instead
flourish among their peers. The schools provide a
lifesaving chance to escape from isolation into

Patrick Graybill, a prominent figure in the deaf
community and a former member of the National Theatre
of the Deaf, attended a residential school in Kansas
starting at age five. His enthusiastic memories of
those years are typical. “I was really happy at
school,” he says, through an interpreter. “I saw my
first plays there, and I knew that’s what I wanted to
do when I grew up. There were deaf adults I looked up
to, and a good support system.”

The classes were. by no means uniformly excellent.
“The emphasis was on English, and we were hit if we
were caught talking with our hands. The speech teacher
couldn’t sign, and I used to hate having to touch her
throat and neck, to learn the sounds to make, and
smelling her breath.” But pedagogy wasn’t the point.
“ASL was allowed in the dormitories,” Graybill says,
“and that’s where we learned Deaf culture. Now I see
kids in public schools, and some accept themselves as
Deaf people, but others have a problem with it. We
knew who we were, but I’m afraid they’ll be lost
between two worlds, because they can’t speak well
enough to be understood by hearing people and they’re
ashamed to use ASL.”

Residential schools play such an important role in
deaf culture that when two deaf adults meet, they tell
each other not only their names but also the names of
the schools they attended. “These schools were the
place where their culture was transmitted to them,”
Lane says. “If they had hearing parents, they weren’t
going to find out how to be deaf in their homes or in
the local schools. This was where it happened, and
frequently it’s where they found their spouses, too.
The schools are what Israel is to the Jews, the land
of a minority without a land.”

The world of the deaf is heterogeneous. AND the fault
lines that run through it are twisted and tricky. Now
politics has worsened the strains. Frances Parsons,
for example, is a much honored Gallaudet professor
who, though deaf herself, has denounced “the
extremists fanatically hawking ASL and Deafism.” Such
views have brought her hate mail and denunciatory
posters and, once, a punch in the neck. Parsons sees
her attackers as cultists and propagandists; they call
her and her allies traitors and Uncle Toms.

Much of the dispute has to do with who is
authentically deaf. Parsons is suspect because she
speaks and has hearing parents. To be the deaf child
of deaf parents has cachet, because this is as deaf as
one can be. (The four student leaders of the 1988
Gallaudet protest were all “deaf of deaf.”) To use ASL
is “better” than to use a manual language that mimics
English grammar and arranges ASL signs in English word
order. “Those born deaf deride those who become deaf
at six years or twelve years or later,” the Gallaudet
psychologist Larry Stewart observed last year in a
bitter essay titled “Debunking the
Bilingual-Bicultural Snow Job in the American Deaf
Community.” “ASL-users who do not use lip movements
scorn those who sign with mouthed English, or, the
other way around. Residential school graduates turn up
their nose at mainstream graduates, or the reverse.
And so it goes; a once cohesive community now
splintered apart by ideology.”

Still, there is some common ground and even room for
optimism. Captioning on television is universally
welcomed; so are TTYs, keyboard devices that allow the
deaf to use the telephone, provided the person called
also has a TTY. In most states phone companies provide
a free “relay” service, in which an operator with a
TTY serves as a link between a deaf person with a TTY
and a hearing person without one.

“Things are getting better,” Roslyn Rosen says. “When
I check into a hotel, because of the Americans With
Disabilities Act, I expect the TV in the room will
have captions, there’ll be a TTY, the phone and the
fire alarm will have flashing lights, and all that.
And soon there will be TV-phones, which will be a
wonderful boon for people who use sign language.”

What’s the difference between these technologies,
which Rosen welcomes, and such a device as the
cochlear implant, which she denounces? “An implant,”
she says, “alters me. The critical point is, it
changes me instead of changing the environment.
Therefore the problem is seen as belonging to the deaf
person, and that’s a problem.”

To an outsider, this sounds a bit forced. Do
eyeglasses, say, belong to one moral category and eye
surgery to another? A more useful distinction may be
between approaches that allow deaf people to
participate in the world and those that leave them
stranded on the sidelines. “Part of the odyssey I’ve
made,” Cheryl Heppner says, “is in realizing that
deafness is a disability, but it’s a disability that
is unique.” It is unique in that a deaf person,
unaided and independent, can travel wherever he wants,
whenever he wants. The question is whether he will be
able to communicate with anyone when he gets there.



3 thoughts on “Deafness as Culture

  1. I didnt expect any changes, well my prediction was off the chart. However, I dont believe there will be any unsunstainable changing in our society-


  2. A scientist predicts that the deaf culture will become unsunstainable within ten years. I will post a copy of his response to Mr. Dolnick, author of the article (vid. supra).
    I would like to post a reader’s response to Mr. Dolnick’s article (vid. supra). « Edward Dolnick’s sense of historical timing is as acute as his sense of balance. The cochlear prosthesis, on which I have worked for years with many other scientists, engineers, and clinicians, will lead inevitably to the extinction of the alternative culture of the Deaf, probably within a decade. There will still be deaf people, some by choice and some because the technology cannot address (yet) some forms of deafness, but they will be so thinly scattered that the Deaf culture will be UNSUSTAINABLE (emphasis entirely mine). Gerald E. Loeb, M.D., Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada. »


    Jean Boutcher


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