Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Deafness Isn't a Deficit

The good folks at Teaching Tolerance just published a blog post I wrote for them.  You can read it here or here...

Every prospective parent hopes for a healthy baby.

But when it comes to hearing and Deaf cultures, “healthy” is defined differently. Four out of 5 deaf children are born to hearing parents. When told this prognosis, hearing parents often experience what psychiatrist and grief expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross characterized as the Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance).

But for culturally Deaf parents (it is common practice to capitalize Deaf when writing about Deaf culture and its members) the news is often met with joy.

This dichotomy came to my attention recently when Lauren, my friend and co-teacher for the past nine years, gave birth to her first child. Lauren and her husband are both deaf. A short time ago they learned that their son is also deaf.

When I share this news with my friends who are hearing and have no connection to Deaf culture or the community, their reaction is typically one of sympathy. Their sad eyes and slumped shoulders are indicative of the mainstream opinion that deafness is strictly a medical issue.

The hearing majority in the United States has deemed deafness an infirmity, something that must be fixed. This view is so ingrained in our society that most of us could not imagine another perspective.

We often forget about the Deaf perspective that incorporates a rich cultural history including stories, art, theater, myths, poetry and jokes in a community bound together through American Sign Language (ASL). It is passed down through generations and treasured by its members.

The birth of a deaf child to deaf parents and a family that is culturally Deaf is indeed a welcome occurrence. It means shared experiences and a common language – a language that allows a baby to communicate with his or her hands long before speech production is possible. At just 5 months, Lauren’s son is babbling in ASL. This means he is already forming letters of the manual alphabet with his tiny fingers. It will not be long before he is able to sign words.

The promise of communication with an infant via sign language has not been lost on many hearing parents. Programs are available to teach hearing babies sign language. Their parents are thrilled when signs such as “more” or “milk” are expressed.

In some schools, sign language is also used to reinforce language development for hearing children with speech delays. Many early elementary educators teach children the manual alphabet and some basic signs.

Why is it then, that we celebrate one aspect of Deaf culture—ASL—whilst shaking our heads in despair because a child is born with a hearing loss? Surely there is room to celebrate this type of diversity.

I shared this perspective with a friend who is hearing. He replied, suggesting that it would not be the case, “but wouldn’t you want the best for your child?” I responded to him saying, “Of course, every parent wants what is best for his or her child. I guess it all depends on your perspective.”


Ms.M said...

Reading your post I had a thought. How lucky Lauren's boy is. He is actively being taught language and communications skills at such a young age. Where as hearing students are now a days often left to fend for themselves.

I think there are 2 sides to every coin and while yes the Deaf will face certain challenges in their lives, everyone does.

Ms. M

Hilary said...

I would imagine (though I might well be wrong) that it's more a matter of not mourning the fact that a child is deaf rather than celebrating it.

I would want my child to have every opportunity to experience life through all of his or her senses regardless of which ones I may possess or lack. The bond between loving parent and child is intense no matter the differences or sameness. I can't imagine wishing my child a world without music as it is created or any of countless other sounds. But I sure could imagine accepting and appreciating all that he or she could accomplish regardless of its absence.

A thought provoking post, Gary.

Irene, NYC said...

There's a wonderful quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, "A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions." Reading your blog is having that effect on me. So thanks.

Gary said...

Ms. M. - First off, I want to thank you for reading and commenting. About Lauren's son...I don't think he is being "taught" language any differently than a hearing child would be taught language. The modality is different but the development is the same. He learns from watching and interacting with parents who support this growth. Parents with children who can hear do this kind of thing when they clap at the child's approximation of words--"He said mommy!"--when the child makes his/her first attempts at language use.

There are certainly two sides to every coin and it really is my goal to discuss both even if I lean towards a cultural model.

Hilary - The objective of this post was to broaden perspectives. I wanted to provide food for thought so I am pleased that it got you thinking.

My original vision for this post was to write it collaboratively with Lauren. I thought (and think) it is more powerful to read her first-hand experiences and thoughts. As someone who is hearing I want to be sensitive to the fact that I cannot relate personal experience about this topic. Unfortunately the demands of motherhood made sitting down to write a challenge for her (although she wanted to coauthor with me).

However, my understanding is that it is more than an acceptance. They were happy to have a child who is deaf. I remain hopeful that Lauren will weigh in on this a bit. Perhaps I can ask her to put in a brief comment here.

Thanks for your input. It is much appreciated.

Irene - I read your comment on my Blackberry yesterday whilst on the train and it made my day. Thank you for that and for sharing this quote.

Michele Westfall said...

"...“but wouldn’t you want the best for your child?”

This question is audistic because it implies that being hearing is still the best, and that any other option is never "the best."

Next time you hear that statement, tell him/her that Deaf children by themselves are *the best* and do not need to be fixed, the same way hearing children are "the best."

Parpar said...

Keep in mind, Hilary, that Deaf people have a wide spectrum of responses to music. Some Deaf people are innately musical; most of us can enjoy percussion and booming bass. What we essentially agree on is that we are whole persons as we are; we're not defective specimens that require "fixing" to lead rewarding, fulfilling, creative, joyful lives.

Gary said...

Michele - I agree. As the saying goes, "you are preaching to the choir". The good thing about these discussions is that it gives folks who never really questioned their views a chance to take on another perspective. And from that a new understanding develops. Thank you so much for joining the conversation.

Parpar - Thanks for weighing in on this topic with such respect and insight. I hope this conversation continues. I hope you visit again.

srstange said...

As an interpreter for the Deaf i am often asked to bridge the cultural gap, not just the linguistic gap. Frequently I interpret for pregnant Deaf women, and I have had the experience several times where a well meaning clinician will share the results of the newborn hearing screening exam, required at birth just like other screenings and vaccines. When she tells the family that the child "failed" the screening (meaning that the child is potentially Deaf or Hard of Hearing), and will need to be referred for further testing, the Deaf parents eyes light up with hope. This confuses the Clinician who is already prepared for the opposite reaction. Deaf parents often hope that their baby will also be Deaf. I find this so sweet. Deaf people know how hard it is to live in the world, face oppression in many dimensions of their lives but they also know what a cool place the world is for "people of the eye" and they want to share their language, identity and love with their children, just like anybody else


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