The deaf and the Deaf

by Mark Newbrook

Some minority groups generally regarded as ‘disabled’ have of late begun asserting their right not to be ‘cured’ but rather to be accepted as they are. One such group is the deaf; the term is now often capitalized as Deaf. Many deaf people have long embraced without compunction the internal use and fostering of their various signed languages, which differ from group to group as much as other languages do and are not based on the spoken languages of the countries in which they live; they have rejected the policy of ‘oralism’, under which they were pressurised into shifting as far as possible to the wholesale adoption of speech. (In extreme cases, deaf people were discouraged from forming couples, in the hope of eventually ‘breeding out’ the condition.) The aim of many deaf people is now to use spoken language only with the non-deaf who cannot sign.

Now some Deaf community leaders have begun to urge that their group should be regarded as ‘differently abled’, do not need to be given full hearing even if this becomes easy and inexpensive, and must be treated analogously with minority spoken-language communities. In academic circles, this is already common: interpretation into the British and American Sign Languages, in particular, is often provided at conferences. (This is especially the case within linguistics, where signed languages have become a major focus of scholarly attention.)

One of the Deaf leaders is Paddy Ladd, who was a fellow linguistics student of mine at Reading some 30 years ago. In 2008 Ladd expounded his views in the book Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, based on his PhD thesis and reviewed by Dale Mellor at ; see also Margaret Macmillan’s 2010 book The Uses And Abuses Of History (pp 60-61).

While Ladd is very informative and has much to say that makes excellent sense, he does seem at times to adopt an exaggerated stance on this issue. Mellor is himself effectively deaf and found himself adversely affected during his early life by the older ‘oralistic’ attitudes; but, as he says, Ladd treats the Deaf community rather as a ‘law unto itself’, going so far as to argue that parents are wrong to have their deaf children fitted with cochlear implants (rather than hearing aids) so as to facilitate their life in the wider community. There is a (presumably unintended) echo of the ‘glad to be disabled’ syndrome here. Deaf people do need to live in a largely non-deaf world; and it is unlikely that very many hearing people will learn signed languages to fluency for the purpose of interacting with others who mostly know the relevant spoken language well and can nowadays be given adequate hearing (without abandoning the asset of an additional, signed community language). And isolation from the hearing world – even if with international links to other Deaf cultures – is neither feasible nor, surely, desirable (although this notion has been explored, notably in some science-fiction). Mellor draws attention to the curious fact that nobody has ever tried seriously to invent written forms of signed languages. This would benefit those who prefer to function in signed languages where possible and seems an obvious line of future work. Ladd has also argued that autistic people, similarly, should not be seen as disabled; the validity of this view seems to depend on the degree to which their autism affects their ability to interact with the community at large.

22/12/10 Regarding the point about signed languages seldom being written I may have overstated this, see http://www.signwriting.org/index.html. These systems seem not to be as prominent as they arguably ought to be. MN