Understanding Deafness: Not Everyone Wants to Be 'Fixed'

Hearing people often assume that Deaf people would naturally want to take advantage of any method that could lead them to the hearing world — especially cochlear implants, the most advanced hearing technology we have. In reality, that assumption is far from true.
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When the police showed up, there were maybe 50 protesters, most of them Deaf, outside the Omni Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Officers stepped out of their squad cars — four in total — and spoke to the protesters through an American Sign Language interpreter. They soon left amicably, though, apparently having not found much that needed policing.

The protesters were rallying against the Listening and Spoken Language Symposium, an annual event put on by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AGB). The symposium featured speakers, workshops, and product displays centered around the topic of, as you may have guessed, listening and spoken language. Many of the sponsors and exhibitors were affiliated with companies that sell cochlear implants, surgically implanted devices that allow a Deaf or hard-of-hearing person to hear (to varying degrees).

The protesters were angry, but acting peacefully. The majority of them were Deaf. (Yes, with a capital D. In the book America: Voices from a Culture, Carol Padden and Tom Humphries explain, “We use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language – American Sign Language (ASL) – and a culture.”)

The AGB has a complicated history with members of Deaf culture. AGB’s stated mission is to “[help] families, health care providers and education professionals understand childhood hearing loss and the importance of early diagnosis and intervention.” Their preferred methods for doing so emphasize spoken language, and de-emphasize the use of ASL. In practice, this translates to teaching communication methods like lip reading, learning to speak (by imitating breathing patterns and mouth shapes) and, relatively recently, using cochlear implant technology.

AGB’s reasons for their oral focus depends who you ask. When reached for comment, Susan Boswell, director of communications and marketing for AGB, told me that AGB “supports the development of spoken language through evidence-based practices focusing on the use of audition and appropriate technologies.” When I asked Ruthie Jordan, a Deaf activist who runs Audism Free America and helped organize the rally against AGB, she told me the reason is much more bottom-line. (I spoke with Ruthie and other Deaf people at the rally through my interpreter, Drew Tolson, who was extremely helpful.)

Ruthie’s take is that AGB “[Makes] money...by miseducating the parents of Deaf children.” Like many others at the rally, Ruthie feels that AGB takes advantage of the fact that hearing parents may not understand how a Deaf child can lead a functional, fulfilling life. A hearing parent in this situation may be easily convinced that a cochlear implant and an oral-based approach is the only legitimate option.

AGB’s “listening and spoken language” — based approach comes out of the school of oralism, which aims to educate Deaf children through the use of oral speech and lip reading (as opposed to manualism, which advocates for the primary use of ASL in Deaf education). The goals of oralism may not sound controversial to most hearing people, but oralism has a long and problematic history.

In the 1860s, Alexander Graham Bell was a prominent oralist, and to some, an important figure in the spreading of audism — the belief that it is inherently better to be able to speak and hear. Although he surely thought otherwise, Bell had an ugly relationship with the Deaf community. Though his mother and wife were Deaf, he was intent on wiping out “hereditary deafness.” He removed Deaf faculty from schools, demanded the same schools stop their use of ASL, and advocated against “deaf intermarriage.”

Bell was also involved in the Eugenics movement, serving for a time as chairman of the board of scientific advisers to the Eugenics Record Office.

In 1880, prompted by talks between Bell and other prominent figures in deaf education, 164 delegates met for the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf. Only one of the delegates was deaf. At the conference, a resolution was passed that banned sign language in schools, in an effort to encourage spoken language skills, and thus “[restore] the deaf-mute to society.” Other passages in the resolution urge us to “[consider] the incontestable superiority of speech over signs,” and argue that teaching deaf people to speak English will “[give them] a more perfect knowledge of language.” After its passage, schools in Europe and the United States ceased all use of sign language.

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Allegra Ringo is a writer and comedian based in Los Angeles. Her work also appears on Vice and The Hairpin, and she is a regular contributor to The Higgs-Weldon.

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