Whether or not people should call deafness a disability is hotly debated. If you can hear, you probably see deafness as a disability. As a result, you’ll want the deaf to learn to speak and read lips so they can communicate. Other people, though, in particular, those who are deaf, argue that deafness is not a disability because the deaf community has its own language. So who is right?
Being a sign language using deaf person is not necessarily a disability, but membership of a linguistic and cultural minority. Indeed, it can be argued that calling deafness a disability is the same as calling a French-speaking person visiting a Spanish-speaking country disabled. They are not; they are merely using a different language.
People, who can hear, see deafness as a disability because they believe it isolates its ‘sufferers’ from mainstream society. Nevertheless, that is not how deaf people view the situation. Yes, they understand that to a degree they are outsiders in a world that is primarily a hearing one. But within their deaf communities, they lead contented and fulfilling lives that are full of meaningful relationships with those who share the same worldview. If the deaf don’t see deafness as a disability, why should the hearing community treat it like one?
Researchers make a distinction between ‘deaf’ with a lowercase’d’, which refers to the condition of not being able to hear, and ‘Deaf’ with a capital ‘D’, which refers to a community of sign language users. Or to put it another way, the Deaf community is not only populated by deaf people but also friends and family who can hear and can use sign language.
Deaf communities have a vibrant culture that embraces a tradition of storytelling. Within these stories, two common themes are often apparent. The first is a denunciation of the idea that deafness is a disability. The second exalts the benefit of being deaf, more often than not in the appearance of a deaf person gaining an advantage over a hearing person. Frequently these stories are amusing and help to generate a robust sense of solidarity through mutual experiences.
Then again, to deny that deafness is a disability would be to legitimise decisions of deaf parents to have deaf children by design, or refuse a deaf child hearing aids or a cochlear implant when they could otherwise benefit from them.
But as Roger J Carver of the Deaf Children’s Society of British Columbia points out: “Parents may feel that their deaf child is missing a lot in life, like being unable to hear dragonflies buzzing, the wind whistling through the trees or the roaring of a waterfall. Such regrets are unnecessary: the deaf child perceives things in a different fashion: the zig-zagging dragonfly’s iridescent wings vibrating in the sunlight, the breeze . . . the leaves trembling high above . . . the cool, white spray rising from the waterfall.”