Deafness: Is It Really A Disability?

In college, I was taught about two approaches to deafness: the medical approach, and the cultural approach. Essentially, the medical approach regards deafness as something to be fixed or cured; the cultural approach regards deafness as something to be embraced and celebrated. Now, I won’t lie: after years of fighting to be “normal,” the Deaf community was a welcome respite that helped me solidify my identity outside of my hearing loss. But that niggling feeling remained: it wasn’t the whole story, especially when it came to job-hunting.

Deafness is pretty unique in that it’s one of the few disabilities that affords near-complete independence. We can drive, we can move around, we can hold down jobs in any physical and intellectual capacity. The only thing we– most of us– struggle to do is communicate in a hearing world.

Unfortunately, that last one is a pretty big deal, especially in networking and securing employment; or in seeking information and education. It’s much like being a perpetual foreigner– without communication, you miss out on language, social cues, and local culture. And not everyone is willing to accommodate, or they don’t know how.

In part, that’s what gave rise to Deaf culture. At various points throughout recent history, a bunch of deaf people got together, worked out their own communication and social norms, and out of it came a distinct language and culture. Over time, a social network for education and employment also developed– it wasn’t and still isn’t uncommon for Deaf people to find jobs in residential schools, ASL courses, and municipal social work.

Outside of those niches, however, our options become… more complicated. A whole lot of  service and sales professions– for example, reception, hospitality, and nursing– rely heavily on verbal communication. At least, as most people understand it. Mind you, several deaf people have found workarounds for succeeding in these types of jobs (many of whom are cuers!)*; often, their biggest challenge lay in convincing their employers that they could do it, albeit in a different way. Quite a few have just gone ahead and started successful businesses, notably in Austin, Texas.

These people, however, are a bit of a rarity.

A paradox: if deafness isn’t a disability in most senses of the word, then why do so many of us end up on SSDI? Or worse, straddling the poverty line?

Any objective measure comes up with two answers:

  1. Deaf people struggle to access secondary information in an auditory environment. We don’t usually overhear things like hearing people do; direct communication is how we learn and retain information. This has major implications for education.
  2. It’s harder to convince employers to hire and retain deaf employees at a living wage. We take longer to find jobs, and we get promoted at slower rates.

The best reconciliation I’ve heard for that paradox so far came from this Australian deaf blogger,** who defined deafness as a social disability. Once I thought of it that way, all those niggling pieces in my mind finally fell into place. See, one of my biggest hurdles in the Great 2014-2015 Job Search was networking at social events and job fairs. Imagine a patchwork conversation like this:

Me: So what kind of job do you do?
Them: Oh, I work at …. [unintelligible]
Me: Say again?
Them: [unintelligible] administrations at [unintelligible] in Dallas.
Me: Oooh. Administration? That sounds interesting.
Them: Yeah, we do a lot of paperwork and [unintelligible].

Not really a whole lot to work with, so the conversation peters out. And that happens everywhere: church, work, parties, social events. Building relationships is the whole point of networking, and how do you fluidly do that with persistent communication breakdowns?

The social model also explains why deaf people so often flourish in a variety of roles within deaf/disability/diversity-related occupations. Those occupations are designed to facilitate deaf-friendly communication, which in turn enables deaf people to build personal connections with coworkers, supervisors, and educators.

We’re not disabled, for the most part, unless our environment makes it that way.


*This does not include the relatively few professions where safety unequivocally relies on verbal communication, like armed services, police field work, and firefighting. I do know deaf people who work in these professions, but they tend to be in volunteer or support roles, not in active duty.

**Sadly, I lost the link to the Australian deaf blogger, because I suck. If anybody knows who I’m talking about, please feel free to drop me a line so I can credit him. It’s really an excellent article.

Choosing Your Cultural & Linguistic Identity

Cherokee blood runs strong in my dad’s side of the family. Both my grandparents spoke Cherokee, and my grandfather won awards for his work teaching the Cherokee language. My siblings and I are registered members of the Cherokee Nation, with tribal cards to prove our ancestry. Yes, we have literal, honest-to-God race cards, and I’m playing mine here.

The thing is, I don’t speak nor read a lick of Cherokee, although I’d love to change that this year. I was just not exposed to it growing up. Hence, it’s not my natural nor native language. My physical makeup—other than the neurons in my brain that drive language development—had nothing to do with that. My dad tried to expose us to Cherokee history and culture as much as he could during our annual visits to Oklahoma, and we picked up on some Cherokee mannerisms from his side of the family, but for the most part, I was raised in working/middle-class settings, with predominantly German/Irish/Polish Americans. I live in the South now, and people here can often tell that I’m from the North; that’s closer to my cultural norm. So I think I can safely say that Cherokee is not my “natural” culture. I could learn a lot more about Cherokee, and grow to identify with the culture, but it would still be a learning curve, about as much as if I moved to China and tried to immerse with the natives there.

In that same strain, I am biologically deaf. But I don’t consider myself predisposed to ASL or Deaf Culture, especially Deaf Culture from those more than 2-3 generations before me. My native language is English, and I’m much more familiar with hearing culture than I am with Deaf culture. And I’m not the only one. Due to cochlear implantation and mainstreaming, the d/hh community (including the Deaf subset) has seen much more diversity in the past 20 or so years.

Another thing to consider is that, had the Cherokee Nation required that every one of its members speak Cherokee and live in Cherokee communities, regardless of any other considerations like the living standards of these communities, our access to resources, our interactions with non-Cherokee, our personal preferences, etc… I am quite certain they would have met with strong resistance, especially from my dad’s family. Not because their members don’t value Cherokee language and culture, but because people generally don’t like being told what to do.

I’m grateful that I learned ASL and studied Deaf history and culture. It helped me solidify an integral part of my identity in my early 20s, a time when I think pretty much everyone struggles with that kind of thing. I’m also grateful that Dad took us to Cherokee museums and re-enactments, and had us read books on our ancestors, and told us stories about his childhood in rural Oklahoma. But the thing is, it was all a gift. It wasn’t forced on me, and I didn’t have to trade off one culture for another.

Times are changing, as they always have and always will. I think most of us would like the freedom to determine our own cultural identities, not according to someone else’s cultural ideal.

Addendum to Changing Perspectives: A New World

Another cuer contacted me to share that her experiences with the Deaf community did not quite match up with what I’d shared in my last post, Changing Perspectives: A New World. I had written that “[the d/Deaf community at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee] wasn’t this cloistered community that I’d expected. People had no problem with the fact that I used a cochlear implant or Cued Speech (most were quite curious about Cued Speech, actually) and could just get by with a smattering of Signed English at first.”

Now, I should clarify that these experiences took place mostly within UWM. Outside of UWM, I got more varied responses, although still overwhelmingly accepting. I think it depended on several factors, which I’ll outline soon.

Truth be told, I will probably not post much about the positive interactions here, because although “everybody got along, got what they needed, and is happy” is generally the desired outcome, it isn’t really much of a post. The few negative parts are where we still need improvement, likely through education and awareness. All that said, I will always, always shoot for balanced, constructive discussion. We really don’t have anything to gain by making enemies out of each other.

For me, I think several factors helped at UWM:

1) Diversity. UWM has/had a quite diverse community of d/hh students. Many came from a mainstreamed background, but we had several students and teachers who attended or graduated from residential schools for the deaf. We also represented a wide range of communication styles, from pure ASL to Signed Exact English to Cued Speech, and many of us used hearing aids and cochlear implants too.

I think a big part of this is our (in my opinion) excellent accessibility services program; they were truly committed to meeting each student’s individual needs and preferences. ASL, Signed English, Cued Speech, captioning– whatever you requested, they made sure their staff were equipped to meet that demand.

The size may also have played a part in it; compared to schools like RIT, Gallaudet, and CSUN, we had a fairly small d/hh community, so it may have been a bit harder to form cliques.

2) Age. I do notice a generational gap, starting around 1990, between what I think of as the “old school deaf”– raised in residential schools, used ASL as their primary language, had bad experiences with the auditory-verbal approach– and younger deaf people, more of whom tend to be mainstreamed and/or implanted, and with much better educational approaches too. The latter tended to be much more open-minded and accepting.

3) Mutual Respect. Pretty much right away, I took up ASL– I got many compliments about how fast I’d improved– and started learning about Deaf Culture. I always tried to show respect and appreciation for others’ perspectives, even when we disagreed. I think that made it much easier for others to show me the same respect and appreciation in return.