The Debate on Deafness as a "Disability"
The short and simple answer - "only on paper"
You might have learned or read that deafness isn’t a disability and you may think that doesn’t make any sense, if one can’t hear they are missing that sense - therefore they’re disabled.
While the majority (aka the Hearing world) feels that “being deaf” is a disability, many in the Deaf (capital D) community consider it being part of a visual community and a Deaf Culture.
So, to understand this better, I’ll briefly explain the difference between deaf and Deaf – little d vs. capital D.
The deaf – Little d
People who are deaf usually don't associate with other members of the deaf community, can speak, and usually can’t sign. They strive to fit in more into the hearing world, and identify their hearing loss in medical terms only.
The Deaf - Capital D
People who are Deaf identify themselves as culturally deaf and have a strong Deaf identity. They usually come from a School for the Deaf, are fluent signers, and are heavily involved with other Deaf people, clubs, and events. These Deaf believe they are not "broken" or need to be fixed by the medical community.
The Three Different Perspectives
Let’s look at the different perspectives from the hearing and Deaf “Worlds”.
From the Hearing Perspective
The hearing world views of what deafness is largely formed through imagination, rather than direct experience.
The hearing perspective is one of an aural & spoken viewpoint. Their thinking is through the lens that everything must be heard and spoken.
Ever notice while working or around the house, many people need to have the radio or television on in the background? Why television and videos have music playing when nothing is happening? They get uncomfortable or just don't like "dead silence".
The majority of hearing people don't base their perception of deafness on what Deaf people tell them it's like, but on the idea of how they would react if they lost their hearing and suddenly couldn't communicate with the world or listen to the music and other sounds they've come to hold dear.
So, yes deafness would be debilitating – therefore it’s a disability.
From the Deaf Perspective
The Deaf world views Deafness as being part of a large, unique visual culture with their own language, values, behavioral norms, arts, political and social structures and organizations.
A Deaf person’s status within the culture depends not on their amount of hearing loss but upon their attitude on, and participation in, Deaf culture, involvement in the local Deaf community, and skill in sign language.
The Deaf perspective is from a visual view - everything is seen in movements - signing, gestures, lighting, and so on. They have a lot of different adaptive ways of communicating with the "outside" world.
They do not depend on ears or speech - therefore it is not a disability.
From the deaf Perspective
The deaf and hard of hearing views are right in between with some leaning more towards the hearing perspective and some lean towards the Deaf perspective.
Which "side" they lean towards usually depends on their acceptance and adaptation to their hearing loss.
While many have the mindset that everything must be heard and spoken, they may struggle in this area - depending on their degree of loss and how much comprehension they have.
While many would consider themselves deaf or hard of hearing, they much rather be with those who can hear than have Deaf friends.
They do have issues hearing and adapting to the hearing world - therefore it is a disability.
A Real-Life Example
Let's look at a real-life situation that's been happening this year - Covid-19 and wearing masks.
I belong to several social media groups for Deaf and Hard of Hearing and since March since the pandemic started there have been frequent posts by deaf and hard of hearing people struggling (even freaking out) about having to understand people wearing masks.
It means lipreading is no longer possible. It means listening with residual hearing is reduced due to muffled sounds from the mask. It means less access for them.
Many Deaf folks, including myself, have offered many different ways of getting around this issue, such as:
- Using Pen and Paper
- Typing on your phone
- Using a Speech to Text App
- Using a Boogie Board
But, no, we're told we don't know what we're talking about.
Some deaf and hard of hearing have resorted to requesting the other person pull down their mask, risking their health just so they can understand what is being said.
My personal conclusion for whether deafness is a disability or not amounts to how much can one adapt to their situation.
In the above situation - Deafness is not a disability. Deaf people have long adapted to their surroundings and picked up several communication methods to get around in their daily lives.
It seems that there are many deaf, hard of hearing that have not, or are very reluctant to, adapting well to new situations, especially when it comes to accessibility needs.
In the end, who is more "disabled" when it comes to adapting and changing with the times? Who is more capable of communicating "without" speaking or hearing?
For Deaf people, deafness is only a disability "on paper" when they need to prove it to doctors, agencies, and government offices. They do not need to prove it to the rest of the world.
As I often say, "For those who can hear, you sure don't listen very well".