Cultural Values and Hearing Technology

By Wyant, Jay | Volta Voices, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

Cultural Values and Hearing Technology


Wyant, Jay, Volta Voices


TECHTALK

The impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on society and people with disabilities is far reaching. The ADA has reshaped public perception of individuals with disabilities and the roles they can assume in the workplace and their personal lives. The ADA also has influenced how people with disabilities perceive themselves and is a powerful statement that their contribution to society is valued. That statement is made every day, every time someone uses relay services or wheels through a wide doorway in a wheelchair.

Outside the United States, similar legislation is extremely limited. Does that mean other countries do not value people with disabilities? Not at all. In some cases, it means that accessibility is defined and provided in a different way.

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Hilde Haualand, who currently serves as the Powrie V. Doctor chair at Gallaudet University. Her research centers on how technology shapes peoples' perceptions and how perceptions shape the use of technology. Our discussion reminded me of a fascinating book, The Axemaker's Gift, by Robert Ornstein, Ted Dewan and James Burke. The book argues that the way our minds work is shaped, at least in part, through an evolutionary process by which technologists - the "axemakers" in Neanderthal times gained prominence in society and, by virtue of their innovation, shaped their society's value systems and leader's choices. Our perceptions and values have been shaped over millennia by the choices that members of society and our leaders make.

During our conversation, we discussed how different countries address accessibility as well as the responsibilities different institutions have to people with disabilities, which, in turn, shape how they view themselves and their role in society.

For example, in the United States, the ADA makes accommodations the responsibility of the employer. If a place or event is not job related and does not use federal funds, it may be more difficult for a person to obtain accommodations. An illustration might be a monthly non-profit board meeting or a weekly small-business staff meeting in which the organization may not have the funds to bring in an interpreter, CART or related services.

In Norway, the government contracts directly with the disabled person for services. When a deaf employee needs services for a meeting, that person schedules it with the appropriate government agency. The employer does not have to address the cost issue. Even if the situation is personal, such as a cocktail party, the government will provide services when available.

Depending on your perception, this could be a good or bad thing: does the free interpreter reduce the incentive to develop a more independent lifestyle or does the interpreter enable the individual to focus on being a productive citizen, free from the struggles of having to communicate ineffectively with hearing people?

The role of cultural values is powerfully illustrated in a recent Volta Voices article by Felicia Foinmbam (July/ August, pp. 22-24). Foinmbam, the mother of three children with hearing loss, moved from Cameroon to Kenya to obtain education, therapy and hearing technology for her children. Foinmbam's story highlights some of the negative stereotypes associated with hearing loss and how persistent societal barriers in various countries can hinder understanding and options for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. In the United States, we would consider that abhorrent, but a deaf Norwegian might argue that the United States isn't much more advanced because most people have to pay full price for their hearing aids, whereas in Norway they are either free or relatively inexpensive. …

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