Discourses on Deafness: Social Policy and the Communicative Habilitation of the Deaf

Article excerpt

The authors would like to thank Judith Blackwell, Ken Campbell, June Corman, Susan McDaniel, Bohdan Szuchewycz, and two anonymous reviewers for this journal for their contributions to the improvement of this paper. Our thanks as well to Mara Sfreddo for the French translation of the abstract.

Abstract: Three principal approaches and discursive frameworks concerned with the communicative habilitation and education of the deaf are surveyed. The currently dominant approach, "total communication," is found susceptible to the criticisms of proponents of "oral-only" methods and of "Deaf Culture" proponents of a "bilingual" deaf education based upon American Sign Language. The new oralism and the Deaf Culture, however, remain sharply polarized over the question of whether deaf children ought to be taught to speak now that many of them can be. The Deaf Culturalist demand to entrust the education of all prelingually deaf children to the Deaf community is shown to rely on a postmodernist politics of "identity," the thrust of which is toward the self-ghettoization of the deaf.

Resume: Les auteurs examinent les trois methodes principales utilisees pour permettre aux sourds de communiquer et de s'instruire, et ils en analysent les schemas discursifs. Ils constatent que la methode predominant actuellement, celle de la <>, est critiquee tant par les tenants de <> pur que par ceux de la <> qui preconisnet une education <> fondee sur l'American Sign Language. Toutefois, le nouvel oralisme et la culture sourde restent diametralement opposes sur la question de savoir s'il faut enseigner aux enfants sourds a parler des lors qu'on peut le faire. Les auteurs de l'article demontrent que les tenants de la culture sourde s'appuient sur un concept portmoderniste de l' <> qui vise l'auto-segregation des sourds, pour exiger que tous les enfants sourds prelinguistiques soient confies a la communaute des sourds.


Prelingual deafness -- that is, severe to profound hearing impairment that prevents infants and young children from acquiring normally the capacity for intelligible speech -- affects hundreds of thousands of North Americans (Hotchkiss, 1989). For the tens of thousands of children who were born severely or profoundly deaf over the past decade, or who became so before developing any spoken language, the odds are considerably higher than average that they will obtain sub-standard educations, suffer illiteracy, struggle with emotional and mental disorders, and experience difficulty in finding and maintaining satisfactory employment (MacDougall, 1991; Lane, 1992; Canadian Association of the Deaf, 1994). Further, the great majority of hearing-impaired students under the age of 21 remain enrolled in "special education" programs that are both costly to operate and marginalizing in their effects on deaf children. Yet, owing to real progress that has been registered in two quite distinct domains bearing on their life-chances, the last decade has been an encouraging one for deaf people -- and in particular for those classified as prelingually deaf. On the one hand, huge strides have been made in sound amplification technology (hearing aids and cochlear implants) and in oralist forms of deaf therapy and education reliant on such technology, opening up the opportunity for many severely and profoundly deaf children to acquire hearing and speech production skills and to receive a "mainstream" education. On the other hand, a heightened awareness has emerged among deafness professionals and the general public concerning the civil rights that deaf people ought to enjoy as a distinct "cultural minority." Unfortunately, for many members of the deaf community, as well as for many professionals concerned with hearing impairment, these two developments often seem to be at cross purposes; and this perception has given an unexpected and very real urgency to the debate over how deafness should be "seen" and how deaf children can be best prepared to lead full and rewarding lives. …


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