Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Oral Methods: Pathologizing the Deaf "Speaker"

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Oral Methods: Pathologizing the Deaf "Speaker"

Article excerpt

Western discourse incorporates the deaf body metaphorically (usually to designate a moral or physical lack), while excluding actual deaf people from fully participating in the very discourse that identifies and situates them. Historically, medical knowledge about deafness has been based largely on the assumption that deafness is not only an affliction or abnormality but also one that, with the proper care, can be treated. Emphasis in the medical world has been placed on the parents of deaf children, as these hearing adults have the most complete control over the remedy and learning environment.

For many Deaf' adults, signing is both a mode of communication and a signal of cultural identity. For many hearing members of the medical and teaching professions, signing is both a reduced form of communication and a signal of illness or disability. In this essay, I invoke linguist Walter Ong's distinction between oral and written languages in order to investigate the slippage between the orality and the aurality of American Sign Language (ASL) and the cultural charge placed onto ASL to function as an actual or insufficient language. I discuss metaphor and models of metaphors of deafness, examining several theoretical and literary texts that take on the "voice-ness" of a signed communication.

Thomas Spradley, in his memoir about raising his deaf daughter in the late 1960s and early 1970s, says that he "had always thought that deafness was the handicap" (225). Instead, he discovered that deaf people, regardless of their ability to sign in ASL or to write in English, are discriminated against, predominantly through the suppression of their language of choice, ASL. This discrimination, issuing in particular from the medical establishment, is based largely on mode of expression. Spradley's narrative traces one hearing couple's fairly predictable (given the times and context) stages of shock, denial, and appeal to the medical establishment once their daughter is "diagnosed" as deaf. They try treatment after treatment: rudimentary hearing tests, mechanical hearing tests, mental levels, and various sound-amplifying devices (including hearing aids). They are encouraged to adopt (and are only told about) what is known as the Oral Method: an audiological approach that emphasizes speech and rejects signing languages. The couple begins to despair that their daughter will ever be "normal." And, when their daughter seems to learn the least and resist the most, doctors and teachers tell them that the Oral Method is the only way to "treat" children handicapped by deafness.

Spradley's book (co-written with his brother, James) recounts the story not only of his daughter, Lynn, but also of the predominantly audiological thrust of the medical establishment in addressing deafness in children. From the first, the narrative describes two parents, Louise and Thomas, who fear that they will not have a medically "normal" child (3-13). Naturally, they turn to doctors and the medical establishment for help when they suspect that Lynn has a hearing problem. Born deaf, Lynn was obviously too young to "tell" her own story, and so "her" story remains very much that of her parents, desperate to believe that "Lynn could actually be taught to hear" (49). Thomas Couser, in Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability and Life Writing, writes of Spradley's book: "The audist establishment, then, provides this couple with a kind of script that they attempt to follow, a prescription for "treating" their daughter. That [script] is based on a hegemonic model of deafness as pathology that is never argued for, examined or allowed to be questioned" (245).

In this book, Couser suggests that life writing reflects particular social markers--especially those of culture, individuality, and class--all of which make autobiographies by Deaf people rare. "Significantly," he says, "the Deaf community shares cultural values with traditional oral communities, in which autobiography is not an indigenous genre" (228). …

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