Sound Judgment: Does Curing Deafness Really Mean Cultural Genocide? (Columns)
Young, Cathy, Reason
EVEN THE LEAST reactionary among us may sometimes agree that the celebration of difference and pluralism has brought modern Western culture to the brink of lunacy. One such occasion was the recent broadcast on public television of a documentary, Sound and Fury, examining the controversy over a technology that can enable a deaf person to gain near-normal hearing: the cochlear implant, a device that is surgically inserted into the inner ear. The controversy is not about how well the implant works or whether it poses health risks; it's about whether such a technology is a boon or a bane for the deaf.
Sound and Fury focuses on the conflicts in one Long Island, New York, family: A deaf couple, Peter and Nita Artinian, refuse to let their 5-year-old daughter, Heather, get an implant--much to the dismay of Peter's hearing parents. "If somebody gave me a pill that would make me hearing, would I take it? No way," Peter Artinian asserts in sign language. "I'd want to go to a hospital and throw it up and go back to being deaf. I want to be deaf....If the technology progresses, maybe it's true deaf people will become extinct, and my heart will be broken. Deaf culture is something to value and cherish. It's my culture." Other deaf people in the film echo his views, praising "deaf culture" and deriding attempts to cure deafness.
Militant "Deaf Pride" activism first gained national visibility in 1988, when six radical students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the country's only liberal arts university for the deaf, successfully blocked the appointment of a hearing university president by organizing student protests. This movement has consciously modeled itself not only on the civil rights activism of the 1960s but even more directly on the gay pride movement. Just as gay activists sought to remove the stigma of "sickness" from homosexuality, deaf activists have been trying to challenge the view of deafness as a deficiency. They draw an explicit analogy between efforts to restore hearing to the deaf (or to prevent deafness altogether) and efforts to "cure" homosexuality.
The activists also insist that "deaf culture," complete with its own language--American Sign Language, or ASL--is no different from any other ethnic or linguistic culture. The only deaf people who are truly disabled, deaf activist M.J. Bienvenu has been quoted as saying, are those who "learn forced English while being denied sign." In her view, "for the rest of us, it is no more a disability than being Japanese would be." From such a perspective, "fixing" deafness is nothing less than cultural genocide.
Of course, neither the gay nor the ethnic analogy really holds up. Deafness, all the positive thinking notwithstanding, is defined by the absence of a basic faculty. One may define cultural deafness as the ability to sign, but hearing people can and do learn to use sign language.
Gays, arguably, would not be disadvantaged at all were it not for social prejudice and discrimination. The same can hardly be said of the deaf. While linguists now recognize ASL as a legitimate language, it imposes unique and severe limitations on its users. If it's dark, if your hands are busy or full, if the person to whom you're speaking turns away, you are effectively rendered speechless. Surely, too, the inability to hear environmental sounds that may signal danger to oneself or others--an oncoming car, a falling object, a baby's cry--is a real impairment. Notably, while deaf activists insist on redefining deafness as difference rather than disability, they are in no hurry to give up disability-based legal protections and government funding.
Perhaps it's not surprising that some deaf people would try to come to terms with their condition by insisting that they are so happy being the way they are that they would never want to be any other way. (In Sound and Fury, Peter Artinian rhapsodizes about how "peaceful" it is to live in a world of total silence. …