For as long as humans have existed, Deaf people have existed. For as long as humans have existed, there has been prejudice against those who cannot hear. In the past 4 years, my understanding of this audism has been immeasurably expanded. I have come to realize that even today audism continues to thrive in America. This audism is evident in the minds of average American citizens. This audism is evident in the very cultural implications of American society. This audism is evident within the Deaf community. This audism is evident in the obsession of the American populace to attain “normalcy”.
Within the first two sentences of Harlan Lane’s Do Deaf People Have a Disability? he introduces the startling concept that many people see deafness as a disability as “common sense” (2002, pg. 356). My first thought was that deafness equating to disability was neither a common nor sensible idea. As I continued to read, I began to consider how fully enveloped I am within the Deaf community here at NTID. I thought of all the people I have encountered that have never met a Deaf person. I thought of all the people who ask me if I have to understand Braille in order to be an ASL interpreter. I came to the stark realization that when considering individuals that our society has labeled “disabled”, people are commonly nonsensical.
The fact that the general populace of America considers Deaf persons to be disabled persons plays neatly into the medical model of disability. This theory insists that deafness is a problem that needs to be fixed. As the name suggests, the medical community constantly seeks to aid Deaf people by eliminating their Deafness. As I began to consider how many people see Deafness through the medical model of Disability, I could only think of one thing: money. By insisting that Deafness is a defect, the medical community has continually reaped hundreds of millions of dollars for “fixing” deafness. This is a sadly cynical view of medical professionals, but quite possibly frighteningly accurate. This is one face of audism that our community will be hard pressed to change.
Audism is present not only in the medical model of disability, but surrounding us in the form of American culture. In Culture “as” Disability, McDermott and Varenne introduced to me a concept that I had never before considered. This concept is that society, not personal physical attributes, determines who is and who is not “disabled” (1995, pg. 327). This offered me an entirely new perspective on the complicated concept of disability. I began to consider who we consider disabled, and why. The blind are considered disabled; they cannot use sight to easily maneuver communities within America. People with vision loss, however, are not generally considered disabled. If you have trouble seeing, you can buy glasses or contacts to correct your vision to “perfect”. Blindness cannot be corrected, reversed, or “fixed”. This lack of an absolute remedy seems to help label blindness –and deafness- as a disability.
We have sculpted society to be fully accessible only to people who have certain abilities. These abilities include but are not limited to the ability to hear, speak, see, and walk. If it were not for the barriers that we have established, people who lack these “abilities” would not be labled as disabled (McDermott, Varenne, 1995).
America’s primary language, English, also subliminally encourages Americans to label Deaf people as disabled. The natural language of Deaf Americans is ASL, a visual and gestural language. Many Deaf individuals choose never to speak, despite their ability to produce sound. Our English word for “language” comes from the Latin word for “tongue”. We therefore constantly and subliminally connect language with speech. Deaf individuals who use sign rather than speech are therefore viewed as being void of language, and therefore clearly disabled.
In order to better understand the theory of “Culture as Disability”, I considered people who could be considered disabled in other societies, but are not in ours. One of the first examples that came to mind was color-blindness. Color-blindness affects many men and very few women (Eye Health, 2009). It is not considered a disability here in America because our society makes subtle accommodations for people who can’t see some or any color. For example, the colors that we use on our stop lights are red yellow and green. Regardless of a person’s severity of colorblindness, they can differentiate between these three colors (Eye Health, 2009). If different colors were displayed on stoplights, people with colorblindness may not be allowed to drive. A physical attribute that limits a person’s ability to drive would, in America, label them as disabled.
There are other factors related to why colorblindness is not, in America, viewed as a disability. Deafness affects all races, genders, social groups, and economic classes indiscriminately. Colorblindness, however, predominantly affects only men. Men are, in America, considered a majority group. As colorblindness only affects this majority group, we are perhaps less likely to label it as a disability. Labeling colorblindness as a disability would be claiming that only men can have this certain disability. This could aid in undermining the cultural and socio-economic superiority of men in America. If colorblindness affected only a minority group, such as women, we may more easily call it a disability.
Audist tendencies seem to increase with the number of minority groups a Deaf person belongs to. Deaf women, for example, face considerably more discrimination than Deaf men (Sheridan, 1999). Some would argue that audism, therefore, is not based entirely on a person’s ability to hear. Tom Humphries (1975) describes audism as “The notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or behave in the manner of one who hears.” This definition is, in my opinion, inarguable. I would argue, however, that audism creates a gateway for other types of oppression and discrimination. Deaf women may be more likely to be victims of sexism than hearing women. Deaf black individuals may be more likely to be victims of racism than hearing black individuals.
I don’t think hearing people and hearing society are the only reason for the perpetuation of audism in America. Audism and discrimination exist within the Deaf community as well. There is a social hierarchy within the Deaf community, just as there is within the hearing community. Although Deafness sometimes acts as a greater unifying factor within the Deaf community, this is not always the case. Despite the great deal of discrimination that the Deaf have always faced, many Deaf persons continue to be discriminatory. There is, for example, racism within the Deaf community. Until 1965, the National Association of the Deaf explicitly banned black individuals from joining their group (Garey, Hott & Chowder, 2007). Almost ten years after this ban was lifted, racism within the Deaf community had not considerably improved. In Racism within the Deaf Community, Glenn Anderson and Frank Bowe wrote that “…Manifestations of racism in the deaf community appear over a broad range of degrees” (1972, pg. 306).
There is also traditionally rampant sexism within the Deaf community. The Deaf community as a whole typically holds conservative and even old-fashion views of women and their roles in society. While both Deaf persons and women were gaining substantial rights in the late 20th century, the rights of Deaf women continued to lag behind (Sheridan, 1999).
There is also discrimination that is unique within the Deaf community. This Deaf on Deaf prejudice is often created by the presence of hearing aids and cochlear implants. Many Deaf people believe that the emergence and growing popularity of cochlear implants is a threat to Deaf culture. This fear often becomes prejudice which curiously resembles audism (Woodcock, 1992). This is a prejudice which I have read about and seen within first hand. It is exemplified through the sign for “hearing-minded”, which is used to insult a Deaf person for acting too much like a hearing person. In my opinion, this sort of reverse-audism does the opposite of its supposed intent. This type of discrimination forces the Deaf world into two separate groups, putting a strain on both the Deaf community and Deaf culture. If audism is to be eliminated, discrimination and reverse-audism within the Deaf community must also be eradicated. Prejudice within the Deaf community only perpetuates prejudice against the Deaf community as a whole.
It seems to me that each group that discriminates against another does so because they are trying to maintain normalcy. Many hearing people discriminate against the Deaf and encourage corrective surgeries and Oralism because these options make Deaf people seem more “normal”. Majority groups discriminate against minority groups because in our culture, if you’re part of the majority you’re “normal”. Within the Deaf community, to be Deaf is to be normal and to try to fix our deafness is abnormal. This perilous obsession with normalcy encourages and assures American society that audism is a natural and therefore reasonable human tendency.
Audism is a damaging trend that grows from many different sources. The overwhelming consensus amongst the American populace that Deafness is a disability is one source. The design of America’s society based upon our country’s culture is another. Discrimination within the Deaf community helps to encourage audism outside of the Deaf community. Finally, our culture’s obsession with normality assures the American majority that audism is acceptable. In order for audism to be eliminated in America, changes need to occur in all of these sectors of American society.
(2009). Eye health statistics at a glance. Audism: Exploring the Metaphysics of Oppression, 1-4. Retrieved from http://www.aao.org/newsroom/press_kit/upload/Eye-Health-Statistics- June-2009.pdf
Anderson, G. B., & Bowe, F. G. (1972). Racism within the deaf community. In L. Bragg (Ed.), Deaf World (pp. 305-308). New York: New York University Press.
Bauman, H. L. (2004). Audism: Exploring the metaphysics of oppression. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 9(2), 239-246.
Garey, D. (Performer), Hott, L. R. (Producer), & Chowder, K. (Writer) (2007). In Through Deaf Eyes. PBS.
Lane, H. (2002). Do deaf people have a disability?. Sign Language Studies, 2(4), 357-379.
McDermott, R., & Varenne, H. (1995). Culture "as" disability. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 26(3), 323-349.
Sheridan, M. A. (1999). Deaf women now: Establishing our niche. In L. Bragg (Ed.), Deaf World (pp. 380-389). New York: New York University Press.
Woodcock, K. (1992). Cochlear implans vs. deaf culture?. In L. Bragg (Ed.), Deaf World
(pp. 325-332). New York: New York University Press.