Many years ago, deaf people were not considered to be in a position where they could be a proactive member of society. For at times, families would hide their deaf child away because they felt ashamed simply because they had a child who happened to be deaf or even worse, were not diagnosed as deaf but for want of a better word, dumb. Some of these people were mistreated, abandoned and abused.
Looking around us today, it is a completely different picture. It is not yet perfect but the deaf now have a community which has come a long way and I am using the word “community” and not “culture” because the word “culture” is rather complex and divisive. When one uses the word “culture”, it is in reference to customs, habits, language and many other factors that belong to a particular group of people who are different to others.
Sign language alone should not form the basis for a “deaf culture” because deaf people are born into a culture that already exists – if you are born into the British culture then by default you are British. Bearing in mind, that sign language is derived and based on our mother tongue. Both deaf and hearing people as well as monkeys and apes can use this form of visual language. On the other hand, it would be wrong of us to assume anyone who may be hard of hearing, deafened, deaf or deafblind automatically know sign language. To presume that everyone deaf can sign is not correct and it is misinforming our society of today.
A baby who has been born deaf into a British hearing family, growing up with the family’s customs and ways, can he suddenly deny his family’s culture and refer to himself as deaf only? Insinuating, that because his family is hearing, they do not belong to a “deaf culture” despite having tried their very best to provide their child with an enriching and balanced upbringing, encouraging him to speak, sign and integrate with his peers regardless of whether they were deaf or hearing.
It would be extremely hard for me to separate myself from the people that taught me everything I know and in the process hurting them in return by secluding myself to another particular culture, especially one that we find difficult to define.
To put it simply, we have habits (no, not those long brown gowns!) which is interpreted by some as “deaf culture”, or more appropriately termed as learned behaviour. On the contrary, we can learn it, be aware of it but it does not mean we have to adopt it.
Sadly, there are deaf parents who hope their child will be born deaf because they believe they belong to a deaf culture only and by having a hearing child, they would break that familiarity to what they only know. This is an extreme stance to have and it is one that is potentially damaging.
By simply saying to hearing people “If you do not make the effort to communicate with me then I will separate myself from you all together” is so not the route to take; the more they see of you, the more they are forced to understand you. I say forced because hearing people have the option to learn at least some basic sign language like finger spelling which should at least be made part of today’s school curriculum.
One (i.e. Paddy Ladd and his Deafhood book) could argue that residential schools for the deaf is the main continuity for “deaf culture” being learned – perhaps forty years ago but not today. Because forty years or so ago, the differences in technology, segregation and concentration then and now could not be more evident unless influenced and taught otherwise by the older generations.
As stated on NDCS website, “90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents with little or no experience of deafness or knowledge of how to communicate with a deaf person”. The other 10% would probably grow up with sign language as their first language in cases where the deaf parents also sign rather than having to wait until they have contact with other deaf children, which is normally the experience of the other 90% at school. Approximately, nowadays, 90% of those deaf children born severely or profoundly deaf are likely to be implanted before their second birthday – More than 60% of the children at Mary Hare School now have implants.
Where hearing aids and implants are concerned, people have feared deaf identities and the linguistics will be lost, “I am still deaf” one may remark. Of course, you will still be deaf because your hearing aid(s) or implants will not be in use 24/7 and you will have grown up as a deaf person, lip-reading, signing (if able to). The deaf majority at present, thankfully, now sees a CI as a superior hearing aid, which actually has very little bearing on “deaf culture” despite a tiny percentage that are anti-CI and vehemently trying to turn people against CI’s by using an excuse along the lines of “social cleansing”.
There is a term albeit rarely used, which is the “hearing brain”. I understand this to mean when someone loses hearing later in life after growing up living life to the max as a hearing person possibly could, has been fortunate to receive a cochlear implant, only to characteristically revert to whom they grew up as. Do we or rather, should we put that down to “hearing culture”? When it is whom they have learnt and happen to be, within themselves and society just as we are who we are and that others have taught us who to become.
My fear of seeing people belonging to one culture and denying everything, everyone else around them is that there is a danger of separating ourselves from the mainstream culture we have to live in and share.
In being exclusive, this will undo all the hard work that has been achieved before us, by the many generations of deaf people. They are the ones who struggled and fought hard to finally be accepted within the mainstream society today. If anything, we should continue to strive albeit much harder to keep this sense of inclusion and integration developing but there is a cycle, especially where learnt behaviour is concerned, reoccurring in many senses that people need to break out of this habit, especially if they want to advance further as an inclusive and diverse community.
There is a still a lot that has to be done, in terms of educating society that we are all equals and just as capable but not by creating and realising any further divisive ideas. With positivity, forward thinking and unity, this can be achieved by the deaf community but only if the will is there.
~ SJ (Sara Jae)