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Monday, June 4, 2012

Discrimination Against The Deaf--Then and Now

Fairlyden  by Gwen Kirkwood is the first book in a multi-generation family saga that takes place on a farm in Scotland. Set in the 1850's,  it begins by focusing on Mattie Cameron who'd been deaf since she was a child. She originally lived at Nethertannoch where her father leased the land as a tenant farmer.  Mattie had learned to read, write and figure with the help of the minister's wife.  She'd left the village school due to mistreatment by the teacher who was convinced that Mattie could not be taught.  When Mattie's father, Matthew Cameron, lay on his deathbed, Alexander Logan had given him his word that he would  protect Mattie.  Yet once her father passed away, the legal say over fifteen year old Mattie's fate was in the hands of the laird who was the actual owner of Nethertannoch.   The laird was determined to wed Mattie to Tam Reevil who was known to be an "idiot".  He considered this entirely appropriate since it seemed to him that Mattie must also have very limited mental faculties.  The village teacher had assured the laird that this was the case.  Mattie refused this destiny and left Nethertannoch with the help of Alexander Logan.  For the rest of her life, there continued to be those who didn't respect Mattie. They were unable to believe that Mattie was a skilled and capable woman.

You would think that there has been progress since the 1850's, but in the 21st century there are still communities throughout the world where girls are coerced into arranged marriages.  The attitudes of many people toward the deaf also haven't changed.  Tara Chevrestt's memoir, Deaf Isn't Dumb testifies to a continuing pattern of prejudice.


The school bullying and name calling that Tara experienced is rather horrendous, but so is the way Tara was treated in the work world.  It was particularly unfair that she was charged with being dangerous when she had done her job well for a number of years. 

There were also incidents where she didn't get proper service because employees didn't speak clearly.  This is of key importance to a lip reader like Tara. When people who serve the public mumble and mutter, it  isn't discrimination, but it's certainly inconsiderate.  Hearing people may also have difficulties with deciphering sloppy diction.  It also reflects poorly on the employer when employees sound unprofessional. 

I would also like to address Tara's "Open Letter To The Deaf Community" which was included in the book as an addendum.  Tara has come under criticism for not having attended deaf schools and for lip reading. Tara is not alone.  Heather Whitestone, the first deaf Miss America (crowned in 1995) was subject to similar criticism for being a lip reader.  See Heather Whitestone on Wikipedia .  Still,  if I were Tara I might feel saddened, hurt and angry in reaction to such comments.  Yet I do recognize that there is a historical context for them.

There was a period of more than a century when lip reading was imposed on the deaf  by non-deaf educators who thought they knew what was best for their deaf students.  According to History of deaf education on Wikipedia, signing was actively suppressed in deaf schools from the 1860's until the 1970's.  In the 19th century, prominent individuals such as Alexander Graham Bell and Horace Mann were opposed to the deaf having their own system of communication.  They believed that the deaf should be integrated into hearing society as much as possible.  In the 1970's an approach called Total Communication combined ASL and lip reading.  I also learned from an illuminating timeline by Wendy Shaner American Deaf Culture Historical Timeline  that in 1988 the highly respected deaf college, Gallaudet University, published a report called "Unlocking the Curriculum" which proposed that signing be the primary mode of deaf education.  So there has been tremendous conflict in the 19th and 20th century over lip reading vs. signing in deaf education.  It seems to me that the legacy of  deaf students being prevented from signing during this period has caused some ASL (American Sign Language) advocates to lash out against successful lip readers.

I feel that deaf individuals have the right to choose their mode of communication, and that they should not be judged for their choices. 

On the other hand,  it is true that lip readers who have never studied ASL are shut out of  ASL based deaf culture.   As a non-deaf person who considers minority cultures fascinating, I have followed developments in deaf culture.  I am particularly intrigued by fusions of  ASL and dance.  Here's an example on You Tube:ASL Inspired Hip Hop by Universal Vibes.  There are dance traditions in India and Hawaii that incorporate gestural signs.  This brings an additional layer of complexity to dance, so that it can communicate on more than one level.

All the same, I don't agree that everyone who identifies as deaf should be moving lock-step in the same direction.  It's inspiring that Tara Chevrestt could become an airplane mechanic, just as it's inspiring that other deaf individuals are doing creative projects with ASL.   Positive achievements should be celebrated, and so should cultural diversity.

Postscript on Audism  6/30/12

I have never believed that any minority should have to educate the general population about their issues, so I am always in an ongoing process of educating myself about them.  That is how I recently came across the term "audism".  In context it appeared to mean a chauvinistic belief that hearing people are superior, that all deaf people should  integrate themselves  into hearing culture by lip reading and communicating verbally, and that they should want to be cured of deafness.

 I wanted to know something of the history of how audism came into use. So I went to Gallaudet University's website for assistance.  I found Gallaudet University Library Audism FAQ.  I discovered that audism was coined by Tom Humphries in his 1977 doctoral dissertion. I also learned that since then audism has been broadened to include institutional discrimination against the deaf, and that The Mask of Benevolence by Harlan Lane is an important book on this subject.

I believe that institutions dealing with the deaf don't have to be infected with audism.  They can acknowledge their limitations, educate themselves and then decide to work with deaf individuals as equals who have a right to make their own decisions about their lives.  Unfortunately, that is not the world that we currently live in. I hope that hearing people like me who write about audism can make a difference.



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