Many deaf and hard of hearing individuals resent being told they have a disability. Passionate opposition to this idea is for instance found in the official documents of The National Association for the Deaf in the
Many within the medical profession continue to view deafness essentially as a disability and an abnormality and believe that deaf and hard of hearing individuals need to be "fixed" by cochlear implants. This pathological view must be challenged and corrected by greater exposure to and interaction with well-adjusted and successful deaf and hard of hearing individuals. [source]
Extreme proponents of this view regard giving a deaf child a cochlear implant or hearing aids as akin to ‘correcting’ the colour of a black person’s skin by making them white. They argue that deaf people are unlike hearing people, but that deafness is only a disadvantage to the extent that deaf people are unfairly excluded from a society engineered around the concerns of the hearing.
From an evolutionary point of view, this position is almost impossible to maintain. It would be to claim that the sense of hearing has no selective advantage in humans. But without it, an entire channel of information about potential threats and opportunities is closed off, information that a hearing person can exploit to great advantage. Hearing people have access to information about events occurring behind their backs, through occlusions and in complete darkness. Without looking, they have access to exceedingly subtle information about their surroundings. They can tell whether they are in a city or in the countryside, indoors or outdoors, in a large room or a small room. They can tell the difference between sounds produced in a room with tiles versus carpet. Even the sound produced by tapping on something reveals subtle information about the kind of material it is made of and whether it is hollow.
Hearing people take this information for granted and tend to focus on the consequences that hearing loss might have for their ability to communicate. But in the context of language, a stronger case can be made that the disadvantages associated with deafness are basically arbitrary, a result of the broader culture communicating via a different but equally expressive code. If hearing people communicated using signed languages, the code would be accessible to deaf people and in terms of expressiveness there would be nothing lost, signed languages being just as systematic as spoken languages and capable of conveying meanings that are just as subtle and precise. Indeed, a perfect comparison can be made with signed English, which is English in exactly the same sense that both the spoken and written forms are – just conveyed via yet another medium. In terms of what can be expressed, signed and spoken languages are equivalent, but there are nevertheless advantages and disadvantages associated with each. If you know a signed language, you can communicate through panes of glass (useful for expressing final sentiments through the window of a train as it pulls away from the platform), and in noisy environments such as nightclubs and factory floors. You can converse without waking babies and without alerting enemy soldiers. And you can talk with your mouth full. On the other hand, if you can speak and hear, you can communicate with someone in another room or in the dark. You can also converse while your hands and eyes are occupied – chopping vegetables or whatever. Hearing people can of course learn to sign if they choose, thus availing themselves of all the benefits of both modes of communication, but the reverse is not true. The ability for deaf people to communicate via the auditory channel is incontrovertibly impaired.
Sound carries subtle information about the environment and allows communication in contexts that sign language does not, but sound is also a source of subjective pleasure, the experience of sound having a richness that is very difficult to explain to the congenitally deaf. How can one explain the contagious effect of laughter, the drama of rolling thunder, or the penetrating effect of a baby’s cry? These sounds get into us, affecting our emotional state directly. The same is of course true of music, but its effect on the hearing must seem almost mystical to those who have never heard it.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that deaf people are genuinely missing out on something that hearing people experience, and there are almost no advantages to being deaf that would compensate for this, the exceptions being situations in which a deaf person is untroubled by sounds that a hearing person would find unpleasant or distracting (noisy neighbours, elevator music, construction sites, and so on). But even in these cases, a hearing person has the option of plugging their ears.
To most hearing people, going deaf would be far from an insignificant event, which is why it is often surprising for them to find that those who are born deaf usually view their condition quite differently. Hearing people and those with acquired deafness usually equate it with suffering, but those who have been deaf all their lives generally don’t think about it in this way. After all, they have never known any other life so have nothing to compare it to. It would be like a person lamenting that they couldn’t fly. We are not filled with bitterness and regret about being unable to fly because we’ve never had any serious expectations of being able to beyond a few bone-breaking experiments in childhood. This doesn’t mean that many of us wouldn’t like to be able to if we had the option, but it is senseless to pine for something that is impossible to obtain. With this in mind, imagine birds looking down at us from the tree tops endlessly offering their sympathy to us – their unfortunate flightless companions – and you may go some way to understanding why the deaf resent the ‘poor you’ attitude of hearing people. For the average hearing person, meeting a deaf person is a novelty, which confronts them with a contrast that fills them with pity. But for deaf people who know nothing else, these expressions of sympathy are jarring and misplaced. They are justifiably frustrated at constantly being made to feel like victims and yearn to be seen as more than just deaf [example]. This may go some way to explaining why there are those who deny that deafness is a disability, but this would be to miss the target of a legitimate complaint. The legitimate complaint is the same as that of anyone who stands out from the crowd for reasons that are beyond their control. People get described as the ‘tall guy’, the ‘fat girl’, the ‘one with the big nose’ and so on, descriptions that obviously overlook virtually everything that’s important about a person. Likewise, that ‘deaf girl’ is never just that. She might also be someone’s sister, love animals, have a keen interest in photography, or whatever. She is a complete person.
There may also be more familiar reasons for people denying that deafness is a disability having to do with people simply believing what they want to believe, but there is an important difference between dealing with something that we accept is unpleasant and dealing with it by denying that it is. This is of course, easier said than done. After someone dies for instance, there is no easy way to reconcile ourselves with the intolerable proposition, which leaves us shaking our heads in disbelief, that we will never again be able to talk to our loved-one again. Nor is there an easy way to accept, when a relationship ends, the intolerable proposition, which leaves us unable to breathe, that the person who knew us more intimately than anyone else in the world and who is therefore most qualified to pass judgements about us, has judged that we are no longer worthy of their love. Also intolerable is the proposition that there is something wrong with us, like being deaf, that will put us at a disadvantage for the rest of our lives. It is very difficult to console ourselves when confronted with the unbearable permanence of these things, so it is little wonder we find ourselves concluding – without evidence – that our dearly departed are now “in a better place” where we will someday be reunited with them, that our lover will someday come back into our arms once they realise their mistake, or that the problem lies not with us, but with a condescending society that treats us as though we are broken and need to be fixed.
Most of us see it as profoundly insensitive to challenge the views of those who we think are suffering, which is no doubt why victims get away with saying blood-curdling things on the steps of criminal courts, why there was so little opposition to the US invasion of Afghanistan directly after the 911 atrocities, and why there was so little opposition to establishing the state of Israel after the second world war. But, at least in these cases, the ‘profoundly insensitive’ option may actually be better than the consequences of not debating the issues.
Though at a different scale, the consequences of uncritically denying that deafness is a disability would be to legitimise the attempts of deaf parents to have deaf children by design [example], or to legitimise their attempts to deny their deaf children hearing aids or cochlear implants during the critical period of brain development when auditory input is necessary for the proper development of auditory processing capacities. Both of these decisions would lead to avoidable suffering, and without the child having any say in the matter. If, when the child grows up, they wish to discard their hearing aids or switch off their cochlear implant, they have that choice, but the reverse is not true – you cannot raise a deaf child without these devices and let them choose whether they want them as adults because, by then, the critical period of brain development will have long since passed and they will never be able to make sense of the sounds they hear.
The consequences of a belief being true frequently account for why people hold it far better than the evidence supporting it (this is the logical fallacy of argumentum ad consequentiam) and the issue of whether deafness is a disability is no different. For deaf people, these consequences are emotional – it liberates them from the intolerable proposition that they are physically flawed, while also providing an intellectually convenient way of dismissing the understandably frustrating attitudes held by many hearing people. On the other hand, to deny that deafness is a disability would be to legitimise decisions of deaf parents to have deaf children by design, or deny a deaf child hearing aids or a cochlear implant when they could otherwise benefit from them. These consequences tell us why it matters to those on either side of the debate, but the truth is what it is, good or bad. Only evidence can tell us whether deafness is a disability, and on this basis, it is hard to deny that it presents a disadvantage that, although not as grave as some other disabilities, is a disability nonetheless.