Deafness Isn’t a Deficit

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Every prospective parent hopes for a healthy baby.

But when it comes to hearing and Deaf cultures, “healthy” is defined differently. Four out of 5 deaf children are born to hearing parents. When told this prognosis, hearing parents often experience what psychiatrist and grief expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross characterized as the Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). 

But for culturally Deaf parents (it is common practice to capitalize Deaf when writing about Deaf culture and its members) the news is often met with joy. 

This dichotomy came to my attention recently when Lauren, my friend and co-teacher for the past nine years, gave birth to her first child. Lauren and her husband are both deaf. A short time ago they learned that their son is also deaf.

When I share this news with my friends who are hearing and have no connection to Deaf culture or the community, their reaction is typically one of sympathy. Their sad eyes and slumped shoulders are indicative of the mainstream opinion that deafness is strictly a medical issue.

The hearing majority in the United States has deemed deafness an infirmity, something that must be fixed. This view is so ingrained in our society that most of us could not imagine another perspective.

We often forget about the Deaf perspective that incorporates a rich cultural history including stories, art, theater, myths, poetry and jokes in a community bound together through American Sign Language (ASL). It is passed down through generations and treasured by its members.

The birth of a deaf child to deaf parents and a family that is culturally Deaf is indeed a welcome occurrence. It means shared experiences and a common language – a language that allows a baby to communicate with his or her hands long before speech production is possible. At just 5 months, Lauren’s son is babbling in ASL. This means he is already forming letters of the manual alphabet with his tiny fingers. It will not be long before he is able to sign words.

The promise of communication with an infant via sign language has not been lost on many hearing parents. Programs are available to teach hearing babies sign language. Their parents are thrilled when signs such as “more” or “milk” are expressed.

In some schools, sign language is also used to reinforce language development for hearing children with speech delays. Many early elementary educators teach children the manual alphabet and some basic signs.

Why is it then, that we celebrate one aspect of Deaf culture—ASL—while shaking our heads in despair because a child is born with a hearing loss? Surely there is room to celebrate this type of diversity.

I shared this perspective with a friend who is hearing. He replied, suggesting that it would not be the case, “but wouldn’t you want the best for your child?” I responded to him saying, “Of course, every parent wants what is best for his or her child. I guess it all depends on your perspective.” 

Wellbrock is an early elementary teacher working with both deaf and hearing students in New York City.

Comments

I wasn't born deaf, but I was

Submitted by Tobias A. Weissman on 1 May 2012 - 12:06pm.

I wasn't born deaf, but I was born with a handicap called Cerebral Palsy. In my experience I have found that most human beings born with a SO-CALLED defect are not deprived at all. It usually makes them more compassionate to others, less critical of small nothing's, like people making fun of them, more readily able to tackle problems and solving them than so-called normals. I find adversity builds character in individuals. Myself, when I was a child going thru all the making fun of me that every one did, I felt pity for them not being able to understand the unfortunate.

What a great perspective!

Submitted by Sarah Sansbury on 17 September 2012 - 8:08pm.

What a great perspective!

I truly hope you will grant

Submitted by David Harrell on 12 February 2013 - 7:03pm.

I truly hope you will grant permission to quote you on that. What a refreshing way to state what ought to be the obvious!