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Defining "Deaf"

Also see:  Deaf Culture

In a message dated 4/19/2006 7:43:17 PM Pacific Daylight Time, a Hard of Hearing fellow named John writes:
Reading through your Deaf Culture pages, I'm struck by what seems quite strange to me. It's clear that I'm not part of the Deaf Culture, even though I've been HOH for many years. I don't have contact with other deaf/hoh people and don't know sign language. A light dawns, as I see the hints of what exists there in the Deaf Culture, and I'm filled with admiration and respect. I understand why they would resent being viewed as "impaired", and I have felt "disabled" for years. What seems strange, then, is that they adopt the term "Deaf" to refer to their culture, when, to me, it seems that is not at all what the culture is really about. For example, I am HOH, but that does not make me part of the Deaf Culture. I am an outsider, and I hope I'm not saying anything offensive, but it seems to me what epitomizes the culture most is their ability, their manual language skills, rather than their inability, the lack of hearing.

It would seem more appropriate to me to adopt a "positive" name for the culture, such as the ASL Culture, or the Manual Linguists Culture (when being more globally inclusive). The word "deaf" refers to the inability, the lack of hearing. So why is that any less offensive than "hearing impaired"? And the lack of the ability to hear is not what qualifies a person to be a member of the culture, so the word deaf is not even appropriate, besides being negative.

To me it seems like referring to the Spanish Sub-Culture in the US as the Non-English. Like a group of Spanish-only speaking people getting together and adopting a name for themselves like The Association of the Non-English. Rather than focusing on what they can't do (can't hear), by calling themselves Deaf, why isn't it that they focus on what they do so well (speak a different language, ASL)?
You asked, "Why is the term 'deaf' any less offensive than the term 'hearing impaired?'"
Hearing people perceive the word "deaf" to be a negative label describing an inability to hear.  Deaf people on the other hand consider the term Deaf to be a positive label describing a community of people who share a language and culture. Notice that the word "deaf" (lower case) refers to the audiological condition of not hearing.  The word "Deaf" (upper case) is a cultural term.  We see ourselves as "Deaf" people, not "impaired" versions of Hearing people.
The sudden granting of the ability to hear to a "totally" deaf person would likely be extremely traumatic.  First of all, his or her brain would not be wired to make sense of the incoming sound.  All of his habits would be Deaf.  And almost all of his close friends would be Deaf or CODA (hearing children of Deaf). 
You compare the Deaf to the Spanish.  In doing so, you make my point.  Speakers of Spanish like and approve of the term "Spanish."  Whatever the phrase "deaf" used to mean, whatever negative associations the phrase used to carry--is not today's reality.  The reality is that Deaf people like and approve of the term Deaf. 
In a message dated 4/20/2006 12:41:05 AM Pacific Daylight Time, john@ writes:
Hi Bill,
I'm pleasantly surprised to get an answer so quickly, since I'm sure you are a very busy person.
I understand what you're saying, but I'm not sure I made myself clear. I hope I'm not imposing by trying to explain myself again.
If a hearing person refers to a Deaf person as deaf, he most likely does not understand the culture and the meaning it has to the Deaf person. I didn't, until I read your web site. You've explained it very well there, and I understand that now. When most hearing people say "deaf", they most likely do not mean Deaf, they simply mean to say "you're a person who can't hear". So for the Deaf community to choose to call themselves that doesn't gain them the respect that they are looking for from the hearing world. The hearing people "don't get it". They don't know there are two different words, Deaf and deaf.
Another way to try to explain what I'm trying to say: What is it that Deaf people are proud about when they feel proud about being Deaf people? I'm thinking it is not the fact that they cannot hear, but rather all of the cultural things, including ASL, that they have developed. Their lives as people, and as a People, and the fact that they don't hear is not important, wouldn't even be wanted if offered, as you say. They're proud of who they are, not what they cannot do (hear). I'm not presuming to say I know, because I don't. This is just what I'm thinking. Am I wrong about that?

I understand (now, thanks to you) that Deaf people consider the term Deaf to be positive. But they've chosen to create a new "name", "term" or "word", Deaf, as opposed to deaf, by which they wish to be called by the hearing people. They distinguish the two, deaf and Deaf, but they sound exactly alike, so the hearing people are less likely to get the message. If the Deaf people succeed in getting the hearing world to stop using the term "hearing impaired" and refer to them as d-e-a-f instead, will they have accomplished anything? Where's the respect and understanding when a hearing person utters the sound that's pronounced deaf, if you have no idea if he means the same thing when you utter the same sound, but are meaning Deaf?
Thanks so much for taking the time to communicate with me on this. I'm honored.


At 08:58 AM 4/20/2006, you wrote:
We are discussing a classic "public relations issue."  Is it easier and/or better to come up with a new label than it is to change public opinion of an existing label?  To some degree, this is a matter of pride.  Regardless of how Hearing people perceive the term "Deaf," we as a community are proud of the label.  To abandon that label would smack of giving in and of being ashamed of who we are.  Instead what we have is a type of defiance.  A counter culture that takes pride in the very thing for which the majority culture pities us.  Perhaps it is a defense mechanism, but I prefer to see it as a form of social evolution.  The "pride response" is a defense or coping mechanism developed by a social "animal" in response to a threat presented by the environment (audism/oppression).
Now, let's compare this situation with that of "Americans."  Throughout the world, the people of many nations consider "Americans" to be war mongering, indulgent, fat, self-centered, capitalists.
So then, should Americans choose a different label for themselves? We could call ourselves "Freedans" because we love and support freedom.  That way other nations would perceive us as being lovers of freedom rather than drivers of gas guzzling sport utility vehicles.
It is a fact though that labels are transitory.  I suspect that a few hundred years from now many of today's labels will be relics.
Dr. Bill


In a message dated 4/22/2006 11:44:29 AM Pacific Daylight Time, john@ writes:
Dear Bill,
I understand the "pride response". That seems natural, appropriate and healthy. I'm sure you're right about social evolution and things will change.

I'm reminded of the Blacks. (I'm no sociologist, so please correct me if I'm wrong; just my layman's understanding.) They first preferred to be called Negroes, to avoid the derogatory term nigger, then they preferred to be called Blacks, but later wanted to be called African Americans. Not all of them, most likely, some may still prefer Black. These are designations they chose for themselves, and felt good about. And Black is similar to Deaf, I think, in that the words black and deaf both describe just one physical characteristic, but Deaf and Blacks mean much more. I'm just guessing that the Blacks feel similarly about Black as the Deaf do about Deaf. My uneducated gut feeling is that Black evolved to "African American" because that more completely embodies everything that they are wanting outsiders to understand when they refer to them. The parallel that pops to mind is that Deaf might evolve to American Signers, or something of the sort. Not that the term Deaf would be discarded, just as Black has not been replaced by African American. It's also a parallel that not all Blacks are African Americans, and not all Deaf are American Signers (other sign languages).

It IS a public relations issue, as you say. No easy task and one that only happens over time. But one worth continually nudging along. Rather than discarding the existing label, Deaf, the public relations might work best as with African Americans not discarding Black. Keep "Deaf", but make the term American Signers more common.

As for the "Americans" changing the name to "Freedans", I understand your point. The Black=>African American illustrates more the point I was originally trying to make. With both the words deaf and black describing a single physical characteristic, and both words potentially being considered a negative (deaf an inability, black possibly evil, in the dark).


At 05:38 PM 4/22/2006, you wrote:
I agree with the Black / Deaf comparison.  That idea crossed my mind while typing an earlier email.
An interesting point though is that there are many "whites" living in Africa.
Suppose they moved to the United States (as I'm sure some do). They could "technically" be called African Americans.
Do you think they such "African Americans" could integrate well with what we commonly refer to as African American Culture?  And suppose there were some sort of community event and one of these white "African Americans" stood up and announced that he was African American and how proud he was to be a "brother."  How do you think that would go over? 
Hearing people may learn to sign, but they still don't know what it is like to be physically deaf. 
That knowledge is a large part of our culture. It is part of "the Deaf Way."  Deaf people, by virtue of having a shared experience, have automatic connections to each other. Calling ourselves something other than Deaf would lessen those connections.
Labels like Black and Deaf function in such a way as to draw a perimeter around a culture.  Sort of like wearing light or dark jerseys helps to define who is on what team.
Calling ourselves American Signers would expand the perimeter to such a degree that the boundaries of our culture would become confusing and in a large part, meaningless.
Taken to the extreme, perhaps we should abandon all labels.  No Blacks, no Deafs, no Christians, no Jews, no Muslims--just billions of Earthlings.  Would the earth be a better or worse place?  More peaceful, but also more boring.

In a message dated 4/22/2006 10:20:50 PM Pacific Daylight Time, john@ writes:
Hi Bill,
Yes, that's interesting about white African Americans. Point noted.

I'm surprised that you think calling yourselves American Signers would expand the perimeter so much. I was imagining the term to only refer to people who use ASL as their "native" or primary language, not a hearie who learns ASL and uses it only as a second language. Just as my learning Spanish doesn't make me Spanish.

On your "Who is this Guy" page you indicate you're not totally deaf, but you consider yourself Deaf, is that correct? I'm not sure exactly where the line is there between hoh, deaf and Deaf. I'm quite hoh now. My wife can have the TV on at a comfortable listening level for her and I can't tell whether the sound is even on or off; it's total silence for me at that level. For the TV I use CC, some info from lips, and my head phones connected to the stereo graphics equalizer, boosting the high frequencies with the equalizer, and making one ear phone louder with the balance.


Yes, I agree, you learning Spanish wouldn't make you Spanish, it would make you an "American Spanish Speaker." And if we stopped calling anybody Spanish, and instead called all users of Spanish "American Spanish Speakers" -- we would then be unable to tell from that label who was culturally Spanish and who just knew the language.
The term Spanish carries both meanings: the culture and the language.
The phrase American Signer doesn't carry as much "cultural information" it is ambiguous.
  Deaf people want that cultural information included in their label.
d/Deaf means both the culture and the condition.
I'm an example of someone on "the line."  Meaning I'm borderline and thus it isn't clear.  Am I Deaf or am I Hearing?  I tend to introduce myself as "Deaf / HoH."  Thus establishing my ties to the Deaf community and yet acknowledging that while I have a hearing loss, I am also able to hear enough to somewhat function in the Hearing world.
I like how you have accommodated your hearing loss via technology.  I too tend to adjust the equalizer, except I raise the middle tones.