Some days the sheer volume of the injustices one sees either globally or locally is enough to drive one into numb silence. The list is long and includes the fact that the U.S. routinely executes innocent people; across the United States children are battered in foster care and as if that isn’t bad enough, some forty million children are living without health insurance; our troops are fighting a war on two fronts in the Middle East and are not receiving appropriate medical care when they return home; people with disabilities remain unemployed in the U.S. in staggering numbers; people who are blind or visually impaired remain unemployed at a 70 per cent rate; the "list" as I say, is terribly long and I haven’t even gotten to the issues of U.S. sponsored terrorism and our nation’s complicity in human rights violations around the globe. I am mindful that the "list" as I’m calling it is very long indeed.
When yesterday I read the article referenced below in the Columbus Dispatch about the anger from some deaf "alumni" of the Ohio School for the Deaf at the proposed merger of the deaf school with the state’s school for the blind I was flat out "gob smacked" into temporary silence. I simply passed the article on with the assertion that I was trying to "count to ten" because it’s good to take thought for one’s anger and we all know this from kindergarten.
Here is the problem as I see it. I will now stir the slum gullion with a stick:
Some deaf people do not see deafness as a disability; they see "it" as a culture. The reasoning is sound: deafness has its corresponding and entirely original sign language. If everybody learned sign language, the reasoning goes, then deafness wouldn’t be a disability at all. It would just be another form of human difference like, say, being French or Latvian is a form of cultural diversity .
Proponents of the above view are as various in their temperaments and their respective emotional intelligences as any other artificially created human group–if you collected all the taxi drivers in New York City you’d have around 20,000 citizens who hail from every ethnic and national group on earth and who hold distinct views on just about any issue you could imagine.
But some of the people who hold the "deafness is a culture, not a disability" viewpoint are remarkable for their disdain both for other deaf or hard of hearing people and for people who have other kinds of disabilities. I wish this wasn’t the case. I am always stunned by the capacity of human beings to engage in discrimination against other human beings, whether the subject is Rawanda or a local school playground.
I believe in the broadest possible sense that in most cases "no one" should be thought of as having a disability. If you give people the proper tools and opportunities most "disabilities" are merely structural or architectural or attitudinal. That’s my general view of the matter. The very word "disability" became widely used in the 19th century and was meant to designate people who were essentially injured on the job and who in turn could no longer work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution. It will surprise no one to learn that I don’t think the "D" word is appropriate these days.
But contempt by a small group of deaf activists for their historical relationship to the "disability" word is now in many instances misdirected by those same activists toward disdain for others who have physical impairments. One is reminded of the ranking that has taken place within other historically marginalized groups: the hierarchy of "blackness" as a social scale within the African-American community comes to mind; the initial unwillingness of "wave one" feminists to include working class or ethnic women in their cause; even today on university campuses one sees how the discussion of "diversity" in higher education often leaves out disabled people.
Contempt is generally an economic issue even before it becomes a question of religious intolerance or ethnicity. In the film "Gandhi" starring Ben Kingsley there is a marvelous scene in which Gandhi must scold his upper class wife who does not want to do the menial labor at the ashram. The point is that as an upper class Indian woman Gandhi’s wife finds it intolerable to be seen raking a latrine pit since such work is the labor reserved for "untouchables"–those people who are at the lowest end of the caste system. Gandhi tells her that "everyone will rake the latrine pits" and that henceforth there is no longer a caste system. It is, as I’ve already said, a beautiful scene. Human freedom cannot afford a caste system. Freedom is for everybody.
The problem isn’t that some deaf activists want to be thought of as a cultural group, a collection of people who have their own language, who are not at all disabled. The problem is that by wanting to disassociate themselves from a historical relationship with disability these deafness advocates are overtly contemptuous of other people who would quite likely love to declare themselves no longer disabled but who find themselves genuinely struggling with serious physical and social obstacles. I would love to say that blindness isn’t a disability but currently it is certainly a profound employment obstacle and the issues that are associated with this are both economically determined and are additionally rooted in historical attitudes that Mrs. Gandhi would likely recognize.
Contempt for the blind emerges in this instance with the force of a geyser. The reasoning works like this: deaf people are not disabled; to put them into a facility where they would have to share space with people who really are disabled would be demeaning to deaf students.
My response to this is that specialized schools for people with disabilities should quite likely no longer be necessary if we are serious in America about making public education accessible to every student.
But let’s leave that issue for the moment.
My real feeling is that if deaf people are not disabled and are essentially a cultural group, then why should they have a school that’s funded by the public? I think this is a fair question. The public doesn’t fund specialized schools for kids who want to learn French or Latvian, as noble as those pursuits might be. Why should deaf people have any public funding at all if they don’t have a disability and if they don’t even want to be seen in the same place as those who do have disabilities?
The answer to this question is that of course deafness is a disability. You can decide later in life that you are unwilling to be a member of any group that would have you, as Groucho Marx once famously said, but that’s an adult position. Learning sign language and alternate technologies is an important, even crucial thing for deaf children, just as learning Braille or computer skills or orientation and mobility skills is central for blind children.
In order to learn discrimination we have to foster discrimination and that’s what is so troubling to me about the rhetoric of some of the activists in the deaf community. It’s worth pointing out that these same folks dislike partially deaf people; they don’t like people who get Cochlear Implants, they don’t even like people who aren’t fluent in sign language.
My argument for them is simple: start your own cultural organization. Go on out and do the fund raising like other groups do. You might find the process rather interesting. You might have to talk to people even if it isn’t in your own language.