Technological Tension in Deaf Culture
When Technology Threatens Deaf Culture
The deaf community has struggled in recent years to cling to their deaf culture in spite of the numerous technological advancements that are quickly bridging the gap between the hearing and deaf communities. The deaf culture is concerned that these technological advancements will eventually completely eliminate the sense of cohesion and community that exists among members of the deaf culture for fear that , with the aid of technology, many deaf individuals will choose to integrate into the hearing community rather than continue to be members of the deaf culture.
The deaf community consists of two main groups: the ‘deaf’ with a lower case d and the ‘Deaf’ with an upper case D. The ‘deaf’ communities are those who readily accept the use of technology, such as cochlear implants, to aid their hearing as they attempt to fully integrate themselves into the hearing community. Generally, these members of the deaf community do not see themselves as members of deaf culture. Those members who identify as ‘Deaf’, however, do see themselves as members of the deaf culture which they view as a cultural identity rather than a disability. These members of the community generally look down upon the use of technology to integrate into the hearing world and have great pride in their deafness. The Deaf openly use sign language at their workplace and in their daily lives. (Tucker 6). The National Association of the Deaf states that the Deaf “like being Deaf, want to be Deaf, and are proud of their Deafness. Deaf culturists claim the right to their own ethnicity, with their own language and culture, the same way that Native Americans or Italians bong together” (7). The Deaf do have their own shared language that is a highly cohesive factor within the Deaf community. American sign language is a visual rather than spoken language with it’s own grammatical style different from that seen in signed or spoken English. In signed English, each spoken English word has a corresponding sign and uses English grammar.
The debate of the effect of technology on the deaf culture and community has expanded as in 2002 a deaf lesbian couple deliberately created a child who would experience deafness like they had. The two women attempted to find a deaf sperm donor but to their dismay congenital deafness is among the conditions that would disqualify a sperm donor. As a result, they asked a deaf friend with five generations of deafness in the family to act as their donor. The couple considers themselves as a part of the deaf culture as both women were born deaf and feel more a part of the deaf community than the hearing community, “They see deafness as a cultural identity and the sophisticated sign language that enables them to communicate fully with other signers as the defining and unifying feature of this culture.” (Spriggs 283). The couple’s actions are mostly motivated by their desire to have a deaf child to share this culture with and see their actions as no different from attempting to have a girl rather than a boy. The couple states, “Girls can be discriminated against the same as deaf people.” (283). However, although girls may be discriminated against in similar ways they also do not suffer from the inability to hear. The couple’s child was born deaf but some residual hearing in the right ear lead to the possibility of possible technological aid through a hearing aid that would allow the child to better understand spoken English and lip reading. However, the couple decided against the hearing aid in preference of the child becoming more integrated in the deaf culture rather than attempting in any way to assimilate into the hearing culture. There has been great criticism on the couple for their deliberate creation of a deaf child, denying their child a hearing aid, and even for raising the child in a homosexual household. Ken Connor speaks out against their decision, “To intentionally give a child a disability, in addition to all the disadvantages that come as a result of being raised in a homosexual household, is incredibly selfish” (283). Clearly, some are outraged at the idea of a Deaf couple having such pride in their deaf culture that they would want to share this pride and sense of community with their Deaf child. However, other members of the Deaf community also seem puzzled at the deliberate nature of couples actions. Brian Rope, head of the Deafness Forum of Australia states, “I understand where they are coming from…Lots of Deaf parents would like to have a Deaf child, but most of them take what they get.” (283). Additionally, many critics argue that hearing children can be immersed into the deaf culture just as much as Deaf children. Hearing children can learn to speak in sign language and they are also able to understand deaf culture if they are immersed in it. (Savulescu 2).
Reproductive decision making and genetic tests were devised initially to allow couples to have the best possible child they could have with the best possible chance for opportunities and life prospects. For the couple, bringing a Deaf child into the world seemed like the best child they could have in their home since they operate within the deaf culture and this would give the child the best options and opportunities within the Deaf community. The Deaf community appreciates the deafness of others and is critical of those within the Deaf community who attempt to use cochlear implants or spoken English. At Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university in the nation to serve the Deaf community, there is a tense divide among the students with cochlear implants and the students without, “Cochlear implants are greatly frowned upon at Gallaudet…implanted individuals who attend Gallaudet are usually pressured (often by their peers rather than by staff or faculty members) to remove them or at least not wear their processors.” (Tucker 9). Interestingly, the couple’s decision to not allow their child to have a hearing aid may have been directly affected by this as both women attended Gallaudet University. The students at Gallaudet seem to be Deaf culturists that shun any use of technology that would cause a Deaf individual to distance themselves from their deaf culture. The ASL sign for a cochlear implant even expresses this hatred of technology for the deaf as it “contains a two fingered stab in the back of the neck, indicating a ‘vampire’ in the cochlea.” (9). Parents who have decided to allow their children to have cochlear implants think differently. One parent, Melissa Chaikof, states, “If the cochlear implant has removed my daughters from Deaf culture, and it probably has, then that is fine by me. The Deaf culturist’s opportunities in life are so limited, and my daughters’ are not. Furthermore, it has been the choice of those in the Deaf culture to exclude those with implants from their group.” (9). It seems that those who choose to use technology to aid their hearing are not attempting to distance themselves from Deaf culture, rather they are attempting to increase their chance at more opportunities in life but as a result have received criticism from Deaf culturists and are ostracized from the group.
Clearly, technology has created a tense divide within the deaf community- there are members who accept technology as a way to increase opportunities and life prospects and there are members who consider technology as a threat to the deaf culture that has been built upon the reliance on American Sign Language and the bonding through their experience of deafness. As technology continues to improve on listening devices and hearing aids the Deaf community either will continue to divide or somehow find a place for technological advances within their community.
Savulescu, Julian. "Sign In." Bmj.com. National Institutes of Health, 5 Oct. 2011. <http://www.bmj.com/content/325/7367/771.full>.
Spriggs, M. "Journal of Medical Ethics." Lesbian Couple Create a Child Who Is Deaf Like Them (2002): 283. Print.
Tucker, Bonnie P. "Deaf Culture, Cochlear Implants, and Elective Disability." The Hastings Center Report 28.4 (1998): 6-14. Print.