Sound Judgment

Does curing deafness really mean cultural genocide?

Even the least reactionary among us may sometimes agree that the celebration of difference and pluralism has brought modern Western culture to the brink of lunacy. One such occasion was the recent broadcast on public television of a documentary, Sound and Fury, examining the controversy over a technology that can enable a deaf person to gain near-normal hearing: the cochlear implant, a device that is surgically inserted into the inner ear. The controversy is not about how well the implant works or whether it poses health risks; it's about whether such a technology is a boon or a bane for the deaf.

Sound and Fury focuses on the conflicts in one Long Island, New York, family: A deaf couple, Peter and Nita Artinian, refuse to let their 5-year-old daughter, Heather, get an implant -- much to the dismay of Peter's hearing parents. "If somebody gave me a pill that would make me hearing, would I take it? No way," Peter Artinian asserts in sign language. "I'd want to go to a hospital and throw it up and go back to being deaf. I want to be deaf....If the technology progresses, maybe it's true deaf people will become extinct, and my heart will be broken. Deaf culture is something to value and cherish. It's my culture." Other deaf people in the film echo his views, praising "deaf culture" and deriding attempts to cure deafness.

Militant "Deaf Pride" activism first gained national visibility in 1988, when six radical students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the country's only liberal arts university for the deaf, successfully blocked the appointment of a hearing university president by organizing student protests. This movement has consciously modeled itself not only on the civil rights activism of the 1960s but even more directly on the gay pride movement. Just as gay activists sought to remove the stigma of "sickness" from homosexuality, deaf activists have been trying to challenge the view of deafness as a deficiency. They draw an explicit analogy between efforts to restore hearing to the deaf (or to prevent deafness altogether) and efforts to "cure" homosexuality.

The activists also insist that "deaf culture," complete with its own language -- American Sign Language, or ASL -- is no different from any other ethnic or linguistic culture. The only deaf people who are truly disabled, deaf activist M.J. Bienvenu has been quoted as saying, are those who "learn forced English while being denied sign." In her view, "for the rest of us, it is no more a disability than being Japanese would be." From such a perspective, "fixing" deafness is nothing less than cultural genocide.

Of course, neither the gay nor the ethnic analogy really holds up. Deafness, all the positive thinking notwithstanding, is defined by the absence of a basic faculty. One may define cultural deafness as the ability to sign, but hearing people can and do learn to use sign language.

Gays, arguably, would not be disadvantaged at all were it not for social prejudice and discrimination. The same can hardly be said of the deaf. While linguists now recognize ASL as a legitimate language, it imposes unique and severe limitations on its users. If it's dark, if your hands are busy or full, if the person to whom you're speaking turns away, you are effectively rendered speechless. Surely, too, the inability to hear environmental sounds that may signal danger to oneself or others -- an oncoming car, a falling object, a baby's cry -- is a real impairment. Notably, while deaf activists insist on redefining deafness as difference rather than disability, they are in no hurry to give up disability-based legal protections and government funding.

Perhaps it's not surprising that some deaf people would try to come to terms with their condition by insisting that they are so happy being the way they are that they would never want to be any other way. (In Sound and Fury, Peter Artinian rhapsodizes about how "peaceful" it is to live in a world of total silence.) What is shocking is that in recent years this defense mechanism frequently has been treated as a serious argument. Sound and Fury, which approaches the controversy over cochlear implants and the preservation of "deaf culture" as a debate in which each side has valid points and merits balanced treatment, is only the latest example.

Thus, Northeastern University psychologist Harlan Lane, a prominent (hearing) champion of "deaf culture" who asserts that to define deaf people as hearing-impaired is like defining women as "non-men," has received a MacArthur fellowship and rave reviews for his work. At the end of a 1994 essay in The New York Times Magazine, Andrew Solomon made this astounding statement: "Perhaps, like the search for a cure to gayness, the search for a cure for the deaf will be dropped by respectable institutions -- which would be both a bad and a good thing."

When such ideas gain currency among intellectual elites, one appreciates the value of the sturdy common sense so treasured by populists -- the kind that would react to all this rhetoric with an incredulous, "This is nuts!" Deaf activists dismiss such an attitude as the arrogance of the hearing, who cannot imagine that there could be anything positive about being deaf. But quite a few deaf people see these activists as an arrogant minority trying to impose its will on everyone else. It is worth noting that only about a quarter of the estimated 2 million profoundly deaf people in the United States use sign language.

Nevertheless, the fringe ideas of Deaf Pride have had consequences. At many schools for the deaf in recent decades, ASL has been dogmatically treated as the only acceptable form of communication, and children with some hearing have received little if any training in auditory and speaking skills. Deaf schools that promote "oralism" have been targeted for protests and picketing. Heather White-stone, the deaf woman who was crowned Miss America in 1995, was denounced by some militants because she speaks -- making her, in their eyes, unsuitable to represent the deaf.

The increasing popularity of cochlear implants, available since 1985 and approved for use in children in 1990, has added urgency to the issue. About 4,000 Americans now receive the implant every year, and the numbers are rising steadily, particularly among young children in their primary speech-learning years: From 1995 to 2000, the annual number of implantations performed in children under 3 grew sevenfold. Deaf activists, meanwhile, have railed against the procedure, comparing it to Nazi medical experiments. Tensions have run so high that some parents have allowed their children to be interviewed for articles on cochlear implant success stories only on the condition that they not be identified.

In the past couple of years, there have been some signs of détente on the issue, thanks in part to vast improvements in cochlear implant technology. In the fall of 2000 the National Association for the Deaf backed away from its adamantly anti-implant stance to embrace a variety of choices and attitudes on the issue. Still, the controversy is far from over. In Sound and Fury, Peter Artinian's father tells him, "If I didn't know you, I would say that you are an abusive parent because you are preventing a cure for deafness." The bizarre scenario of parents refusing to let their children have such a cure for ideological reasons raises the question of whether the state's duty to protect the rights of children should override parental autonomy. As in the cases of parents who deny their children medical treatment in the name of religious faith, there are no simple answers here.

But aside from the question of what the government should do, there is no reason for the news media and other cultural institutions to be deferential toward crackpot beliefs that come with the cachet of "diversity." Perhaps the best way to learn something from the Deaf Pride movement is to see it as a reductio ad ab-surdum of modern identity politics.

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