In the United States the term "minority" often infers membership within an ethnic or cultural minority group. However, this term also encompasses other groups that lack equality, such as women, homosexuals and people with disabilities. By definition, the hearing majority classifies Deaf people as minorities because of their inability to hear. Yet linguists and social scientists argue that the basis of Deaf people's status as a minority group is not one of disability, but as a cultural and linguistic minority (Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan: 1996: 335-6). In order to assert that Deaf people are a linguistic and cultural minority in America the characteristics of a minority group must first be defined.
According to Schaeffer, members of a minority group share the following five characteristics:
Furthermore, ethnic minorities have other characteristics that set them apart from the majority such as language, national origin and cultural differences. (Schaffer, 1998: 7)
Audism is defined as an attitude based on pathological thinking which results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear; like racism or sexism, audism judges, labels, and limits individuals on the basis of whether a person hears and speaks. (Humphrey and Alcorn, 1995: 85)
Unequal treatment and the lack of power are phenomena Deaf people have endured throughout time because of their inability to hear. Historically hearing people viewed deafness as a defect of the mind and body and they did not afford the Deaf the right to an education, own property or sign contracts.
Deaf people have long been subjugated by hearing people in all areas of life. The most blatant act of audism occurred in the education of Deaf children. From 1880 until today hearing people have dictated that the method of education utilized should be one that enables the Deaf to more readily assimilate into the mainstream society. In order to achieve this goal, Deaf children were forced to wear auditory trainers (machines that supposedly allowed them to listen to teachers' voices) and were slapped with rulers if they attempted to sign or gesture out of frustration. (Graybill video) The focus of Deaf education was not about teaching Deaf children material appropriate to grade level but altering behavior and improving speech ability. Even with such an antagonistic environment the Deaf were forced into obtaining an education - but for what means? Until 1880 many Deaf people worked as teachers of the Deaf, but after the Milan Conference of 1880, which decreed that all instruction of Deaf be done through spoken language, Deaf teachers were terminated and forced into menial labor. Even with the increased acceptance of sign language and manual communication in the latter part of the twentieth century, audistic practices and attitudes still remain. In 1988, the Board of Trustees of Gallaudet University - the only college for Deaf people in the world, elected a hearing president to govern the school. Although there were two Deaf candidates, one of them a deaf dean within the institution, the board chose to appoint Elizabeth Zinser, a hearing woman who could not sign and communicate with the Deaf students and faculty members. In defense of appointing Zinser, the chairman of the Board of Trustees allegedly stated, "Deaf people are not ready to function in a hearing world." (Gannon, 1989:37) Although she professed that that her comments were misinterpreted, reporters broadcasted these words nationwide.
The second attribute states that members of a minority group share physical and cultural characteristics that distinguishes them from the majority such as skin color or language. The obvious difference between the Deaf and the majority group is the hearing majority's ability to hear. Because communication among the dominant group occurs aurally and orally, a member of the dominant group may believe that the degree of hearing loss is important to being a member of the Deaf culture. Although it is important, it is not the deciding factor. In order to gain acceptance as "Deaf" the individual must accept their deafness and live as a Deaf person. A deaf person must reject the notion that their deafness is a "handicap." They must reject assimilating into the hearing world and embrace and treasure American Sign Language as their language. Because of the hearing majority's desire to assimilate the Deaf, the language of the Deaf has been bastardized to foster better communication with the majority group. However, Deaf people are proud of their language and have struggled to ensure its survival in the midst of persecution.
The hearing majority ascribe labels such as "hearing-impaired" to classify all people with hearing loss. This phenomenon is similar to the majority labeling cultural minorities with panethnic labels such as Asian or Hispanic. Thus, from the perspective of the hearing majority if an individual has the slightest deficiency of hearing, they are "hearing-impaired," much like individuals in the South who were labeled black if they possessed an iota of "black blood."
The third characteristic Schaeffer asserts is that membership to a dominant or minority group is involuntary. If examining this characteristic from a purely biological perspective, then it does apply to the Deaf community as a whole. Deaf people do not choose to be born deaf, nor do people who were born hearing choose to become deaf. However, from the perspective of its members, membership in the Deaf community is a privilege not a cross to bear.
Deaf people do not automatically grant membership to an individual solely on the basis of hearing loss. In order to be considered a core member of the community an adult Deaf person must:
Membership in the Deaf community is very complex, as with any ethnic minority. In the Deaf community there are labels for those who are audiologically deaf, but choose to reject Deaf culture. When people of other oppressed minority groups begin to identify or attempt to identify themselves more with the majority group, other members of the minority assign these individuals derogatory labels such as "Uncle Tom" and "Wannabe's." In the Deaf culture the equivalent term to such labels is THINK-HEARING. This sign is a modified version of the sign for a hearing person. The sign HEARING is generally produced at the chin representing a hearing person's ability to speak. However THINK-HEARING is produced at the forehead which denotes that the individual possesses the mentality of the hearing majority. Heather Whitestone, Miss America 1994, was deafened at 18 months and learned some form of signed communication. Her primary means of communication was through speech and speech reading. She stated that ASL was too restrictive and that deaf people were limiting themselves with its use. "As long as they don't use English it's not going to help them be successful." (Shelley and Schneck, 1998:5). Many Deaf people believe that she misrepresents the Deaf and is one example of a THINK-HEARING individual.
The fourth characteristic Schaeffer mentions is the minority groups sense of solidarity. Because 90% of deaf children are born into hearing families and because deafness crosses all racial boundaries, there is no identifiable country of origin. However, there are cities and locations much like "Little Italy" or the numerous Chinatowns across the United States that have resulted from Deaf people's migration to be with people of similar backgrounds. Most states have at least one residential school for the Deaf and upon graduation from these high schools many choose to remain in the city where they have been reared. In addition, these cities tend to become magnets that entice Deaf to seek employment nearby because these cities are more aware and open to serve the needs of Deaf people. Cities like Fremont, California and Rochester, New York are areas that tend to have a more bilingual and bicultural flavor. (Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan, 1996: 125) In the areas that offer advanced education for the Deaf, there tends to be more activities for Deaf people. Some cities have their own Deaf theatre companies and there is greater access to other cultural events such as interpreted performances or captioned movies. It is a tremendous temptation for graduates of schools such as California State University Northridge, National Technical Institute for the Deaf and Gallaudet University to remain within the comforts of a "deaf friendly" environment.
Furthermore, because of the common experiences of oppression growing up amidst a majority of hearing people and having to defend their language, Deaf people know the importance of group cohesion. The week-long protest at Gallaudet University (also known as "Deaf President Now") in 1988 is another example of group solidarity. As mentioned previously, the Board of Trustees appointed a hearing person to become the 124th president of the University. Immediately after the announcement, the Deaf students closed down the University - chaining themselves to all the entrances and exits of the campus. Students gave up their Spring Break to continue their protest while Deaf leaders from across the United States and the world converged to support the students' cause. With the selection of a hearing, non-signer for the leadership of a Deaf University - the Deaf had had enough. Funds, letters and supplies poured in from Deaf organizations around the world, and for one week in March of 1988, the world heard the voices of the Deaf. (Gannon, 1989: 11)
The final characteristic purported by Shaeffer is the high degree of intermarriage among members of a minority group. Attending Residential Schools for the Deaf fosters lifelong friendships, many of which result in marriage. In the 1890's, after profiting great sums of money from inventing the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell established the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, presently known as the Alexander Graham Bell Association. His main objectives were to ensure all Deaf children be educated orally and that intermarriage among the Deaf be outlawed. When Alexander Graham Bell became the head of the Eugenics section of the American Breeders Association he asserted "the congenital deaf-mutes of the country are increasing at a greater rate than the population at large; and the deaf-mute children of deaf-mutes at a greater rate than the congenital deaf-mute population." (Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan 1996: 382) Although this proposition could not be substantiated by research, Bell warned the general public that sign language and intermarriage would have detrimental effects on society. (Lane, Hoffmeister, Bahan 1996: 383)
Presently intermarriage continues among the Deaf. However, as with other ethnic minorities there has been an increase in "inter-racial" marriages. With the acceptance of American Sign Language as a foreign language, more people from the majority group encounter deafness and Deaf people. Some Deaf view these marriages as a threat to their culture but most individuals, both hearing and Deaf, have come to more readily accept these "inter-racial" unions.
Without question, Deaf people are considered a minority group in America because of the majority group's pathological view of deafness. If, in fact a hierarchy of minority status exists, Deaf people should be considered equal to other ethnic and cultural minorities.
The language of the Deaf in the United States is American Sign Language and the American Deaf culture is as complex and diverse as any other minority culture that exists in this country. To classify the Deaf as merely a segment of a population comprised of people with disabilities perpetuates audistic practices and fosters oppression.
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