The rise of Deaf Pride

16 Comments

AuslanRecently, the ABC aired an interview with the CEO of a successful company promoting the cochlear implant, the pride of Australian technical and business achievement which, implanted in a deaf person, can enable that person to hear perfectly.

Perhaps he did not use the word 'perfect', but that was certainly the sense of the interview. The company's website is more circumspect, promising merely that the device is 'designed to provide useful hearing sensations'.

That interview grated on me. There was in it an implied hubris, veiled as sincerity, that technology could make deaf people 'normal'. It wasn't the soppy interviewer or the cheerful, can-do attitude of the man being interviewed — he has shareholders to keep happy, after all — so much as the unwarranted interference in the personal lives of people who may not want his expensive gadgetry.

Those of us who have normal hearing feel good if we think technology can provide a way of helping deaf people to hear, to be the same as us. In contrast, according to Deaf Australia, the national peak organisation for the Deaf* in this country, 'Deaf people generally have little interest in 'cures' for deafness. They value their identity as Deaf people and see no value in becoming a different person.'

Deaf Australia's policy on implants, while acknowledging that the leading product in the area is an Australian invention, gives the impression that as a group, they are not easy about its use, particularly with children.

One sentence in their document is particularly striking. They urge implant specialists to 'ensure that parents considering an implant understand that their child will always be a deaf child even with an implant'.

The group is also uneasy about the cost of implant programs and implies that the expense of inserting and tuning the device and training the recipient to interpret the sounds being heard — a process that may go on for years — takes money from mainstream services for the Deaf.

There is in this country and in others a thriving Deaf pride movement. It may lack the flamboyance of gay pride or the testiness of ethnic pride, but Deaf people do not see themselves or want to be seen as having a disability. Some have learned to lip read and speak, but all of them have an alternative language, Auslan in Australia, with which they communicate.

It is useful to distinguish between language and speech. For the Deaf, speech is replaced by sign, but those signs form their language; the words they read on a page of written English constitute their second language. Characteristic to the Deaf community is the identification of Auslan as their primary language, though they will also read and write English in their daily lives.

Not many people realise that Auslan is a language, not just a set of mimes or esoteric hand gestures. It has its own grammar and syntax, its own vocabulary, its way of forming sentences, of expressing emotion, its own humour. It is not the same as fingerspelling which is used within Auslan for unusual words that do not have a sign or for proper nouns like names of countries or people.

Research has shown that children of signing parents, whether those children are hearing or deaf, go through the same stages of language acquisition as children who learn spoken language from speaking parents. They make 'nonsense signs' at about the same time that speaking children are 'babbling'; first words and then combinations of words are formed at about the same age. There is even a signing stage corresponding with the lisps or syllabic mixups that we find endearing in children — fwend, hopsital, aksed.

Sign language is not universal but evolves naturally in the same way that spoken languages do. An interesting point here is the connection between Auslan and British and Irish sign languages, particularly evident in religious and specifically Catholic signs, a residue of the role of nuns in earlier work with the Deaf in this country.

The Deaf will tell you that just because billions of Chinese do not know what you are saying when you speak, we do not regard them as having a disability. The Chinese have their own language, you have yours, we have Auslan, they will tell you.

I wonder how the Chinese might react if someone invented an implant that would automatically translate English into Mandarin.

*When used as a word of identity for the cultural and linguistic minority group who have hearing impairment, the convention is to capitalise Deaf. Since not all people with hearing difficulty see themselves as part of the Deaf community, the capitalisation is not used for all deaf people.


Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a retired teacher. His book Keeping Faith: 40 Years of Marist College Canberra was published in 2008.

Topic tags: frank o'shea, cochlear implant, deaf australia, auslan, sign language, deaf pride

 

 

submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you for an insight into a world that few of us can appreciate
Ray O'Donoghue | 18 September 2009


i understand the point about auslan; what i don't understand is how anyone can not find it a tragedy not to hear music. if i [continue to] lose my hearing i'll still be a real person expecting a full vote etc; but it will be a terrible disability
edwin coleman | 18 September 2009


Great article. Although, I think we need to get out there more. Words can only say so much.
Rachael | 18 September 2009


Frank makes a good point well. However, I know two profoundly deaf people whose lives have been greatly enriched, indeed transformed by Cochlear implants. They remain fluent in Auslan and have not lost their identity in the deaf community. For them that analogy with Chinese people is quite distorted. If the Chinese people come to Australia, they benefit by learning Aussie-English as a second language and their use of Chinese when communicating with each other is not diminished by their new ability
Gerry Costigan | 18 September 2009


As someone who is Deaf [from a young age], and seen all the arguments, both pro and con, about being Deaf, missing things like music, birds singing, etc., is not the calamity people think it is.

I can appreciate mourning something you lose, but, as with all change, we adapt and we move on.

What people don't realise, is that deafness is not simply the inability to hear. It is actually a state of mind. The way you think changes, and if you embrace it, it introduces you to new ways of seeing, thinking and interacting

To hear, is not the be all and all of human existence. We have four other senses, potentially more, are we going to trivialise them, just because hearing is perceived to the lynch pin of communication?

It's only that because we underpin our culture and society using audio/ aural communications. We have come to depend on audio/ aural methods that we are lost without it.

Think of the indicators on train platforms. Do we really need sound to argument the text [we can see?]
Tony Nicholas | 18 September 2009


Edwin, it would be a tragedy for you because you have had hearing. The Deaf have not, they have their own culture and so, as I understand it, deafness is not a disability, merely a difference.
Kate Dunn | 18 September 2009


As someone who is Deaf [from a young age], and seen all the arguments, both pro and con, about being Deaf, missing things like music, birds singing, etc., is not the calamity people think it is.

I can appreciate mourning something you lose, but, as with all change, we adapt and we move on.

What people don't realise, is that deafness is not simply the inability to hear. It is actually a state of mind. The way you think changes, and if you embrace it, it introduces you to new ways of seeing, thinking and interacting

To hear, is not the be all and all of human existence. We have four other senses, potentially more, are we going to trivialise them, just because hearing is perceived to the lynch pin of communication?

It's only that because we underpin our culture and society using audio/ aural communications. We have come to depend on audio/ aural methods that we are lost without it.

Think of the indicators on train platforms. Do we really need sound to argument the text [we can see?]
Tony Nicholas | 18 September 2009


Infants of deaf parents have Auslan as their first language because it is the language their parents use.

It is very difficult to have parents choose to learn Auslan when they themselves are hearing and they are still wondering what deafness is going to mean for their child and their family.

For some, implants have been very successful and students of tertiary age can use both speech and signs.

My knowledge of this subject comes from thirty years of educating deaf children and their families and having the first pre-schooler to receive an implant in my program. This was her family's choice and it has served her well. There are certainly some children for whom it is not suited and no-one will force them to have it.

According to our faith parents are the first educators of their children and, if they are show all the alternatives, the choices which they make must be supported by educators. To be able to do this on individual bases with families from the age of diagnosis of deafness was my great privilege.

Where signing was the choice I made sure that family was allocated to a teacher who could sign.
Joan Winter OP | 18 September 2009


Why not hear? My grandson was born deaf and had an implant at about age 5. In a new school, asked to give one fact about himself, he said "I am deaf." Yes, he will always be deaf, but with his implant he can hear and be more fully a part of the world in which he lives. Why would that be wrong? Are prosthetic limbs wrong?
MaryAnn Fenton | 18 September 2009


i understand the point about auslan; what i don't understand is how you anyone can not find it a tragedy not to hear music. if i [continue to] lose my hearing i'll still be a real person expecting a full vote etc; but it will be a terrible disability
edwin coleman | 19 September 2009


Very good comment. As usual the difference between those who have a hearing impairment or are hard of hearing and have and want to live in a hearing world is confused with the Deaf, who as a cultural group have the right to be different and to celebrate that including celebrating their language.
erica smith | 22 September 2009


I was born profoundly deaf - between the ages of four and nine I received several operations and can now hear at about 70%.

I do not see myself as part of the Deaf community, but I do value my silence and find that I communicate with my hands, face and body more than most.

However, I am so thankful that I can hear. I am safer on trains and roads; I can communicate with fully hearing people much easier. I enjoy music (particularly in church) and the sound of hail falling on the roof.
I only get a taste of being deaf these days when I am in a noisy room and the ambient noise means I cannot differentiate the sounds. I don't enjoy those times.

I can understand why being Deaf could become part of someone's identity, but it is not part of mine. I have a Deaf friend with a Cochlear implant and I will admit I enjoy the intimacy that comes from communicating with ones eyes, hands and lip-reading, but I wouldn't give up my hearing for it.
Claire Preston | 22 September 2009


I have lived with deafness all my life and did not realise it. I did not hear birds sing or squealing car tyres on roads. I did not know I was missing anything. at work someone would ask me to answer the phone and I thought what are they talking about, I cannot hear a phone. I went to join the Army and the doctor told me I was deaf I just thought he was stupid. He wrote a letter to my doctor who put a stop watch up to my ear. I could not hear it. so he shook it and put it up to his own ear ... it was ticking. When at secondary school kids used to call me a snob, but now I realise I did not hear them. I have worn 2 hearing aids for about 40 years now. People need to realise that getting used to suddenly hearing noises is very stressful, especially cuttlery being put on the table or people talking so loudly, or so you think as I was hearing people speaking very quietly. I lip read which I obviously taught myself. deafness ran in our family, my mother was deaf, so were others on her side of the family. So, yes, while aids and implants are good, think of the poor people trying to cope with new noises for first time!
Gwen Thomas | 23 September 2009


Certainly the Deaf Community do not see themselves as disabled, and they are free to choose and enjoy their lifestyle and culture. They do not however have the right to impose their views on others in the deaf world - Frank has overlooked the plight of post-linguistically deafened adults, who have their roots in a hearing world.

Imagine this scenario, a 36 year old mother of three children who as a result of injury or illness, suddenly and irreversibly becomes totally deaf. Access to Cochlear Implant technology has enabled us to continue to function effectively as a family and in our hearing world.
Robert O'Toole | 13 October 2009


only deaf tv ok
sonia hackett | 16 October 2009


Interesting point about the language identity aspect, and that goes a long way to explaining the situation...

But whatever the deaf try to tell me about the Chinese is irrelevant to the question of whether they are disabled or not.

I refer anyone who believes deafness is not a disability to the dictionary. Or that big button you see in the middle of steering wheels.
Kimmo | 25 October 2009


Similar Articles

Layman's guide to the climate debate

  • Bronwyn Lay
  • 21 September 2009

There is no opting out of the scientific debate. It has to be followed and understood by the layman because power seems to be setting up shop at its heart. The possibility of 'all being rooned' cannot be the sole motivation to live ethically on the earth.

READ MORE

One year on, Garnaut's glass half full

  • Tony Kevin
  • 16 September 2009

If anyone expected Ross Garnaut to be bitter about the Government's inadequate response to his 2008 Review, they were wrong. He is optimistic about the positive public impact of the Review and said climate change denialists are 'grasping at straws'.

READ MORE

We've updated our privacy policy.

Click to review