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Epistemologies: Multiple Perspectives on the Acquisition of Knowledge|
Peter V. Paul and
Part IV: Educational and Philosophical Perspectives
Can It Be a Good Thing to Be Deaf?
In this chapter, I ask whether it can be a good thing to be deaf. Before the philosophical work begins, a note regarding terminology is necessary. It has become commonplace for writers to distinguish between Deaf people, with a capital D, and deaf people, with a lowercase d. Capital-D Deaf people self-ascribe to Deaf culture, think of themselves as part of the Deaf community, and typically communicate using a sign language. Lowercase-d deaf is less standardized, but I use it to describe people who are physically deaf but who may or may not consider themselves to be part of the Deaf community. Some writers have used the term only for people who do not identify with the Deaf community (Ladd, 2003). I reject this usage because it leaves no term to refer to people who are physically deaf but whose cultural affiliation is unclear. The hearing status and communication modalities employed by people who are “physically deaf” are heterogeneous. People may have different degrees of hearing loss, they may have been deaf from birth or become deaf later, and they may use speech, a sign language, or a mixture. In this chapter, I focus on people who have been physically deaf from birth, use a sign language, and are fully involved in the Deaf community.
It is increasingly common for activists associated with the Deaf community to claim that it can be a good thing to be Deaf. They mean not only that deafness might be a blessing in some cases (as, for example, in the case of a draftee whose deafness excuses him from service) and that one might have a good life despite being deaf, but also that deafness in and of itself can be a good thing. Deafness is not pathological but merely another way of being normal, or possibly even a way of being better than normal, they claim. Despite such assertions, however, much of the hearing world remains unconvinced and continues to think of deafness in negative terms.
Whether it can be good to be deaf is an important question, as it has practical consequences. Many philosophers of medicine hold that a condition should be considered pathological only if it is a bad thing (Cooper, 2002; Englehardt, 1974; King, 1954; Reznek, 1987), although what they qualify as “bad” may differ. Assuming they are right, if and when deafness is a good thing, it is not pathological. This implies that it does not need “fixing” by medical experts. Following this line of thought, some Deaf parents have refused cochlear implants for their children, and others have refused genetic testing designed to enable the detection and abortion of deaf fetuses.1 There have also been cases where Deaf couples have purposefully conceived deaf babies, in the belief that it is good to be deaf.2 Whether such actions should be encouraged or permitted depends at least in part on whether it can be good to be deaf.
IS IT ACCEPTABLE FOR HEARING PEOPLE TO ASK WHETHER IT CAN BE A GOOD THING TO BE DEAF?
Judging the quality of others’ lives is often considered ethically dubious. However, there are multiple areas in which such questions cannot be avoided. To list just a few examples, when considering whether to have children ourselves or to help others to have children, we are frequently forced to question what kinds of people should be brought into existence. When deciding whether to undergo medical treatments or other alterations we have to consider what kinds of people we wish to become. At a societal level, we have to make decisions as to which people deserve compensation or help because through no fault of their own their lives are not as good as others’ lives. Even if it is necessary to determine whether it can be good to be deaf, some activists associated with the Deaf community have claimed that such questions can only be appropriately considered by Deaf people. For example, Paddy Ladd, Mike Gulliver, and Sarah Batterbury have claimed that
Research affecting Deaf people and their lives must be Deaf-led; originating with Deaf people, coordinated by Deaf people and disseminated by Deaf people for the empowerment of the Deaf community. Any other level of involvement, especially within an academy whose stated aim is the attainment of “full knowledge” simply renders the research invalid. (2003, pp. 27)
This chapter is based on my 2007 article “Can it be a good thing to be deaf? in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 32, 563–583. This paper also has been presented at seminars at Bristol University and Lancaster University, and I am grateful for the comments of those present. Mike Gulliver and Kearsy Cormier, in particular, have been generous with advice. I expect that both will continue to think much of the final version of this paper wrong-headed, but while we disagree on much, I am very grateful for their help.