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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Epistemologies: Multiple Perspectives on the Acquisition of Knowledge
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The idea that minority groups should only be studied by members of those groups is also commonplace in other areas. For example, in women’s studies some literature considers the “men problem”—the problem that some men wish to do research in women’s studies (Klein, 1983; Philips & Westland, 1992). Similarly, in disability studies (which has developed separately from Deaf studies because many Deaf people do not consider themselves to be disabled), the “emancipatory” research paradigm proposed by Mike Oliver and others suggests that all research on disabilities should be controlled by people with disabilities and that disability research should be “part of the struggle by disabled people to challenge the oppression they currently experience in their daily lives” (Oliver, 1992, p. 102). The idea that minority groups should be studied only by members of those groups potentially can be supported in two ways. First, there is the thought that members of the minority group are in an epistemically privileged position: They have first-hand knowledge of what it is like to be a member of the group. Second, some theorists are inspired by the idea that knowledge is power and claim the right for minorities to study themselves as a political statement.

Whatever the motivation, the claim that only the members of a minority group should study that group becomes problematic. Such a stance rules out the possibility of making many comparative judgments, and often when we evaluate a way of being, what we are really after is a comparative judgment. Suppose, for example, we are trying to decide whether fetuses with Down syndrome should be aborted. When we ask whether people with Down syndrome have a poor life, what we really need to know is whether they have a poor life compared to those without Down syndrome. We want to know whether one way of being is better or worse than another. However, if only those who are a certain way can judge it, then many comparative judgments are ruled out.

The belief that for political reasons only the members of minority groups should study such groups leads to an endless fragmentation of areas of study. Neither women nor disabled people nor Deaf people form homogeneous classes. Thus, if one thinks that it is unjustifiable for men to write about women, one should also think it unjustifiable for white women to write about black women, and so on. However, claiming that only black bisexual women should study black bisexual women, and only prelingually Deaf people should study prelingually Deaf people, is problematic, as in many cases one will be left with very few people who are “qualified” to study a way of being. When few people work on a problem, the chances of any of them being able to solve it are reduced.

For these reasons, I reject the suggestion that only the members of minority groups should study such groups. In saying this, however, I do not mean to imply that the viewpoints of deaf people can be ignored when asking whether it can be good to be deaf. Of course, what deaf people have to say about the advantages or disadvantages of being deaf is important. Through being deaf, deaf people are likely to notice consequences of deafness that others would not. Still, once deaf people have said why they like or dislike being deaf, much work to be done in evaluating their claims can be done by hearing researchers as easily as it can be done by deaf researchers. As an example, a deaf person may suspect that deaf people have enhanced visual awareness, but it still takes a psychologist to find out whether deaf people really do see things differently and a philosopher to work out whether any such enhanced vision is necessarily a good thing. While the psychologist and philosopher may be deaf, I see no reason why they need to be.


Ask Deaf People

When hearing people become deaf, they typically experience this as a loss. A deafened person becomes unable to participate in activities that he or she used to take for granted. That person can no longer chat with friends on the phone or listen to music. The ways in which the person has learned to deal with the world no longer work. All things being equal, it is a bad thing to become deaf.

It is tempting to think that because it is a bad thing to become deaf it must also be a bad thing to be deaf from birth. This, however, does not necessarily follow. The temptation comes from thinking of congenitally deaf people merely in terms of deficiency, as people who cannot do various things, while forgetting that deaf people develop skills and abilities that other people do not have. Those who claim that it can be a good thing to be deaf normally have congenitally deaf people in mind. In asking whether deafness can be a good thing, I too mainly am concerned with congenitally deaf people. From now on, when talking about Deaf or deaf people, I am referring to people who have been deaf from birth.

One might think that one can determine whether it is a good thing to be born deaf by asking someone who has been deaf all their life. Indeed, based on their experience of what it is like to be deaf, some deaf people will claim that being deaf is a good thing.3 Unfortunately, the matter is not so simple. When we ask whether being deaf from birth is a good thing, we really want to know whether it is better, or at least as good, as being hearing from birth, but no one can possibly be in a position to answer this question. No one can be born both hearing and deaf.

Admittedly, some deaf people try using cochlear implants and then choose to abandon them because they like being deaf better. However, such individuals have tried hearing with a brain that has become adapted to deafness. As a consequence, the experience of being deaf and using a cochlear implant may be unlike the experience of having been hearing from birth.

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