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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Epistemologies: Multiple Perspectives on the Acquisition of Knowledge
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Differences in Sensations

Deaf people necessarily miss out on certain sensations that others find intensely pleasurable. A deaf person will never get to hear symphonies or birdsong. Surely, this is at least one aspect of being deaf that must be admitted to be a bad thing? Unfortunately, things are not so simple. Of course, to have no sensations in any sensory modalities at all would be awful; such a person would be entirely cut off from the world. However, plausibly, there is a limit to the volume of sensations that our brains can process. As such, we will be able to appreciate only so much, and there must be a point where having an additional sense would not be a blessing but merely produce confusion.

Some might suggest that this cannot be the case with being able to hear—natural selection has fitted us with five senses, and so our brain must be able to make use of that amount of data. Remember, however, we now live in environments unlike those in which humans evolved. Maybe present environments contain more stimuli, and as a consequence most of us now live in states of sensory overload.

I suggest that there are no senses that are necessarily a blessing. With luck, we will live in an environment where many of our sensations are pleasant, but this need not be so. Take smells. If pollution increases, then people who lack a sense of smell may come to be considered unusually fortunate. Similarly, there are environments in which deaf people miss out on few pleasant sensations. If one lives under a railway, with neighbors who play novelty pop records at full volume, then not hearing noises is a benefit.

Not only is it possible that sounds might on balance be unpleasant, but people who are deaf from birth experience sensations that hearing people do not. Deaf people may become more sensitive to vibrations and to visual stimuli than hearing people are (Bahan 2008; Bavelier et al., 2000). Such sensations bring their own pleasures, which might make up for those lost. (This possibility is nicely explored in Michael Dowse’s 2004 film It’s All Gone, Pete Tong, which is about a DJ who becomes deaf and gradually comes to a greater appreciation of visual sensations and vibrations.) I conclude that the fact that deaf people miss out on auditory sensations that many enjoy does not show that deafness is a bad thing.

Auditory sensations may have other benefits than producing pleasure: They give us information about our environment. Thus, a fire alarm may warn hearing people of danger, for example. However, as deaf people may become more sensitive in other sense modalities, it is not clear that hearing people will always have the edge when it comes to finding out about the environment.

Differences in Language

It is extremely difficult for congenitally deaf people to learn to speak. Even after years of voice tuition, many never manage to speak intelligibly (Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996, p. 361). As a consequence, deaf people are often cut off from the hearing population. In addition, many deaf people fail to learn to read and write well.5 Theorists are divided as to whether this is because the amount of time some deaf children spend trying to learn to speak leaves little time for other activities, whether this is because the structure of sign language is so different from that of English that learning to read is difficult, or whether there is some other explanation.

Some activists associated with the Deaf community claim that this does not matter.6 Deaf people have their own languages in which they can become fluent. Sign languages enable Deaf people to communicate with other Deaf people and form the basis for vibrant Deaf cultures. There are signed poems, jokes, and plays. According to many scholars, the problems experienced by those who use sign languages when seeking to communicate with the hearing population are no different in kind from those experienced by members of other linguistic minorities (Ladd, 2003; Lane, 1992; Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996).

In assessing such claims, we must ask two questions. First, is the situation of a Deaf person analogous to that of the members of other linguistic minorities? Second, is it true that sign languages are as good as any other language and that Deaf culture is as good as any other culture?

Is the situation of a Deaf person analogous to that of a member of another linguistic minority? There are some similarities. Many members of other linguistic minorities are unable to speak the majority language and experience difficulties communicating with the rest of the population. However, there are also important differences. Members of other linguistic communities can learn to speak the majority language. In contrast, for congenitally deaf people, it may not be a viable possibility. This difference is important and means that deaf people are disadvantaged relative to the members of other linguistic communities in this respect.

Are sign languages as good as other languages? Often scholars claim that all languages and all cultures are equally good. To take a typical example, in his book Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks claims that

all languages, whether signed or spoken, no matter how new, or how limited their geographical distribution, have the same potential, the same range of possibility—none can be dismissed as “primitive” or “defective”. Thus British Sign Language (BSL) is fully the equal of ASL; Irish Sign Language is fully the equal of both; and so too is Icelandic Sign Language (even though there are only seventy deaf people in Iceland). (Sacks, 1991, p. 165)

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