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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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Problems Regarding Communication

Even if sign languages are as good as other languages, deaf people may face other problems. Humans need others in order to communicate. If only a small number of people use a language, then the chances of finding other language users interested in discussing the subjects one is interested in are reduced.

Some may claim that the small size of the Deaf community results in other benefits that outweigh this difficulty. The Deaf community, they may say, is unusually close knit, warm, and supportive (see, for example, Ladd, 2003, pp.360–361). As opposed to the hearing community, it offers the benefits of the village over the city. Of course, some people like living in villages. However, a deaf person, who cannot communicate with hearing people, has no choice. (See Nyman, 1991, for a discussion of the problems faced by gay members of the Deaf community, for example.)

For those deaf people who would rather belong to a large community, being limited in their ability to communicate with the hearing population is a major disadvantage But is it a disadvantage for those who are quite happy communicating with mainly other deaf people? I suggest that it is a disadvantage to have to belong to a small community even if one likes small communities, although the disadvantage is only slight. This is because in general it is a good thing to have worthwhile opportunities, even if one does not presently want to take advantage of them. Thus, I benefit, slightly, from there being a sports center at my university even if I do not presently foresee ever wishing to go there. People generally value “leaving their options open,” mainly because they might want to make use of an opportunity in the future. In addition, even if someone never actually makes use of an opportunity, they may dream of making use of it in the future, an activity that in itself is often of value. Thus, I can enjoy talking and thinking about vacations that I may one day take, even if I never actually take a vacation. It is a slight disadvantage for a deaf person to be limited to the Deaf community, even if that person would choose to belong that community.

At this point it might be suggested that deaf people often have problems communicating with hearing people because there is a lack of interpreters or because hearing people cannot sign, rather than because they are deaf per se. If there were the facilities, deaf people could communicate with hearing people if they wanted and avoid the problems associated with belonging to a small community.

It is certainly true that the extent to which deafness restricts someone’s ability to function socially depends on the kind of environment within which a deaf person lives. There have been communities in which everyone, hearing and deaf, could use sign language, and in such societies deaf people experience no problems with communication (see, for example, Groce’s description of Martha’s Vineyard [1985]). Changes in the material and social environments can make a difference. In the late 18th century, it was claimed that one of the major disadvantages of sign language compared to oral language is that sign language cannot be used to communicate in the dark.6 Today, widespread lighting means that there is almost always enough light to see signs. As such, a disadvantage that may have existed in the past no longer exists.

Biological conditions can be a bad thing in some environments but not in others. For example, dyslexia may have some kind of biological root, and there may well have been people with dyslexic brains throughout history. Still, it is only a bad thing to be dyslexic in societies that use writing. As a consequence, stone-age dyslexics did not suffer from a bad condition whereas present-day dyslexics do. Similarly, deafness limits a deaf person’s ability to function socially only in certain societies. If communication difficulties were the only negative consequences of being deaf, then being deaf would be a bad thing only in certain societies.

On occasion, this point has been taken to show that deaf people have problems with communication only from a certain “point of view” and that from another point of view the problem lies with the hearing population. Thus, Wendell (1996) writes,

From a medical and rehabilitative point of view (which is also the point of view of most hearing people), a deaf child is disabled by her inability to hear, and so the child becomes the focus of efforts to “normalize” her as far as possible within the hearing community. But from another, equally valid point of view, the same child is handicapped by hearing people’s (often including her parents’) ignorance of Sign. (Wendell, 1996, p. 29)
This way of describing things is unhelpful. Rather than the communication problems stemming from the child’s inability to hear, or from her parents’ inability to sign, the communication problems suffered by deaf people are relational problems—the problem stems from the fact that the child cannot hear coupled with the fact that her parents cannot sign. As such, the communication difficulties of deaf people can be solved either by hearing people learning sign language, or, potentially, through altering the deaf person (e.g., through cochlear implantation).

Relational problems faced by people who are physically or mentally different are not uncommon. Consider the following cases:

1. Black people suffer discrimination.
2. A gay man regrets having no children.
3. An ugly person cannot find a partner.

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