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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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All these problems are relational in that they can potentially be solved either by changing the individual or by changing society. Black people could have their skin bleached, or society could stop being racist. The gay man could have sex with a woman, children could be obtained via artificial insemination, or changes in adoption law could permit him to adopt a child. The ugly person can have plastic surgery, or social notions of the beautiful or of qualities requisite in a partner could shift.

Despite all these problems being relational, in the sense that they can be solved either by altering the individual or by making social changes, we tend to think about them very differently. Least controversially, the problems faced by black people, we say, should be solved via changing society, not through altering black people’s skin color. In contrast, many people think that the problems faced by the ugly person can best be alleviated by making the ugly person more attractive. In the case of the gay man, many people will split when locating the source of the problem. Some will say that childlessness is a natural consequence of being gay; others believe that people who are childless for whatever reason should be helped to have children.

These examples illustrate that whether a problem is thought of as being caused by the individual’s condition or by society depends on the politics of the situation. All the difficulties are relational in the sense that they could be solved either by changing society or by changing the individual. However, when we think that the individual should change, if possible, we tend to locate the problem as being “in” the individual. Thus, we see ugliness as being an intrinsic problem, and say that it is bad to be ugly. In contrast, when we think that society should change, we locate the problem elsewhere. Thus, we see the problems faced by black people as stemming from racist prejudice. We say that it is bad that society is racist, not that it is bad to be black.

Homosexuality is an especially interesting case in this respect. In the 1970s, it was usual to consider homosexuals who were unhappy about being gay to suffer from a disease, ego-dystonic homosexuality, and this disease could be treated by psychiatrists either through counselling to help the patient accept his sexual orientation or through therapy aimed at changing it. More recently, it has become socially unacceptable for therapists to aim to change their clients’ sexual orientation, even at their clients’ request.7 At the same time, homosexuality is increasingly seen as a condition that is not in itself a bad thing. The problems faced by gay people are instead considered to be caused by a homophobic society. Here we have an example of a condition that ceased to be considered a bad thing as people came to think that the problems faced by homosexuals should be solved by changing society rather than by changing the homosexuals.8

Providing a descriptive account of how, in general, we decide whether problems faced by an individual should be changed by altering the individual or by altering society is too large a task for this essay. Providing a normative account of how such decisions should be made is even more problematic. Very briefly, whether society or the individual should change will depend on the following kinds of factors, among others: (a) what changes are practically possible, (b) whether it is easier for society or the individual to change, and (c) the history that resulted in the problem in the first place. (If, for example, I have intentionally messed up your life, it only seems fair that I should bear the burden of fixing the problem. If self-destructive behavior on your part has produced your difficulties, it seems right that you should bear more responsibility for resolving them.)

Those who adopt social models of disability claim that the source of disabilities lies in society rather than in the individual, and that society should change to fix the resulting problems. (Classic formulations of the social model are given by Oliver, 1990, and Finkelstein, 1980.) For example, those who adopt a social model of disability commonly claim that people in wheelchairs are disabled not by their inability to walk but by a society that builds stairs. This claim should not be understood as a purported description of fact but as a political claim. In themselves, the problems faced by wheelchair users are relational. They can be fixed either by enabling the wheelchair user to walk or by changing the material environment. When the social model of disability claims that society causes disabilities, this should be understood as a political claim, asserting that society and not disabled individuals should change to solve the problems faced by disabled people.

While these political claims are frequently plausible, this will not always be the case. Whether society or the different individuals should change depends on highly contingent factors. In a population with a large percentage of deaf people, it may be reasonable for hearing people to learn to sign. However, it is not the case that the problems faced by atypical people should always and necessarily be solved by changing society. This can be seen by considering an extreme and hypothetical example. Suppose in the future cochlear implant technology improves greatly. It comes to be the case that deafness can be cured completely, and the operation itself advances to the stage where it is almost completely safe and painless. Suppose furthermore that most deaf people have been implanted. Sign languages cease to be living languages, as no one learns them and those who can sign die. Eventually, only one non-oral, signing deaf person remains in the world. I suggest that it is not at all clear that the hearing community would have a duty to learn to sign in order to communicate with this person.


Finally, we are in a position to conclude the discussion of whether it can be a good thing to be deaf. We have gone through the potential costs and benefits associated with being deaf and are now in a position to try to sum these together. First, certainly deaf people miss out on sound sensations. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as deaf people may have more sensations in other sensory modalities, and in any case having more sensations is not necessarily better. Second, deaf people may well be unable to speak and so be limited to sign language. Whether sign languages are as rich as other languages cannot be established a priori but instead depends on empirical facts.

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