The politics of "Deaf culture"

I have written about the politics of “Deaf pride/Deaf culture” on some previous occasions; the subject interests me mainly because it is such a perfect reductio ad absurdum of “political correctness” and identity politics. The phenomenon first drew my attention in 1988 when I heard about the protests at Gallaudet University, the world’s only university designed entirely for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, against the appointment of a hearing president, Elisabeth Zinser (at that point, Gallaudet had never had a deaf president since its inception in its more than 100-year history). What struck me was not so much the protest itself as the atittudes of militants who railed against the idea of deafness as something that needed to be “fixed”; one of them said that he would puncture his own eardrums if he suddenly woke up with the ability to hear.

This year, the controversy at Gallaudet was not about about a hearing president but about a president who, apparently, wasn’t “deaf enough.” My column on the topic ran in The Boston Globe last week, and since that was before I resumed blogging, I thought I’d share it now.

SINCE LAST MAY, Gallaudet University, the world’s only university designed entirely for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, has been rocked by protests over
the selection of a new president.

Jane K. Fernandes was scheduled to take over from I. King Jordan in January. On Oct. 29, after protesters shut down the Washington campus for more than two weeks, the board of trustees revoked Fernandes’s appointment. This fiasco is a striking example of identity politics gone mad.

In 1988, protesters rebelled against the appointment of a hearing president, Elisabeth Singer, and demanded a deaf president (something Gallaudet had never had since its founding in 1864). Singer resigned , and Jordan was appointed in her place.

Fernandes, the Gallaudet provost whom Jordan wanted to see as his replacement, is also deaf; but to some, “not deaf enough.” She grew up lip-reading and speaking and learned sign language only as a graduate student.

In recent weeks, anti-Fernandes students and professors have denied that their objections had anything to do with her not being deaf enough, and have accused her of raising the issue to pose as a victim of political correctness.

However, the Washington Post reports that the protesters backed off the “not deaf enough” complaint only when they realized that it wasn’t likely to garner sympathy from the outside world. They focused instead on Fernandes’s supposedly autocratic and intimidating leadership style and her alleged lack of interpersonal skills (one critic quoted by the Inside Higher Ed website even noted that she didn’t smile enough).

There were also vague charges that she is insufficiently committed to fighting racism. Yet none of these gripes seem sufficient to justify the passion hat led to her ouster: the protests included hunger strikes and threats of violence.

Some of the criticisms publicly leveled at Fernandes are overtly rooted in identity politics. In a letter to the Post , Gallaudet English professor Kathleen M. Wood excoriated both Fernandes and Jordan for taking the position that Gallaudet is for all deaf students. This misguided inclusiveness, Wood asserted , had attracted deaf students who were “not integrating into Deaf culture” and resisting the use of sign language. She ended her letter by stating, “The new Gallaudet will not be for everyone.”

“Deaf culture” — that’s Deaf with a capital D — has flourished at Gallaudet. It is a radical movement that views deafness not as a disability but as an oppressed minority status akin to race, and also as a unique linguistic culture. The movement holds that there is nothing wrong with being deaf, only with how society has treated deaf people.

Few would deny that, historically, deaf people and others with disabilities have endured stereotyping, bias, and unfairness. Much progress has been made toward seeing people with disabilities as whole individuals, toward focusing on what they can do, not on what they can’t . But it’s a leap from this understanding to the bizarre idea that the lack of hearing is no more a disability than being female or black. (Verbal communication aside, surely being unable to hear environmental sounds often places a person at a serious disadvantage.)

The majority of deaf people do not belong to Deaf culture. It is estimated that at most a quarter of profoundly deaf people in the United States use sign language. Yet at many schools for the deaf, signing has been dogmatically treated as the only acceptable communication; children with some hearing have received little training in auditory and speaking skills. Deaf schools that promote “oralism” have been targeted for protests.

More harmful still, Deaf activists have railed against cochlear implants, which enable many deaf children to gain functional hearing; some deaf parents have denied implants to their children on ideological grounds. The activists also oppose research into cures for deafness through gene therapy and other means.

To them, attempts to “fix” deafness amounts to nothing short of genocide.

Fernandes herself embraces Deaf culture, but she does not want it to be isolated from the hearing world or exclude those who don’t meet purist standards of “Deafness.” She also believes that the deaf community must deal honestly with
the challenges posed by advances in medicine. When this sensible view is rejected under pressure from a handful of radicals, it is a testament to the madness that can prevail when oppressed-minority status becomes a weapon to silence critics.

And here’s a response on a blog called Berke Outspoken, which claims that my column “gets it all wrong.” As far as I can tell, this post finds exactly one actual error: though some bizarre brain-to-hand miscommunication, I misspelled “Elisabeth Zinser,” the name of the temporary hearing president of Gallaudet in 1988, as “Elisabeth Singer.” (Actually, I almost did it again while typing this paragraph.) The blogger, one Jamie, concludes that I “obviously didn’t do [my] homework”; in fact, I had read two articles on the 1988 controversy immediately prior to writing the column.

I’m amused by this point in the “rebuttal”:

She claims most deaf people do not belong to Deaf culture. That may be true, but
oral deaf people do belong to the deaf community even if they are not “culturally” deaf.

First of all, many of those people may not think of themselves as belonging to the “deaf community.” Secondly, there are quite a few who not only don’t belong to “Deaf culture” but actively oppose it.

Jamie, the blogger, also claims that several claims in my column (e.g. about Deaf activists opposing cochlear implants and research into cures for deafness) are made up out of whole cloth. My 2002 Reason column on the topic has much more on the sources.


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15 responses to “The politics of "Deaf culture"

  1. Memphis Steve

    Every generation thinks itself to have progressed beyond the insanity and ignorance of the previous ones, but surely this whole ‘deaf culture’ crap is evidence that we never really do.

  2. Ridor

    As usual, Cathy, you’re misguided.

    And I do not waste my time in educating the misguided folks out there.

    Memphis Steve, that picture of yours is self-explanatory in reflecting who you are.

    R- — Be afraid, be very afraid.

  3. Dustin Ridgeway

    Very Bizarre.

  4. Anonymous


    You should join Monkey culture so you don’t need to learn how to oral. Lucky, you can communicate with the monkey who is skill at signing ASL.

  5. Anonymous


    You have to read about America Deaf culture say;

    “The “pathological” view of Deaf people has also been called the Clinical-Pathological view or the Medical Model. Essentially this view accepts the behaviors and values of people who can hear as “standard” or “the norm” and then focuses on how Deaf people deviate from that norm. This is the perspective that has been traditionally held by a majority of non-deaf professionals who interact with the Deaf Community only on a professional basis. In a sense, this is the “outsider’s” view – a view that focuses on how Deaf people are different from non-deaf people and a view that generally perceives those differences negatively. It is also a view that deaf people have something wrong with them, something that can and must be “fixed.” Those who hold a pathological view might define the Deaf Community as:

    a group of people whose hearing loss interferes with the normal reception of speech;

    a group of people who have learning and psychological problems due to their hearing loss and their perceived communication difficulties;

    a group of people who are not “normal” because they cannot hear.”

  6. Anonymous

    Professionals can be easily fooled by me. They cant put a face value on me, anyway. It is because I have a 120db hearing loss(equal to Boeing jet) and my speech is excellent. I talk normal to hearing people, and I get their facial expression shock and awe all the time. They could easily preceived me as ‘the norm’ and Im a fluent signer, too. I have a college degree (not at gallaudet, of course). I dont have psychological problems, but they do. They just dont know how to communicate with us. If you learn a bit, you ll realize how easy it would be for everyone. It is the same I took in french, but I dont need it. I can sign with UK, Australia, Germany, French, and Spain friends. As many would think, it is the same ASL, but it isnt.(we use 1 hand, they use 2 hands). Go look youtube and type bsl and asl. If you look closely, you ll see its different. Anyway, I am not interested about having a cochlear implant drilled in my head. You want me to get myself fixed so that it is for society’s sake of convenient. It is inconvenient for me because I dont want to get my head banged and be fallen into darwinism death. But I dont know about you guys when you get older. I wonder how BIG inconvenient it must be for you, when you get older. It must be tough trying to learn to hear again. Or maybe you decided to learn how to sign, but your mind isnt as sharp as it used to be. Thinking…Okay, now you can do sign language!(congratulation in advance) But, to us, without a blink in the eye, we know you sign like a monkey. (fyi-monkey is not even close to ASL, zoologist made it up anyway). To us, We would think you are not normal or something is wrong with you. I just hope you can stay sane, and not wound up in sanitarium. So, which choice would it be for the sake of your sanity? Or be like rush lumbag? (pun intended) He never want to be anywhere near deaf people, because he is ashamed of himself. Im sure there are plenty of people like him in this world are just as sad as some of those comments above. ASL could be your lifesaver!

  7. Dustin Ridgeway

    Wow. My knowledge of “deaf culture” and respect for “deaf Culture”, rose & fell by 200% respectively.

    Hey man, more power to ya. Sign yourselves silly.

    Maybe you guys can found your own Deaf Colony.

  8. Pablo

    ridor, if Cathy is wrong about “deaf identity politics” would you care to explain why you went nuclear on Wizbang for not having a deaf category for their Blog Awards?

    Would you like to explain the term “hearies” that is in such frequent use in your complaints?

  9. Anonymous


    Im not in deaf colony, stupid.

  10. Cathy Young

    Can we please cut out the name-calling, guys.

  11. Anonymous

    My response to this blog is late however a friend sent me this blog:

    I admit I was confused because in one of my ASL classes, the instructor said that Deaf people did not want to be part of American culture and then after reading the blog, I realized that not only did the teacher not teach us about other deaf people she actually said there are “specific” types of deaf.

    In the comments of the blog, someone posted a link to and one of the bloggers there trashed the original blog. But then I noticed that the person who responded to the original blog began talking about a “race” of deaf people.

    I don’t know. I am starting to think that I was deliberately misled by my deaf education teachers because I noticed in reading the DeafDC blog author’s biography blurb said she was an English teacher at Gallaudet.

    Is it really acceptable to have an English professor at Gallaudet promote something such as race? That seems a political issue more than anything else.

    I don’t know what to think anymore. The original blog I read was written by a deaf person, and I didn’t really see any “oralism against ASL” arguments so much as pointing out that deaf culture seems to be self-repressed group.

    Your comments on the blog would be great. I learned alot from reading this blog, too.


    -Concerned Deaf Educator student

  12. Anonymous


    You have great blog. right on the subject.
    I found your blog as I was looking for hearing aids and specific information on ampliear.

    I have also found more articles on hearing aids.

    I wpould like to hear your opinion on these reviews. Are they for real?


  13. Anonymous

    Cathy, I am deaf, and I do not associate myself with the ‘Deaf politics’ of which you speak if I may be so blunt, it pisses me right off!
    Im in Ireland, I lipread and use my voice to full effect, I have only learned sign in the pase few years, and i started to loose my hearing when I was 7, Im now 25, and I find I get, shuned, ignored, almosed pushed aside because like that, ‘Im not deaf enough’

    There is this elietist attitude with a minority, and it is only a minority, I have many deaf friends who are really cool about everything, but there is a minority who dont want to know you if you can talk, or dont sign well, or lipread, or what ever even if you are the exact same as them in that you hear sweet nothing!!

    The politics is utterly annoying, when us deaf people as a collective community (of which im part of) fight for the rights of everyone else, recognition of our language, Deaf issues training, we want to have a ‘voice’ if ull pardon the pun, within our society, we want equal rights, and then there are a minority who go off and do things like this, and the negetive speacks so much louder than the positive unfortunatly so everyone paints us all in the same light and its not true, we are all deaf, but we dont all believe in the stupid and abrasive politics!

    I would adore to talk to you further on your artical and views if you would accept and email from me.
    I would love to get to the bottom of the thinking behind it, and this is coming from a deaf person!


  14. Anonymous

    And before you all go pouncing on me about what I said, please understand im not talking about Galudet, I know nothing about it to judge or hold views on that particular situation, Im meerly speaking in general, thank you.

  15. KateGladstone

    I wish I could ask one question of the man who said he’d puncture his own eardrums if one day he woke up hearing:

    Sir, if you become a father and you find out that your child hears, will you puncture your child’s eardrums?

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