It stands to reason that when I need to really be getting on with my uni work, all of a sudden a serious post leaps into my mind and I find myself compelled to bash it out. I am aware that I have missed the official day for blogging against disablism, but this post has come about in reaction to those posts blogging against disablism in my blogroll. You see, few, if any, of them mentioned deafness. This seems to be a problem with my blogroll, as rummaging through the mother-post, I did find some posts of relevance, here, here and here. (I will have to consider calling a blogroll repair company to get this fixed.)
I have found myself wondering if perhaps many people in the Deaf community are correct in their assertion that deafness is not a disability. I have always thought of it this way when considering my mother’s deafness: deafness is a communications disability. Since we judge a person by the way they communicate with us, this explains the enormous amount of discrimination and rudeness that deaf people have to deal with every day. Difficulty communicating is confused with stupidity or rudeness. But thinking about it more, I realise that this is incorrect. Deaf people communicate fine - in sign language, by lip-reading, by textphone, by text message, over the Internet.
The problem stems from the fact that hearing people do not know how to and are often not actually willing to communicate with deaf people. For the record, my mother doesn’t know sign language - she lost her hearing in her forties and found adult sign language classes to be completely biased towards hearing people - but a lack of sign language among hearing people is not the extent of the problem. Complete ignorance of how to communicate by voice to a deaf person is rife - on being told that a deaf person needs to lip-read, people will still shout, talk quickly, turn away from them, chew gum, and when the deaf person cannot understand what is being said, often the hearing person will react as if this is the deaf person’s fault.
Some of the stories my mother has told me about the way she is treated have made my blood boil. I pride myself on being a hugely laid-back individual, but I know that if I was ever around while someone was treating my mum this way I would blow a gasket. In a shop I would demand to speak to the manager and then try to get the employee fired on the spot (I guess I am a typical son in this respect: "don't be dissin' my mom"). If some employees treated all hearing people the way they treat deaf people, they would get fired on the spot. Of course, if I am around when my mum is speaking to someone, I am able to smooth out the communication difficulties and even if I am able to see mild prejudice, it rarely meets the disgusting level it might when I am not there. (Although I think the fact that my presence makes a difference still speaks volumes about the discrimination occurring).
Discrimination is, naturally, institutional and not just limited to individuals. You have probably seen textphone numbers on adverts, bank letters and bills and thought, “What a lovely company!” Except nine times out of ten, my mum will find that the textphone will not be answered, it will be engaged, it will not be answered and then will be engaged (ie. it is taken off the hook after ringing the first time) or the number given will be incorrect. Typetalk is a service where an operator will play the go-between for a deaf person on a textphone and a hearing person on a voice phone. Except no-one has heard of it. People will hang up while typetalk is being explained to them because they cannot be bothered or they think that it is a prank or marketing call. And don’t use typetalk to call any big businesses: it is extremely difficult for the operator-deaf person pair to ‘press 3 now’. Not to mention that many shops, through their reliance on PAs and their constant piped in music can make things very difficult for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Even on the Internet, discrimination against deaf people is rife. Videos are almost never subtitled. Podcast transcripts are the exception, not the rule. Once, when logging onto her banking site to manage her finances, my mother was given a voice phone number and told to call her bank as soon as possible. Many eBay auctions require a paypal account and in order to activate a paypal account one must receive an automated phone call and write down a series of numbers. Discrimination against deaf people is everywhere, and I curse this fact myself every time I want to go hunt down some shop assistant and rip their ears off and every time I have to make an urgent phone call on behalf of my mother and every time I see someone looking at her as if their inability to communicate properly with her is somehow her fault.
But is deafness a disability, as most hearing people assume it is, or, as many deaf people feel, is deafness actually a culture which is discriminated against? My mother has a firm opinion on this count. She feels that being unable to hear music or birdsong is reason enough to consider it a disability, although this feeling obviously arises from having been born hearing. There is also a safety aspect. If you are hearing, imagine how you’d feel if you knew that someone could break into your house at night and walk right into your room and you wouldn’t even know it. Next time you are out and about, keep track of how much you use your hearing when moving - whether it’s crossing the road when you can hear no cars or dodging out of someone’s way without even seeing them coming. I am going to argue that deafness is a disability, since it makes some things impossible and some things difficult. But I am also going to argue that deafness is actually a rather mild disability. And here’s where I think my point really comes to the fore: deafness is only so serious a disability in so far as it is so thoroughly discriminated against. In this respect I think that blogging against discrimination against deaf people is extremely important. Most of the problems with being deaf actually stem from direct discrimination.
Finally, let me leave you with a thought. A lot of the “blogging against disablism” posts I have read that were written by non-disabled people had an air of superiority to them. "Of course, I would never discriminate against people in wheelchairs or blind people or people with mental disabilities." Let me tell you something: if you have ever said ‘excuse me’ to a person and then assumed that they are rude when they don’t get out of your way, if you have ever assumed that someone who has difficulty understanding what you are saying is stupid, then you have been prejudiced. If you do not know how to speak to a deaf person, if you have ever been impatient or annoyed or rude with a person because it has taken extra time to communicate with them, if you post audio content to your site without subtitles or a transcript, if the easiest way to communicate with your business is by voice phone, then you are discriminating. There are a million other ways and I know that I have myself been guilty of some of them. I suspect that many people who have blogged against disablism have too.