There are many people who take their abilities to communicate for granted. How many of us have learned to speak naturally, without effort? Of course, mute people have had it difficult, but they have half communication skills naturally – they can still hear what others tell them. The difficulties lie, however, when your ability to hear and speak are both compromised by the loss of your hearing. But, if you tell a Deaf person that they are handicapped, watch and learn: you might not get the reply you expect.
Ask any Deaf person if they would rather be Deaf or blind, and depending on their situation, most will tell you that they are happy to be Deaf because their ‘handicap’ is limited to those who don’t understand what deafness is all about. Yes, it is another world altogether; after all, they have their own language. Those who have learned about this community will tell you that they are shocked to find out that several don’t even consider themselves handicapped – that this term only brings them more money on their income tax, and has no other use in their lives. Of course, this depends on who you ask, as there are some who will claim that losing your hearing is the worst fate possible, but once they learn the magic of speaking with their hands, their opinion changes.
You may have already noticed that I capitalize the word ‘Deaf’. This was their own idea; they include themselves as a cultural minority, based on a language, and therefore need to capitalize the adjective just like we would capitalize English or French. Let me explain: sign language is their language. Unlike Braille, it is far more than just a code, as most would believe. Linguists and anthropologists agree that a sub-culture sprouted from the language use amongst them, since they gather often to spend time together, just like many immigrants do in their new country, although it happens far more often in the Deaf World. They, unlike most other minorities, do not share their cultural identity with their parents, giving them the desire to be with others like themselves. Some have even gone as far as claiming that their first family is their Deaf counterparts and their true biological family comes second. All this is due to a wall of contact – the lack of communication that comes from most people not having even the slightest interest in learning sign language, even for their own children. Sad, but true.
There are some deaf people who do not count their handicap as a cultural identity; these are more often called ‘hearing-impaired’ since they use hearing aids and have learned to speak, and most do not know sign language. They are sometimes shunned from the Deaf community as well because they often refuse to learn sign language, having learnt since childhood that it is wrong and not of interest, or would be a sign of weakness – they were told that those who cannot speak, learn to sign. Although this mentality is slowly changing, the discrimination is still far too elevated to be considered ‘under control’ and Deaf rights are still severely lacking.
When you ask a Deaf person if they consider themselves ‘handicapped’, they will say: “Put yourself in a group of Deaf people who only use sign language. Who is the handicapped one then?”
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