Hearing loss versus Deaf gain

Published 05/06/2013

David Evans

There are approximately 38 million people who have some level of hearing loss in the United States. The causes and etiology vary—age, illness, trauma, genetics—but the results are the same: separation from those who use a verbal language. This number is poised to increase dramatically in the not-too-distant future as Baby Boomers reach a stage in life where their hearing begins to fail. Technological devices to augment hearing and give access to spoken language will likely make impressive strides during this period.

The majority of these people have either had some auditory access to spoken language (naturally or with augmentation), or have been raised using visual methods to access the spoken word, i.e. speechreading. Regardless of the access method, these people likely think of themselves as people with a hearing impairment or hearing loss.
Now, a subset of those who cannot hear have a completely different frame through which they view the world. Rather than primarily trying to access an auditory language, they communicate using a visual language. And, in contrast to those who think of themselves with a “hearing loss,” this group thinks of itself with a “Deaf gain.”
The concept of “Deaf gain” is probably foreign to most and may even seem oxymoronic to some.

To understand Deaf gain, one must first know a little bit about what it means to be Deaf. The first important piece of information is that rather than seeing themselves with a hearing loss, Deaf people see themselves as a minority language and culture (hence the uppercase D in Deaf), and do not consider themselves to be “impaired” in any way.
Though I sign fluently and am a member of the Deaf Community, as someone who can hear, I am an invited guest. As such, please take my comments with a grain of salt and excuse any inaccuracies I might inadvertently portray.

To be Deaf is to orient oneself to the world in primarily a visual manner rather than an auditory one. While many Deaf people have some degree of residual hearing, their connection to everything around them comes first through the eyes instead of the ears.

To be Deaf is to use a visual/gestural language, one suited to the needs of the hands, body, face, and eyes (in the US, that is American Sign Language or ASL) rather than an aural/oral one suited to the mouth, tongue, and ears (i.e. English).

Deaf people do access the majority language of English in its written form, and some do use their residual hearing along with speechreading skills to interact with those who can’t sign, but ASL is lingua prima.
To be Deaf means to have a shared experience of oppression in a world not built for you. It means being seen as different or defective from the outside while considering oneself normal and fine from within. For many Deaf people, it means being seen as defective from members of your own family who can hear and never learn to sign.

To be Deaf is to see the world in a way most people who can hear never do: it is to notice the intricate dance of dust moats in a ray of sunlight; it is to have peripheral vision like nobody’s business; and it is to be able to locate Waldo much faster than any hearing person I’ve ever seen.

All the richness that Deaf people experience visually gives rise to the phrase Deaf gain to explain their lives. Rather than focus on what they lack, i.e. hearing loss, Deaf people recognize all the benefits they have from being Deaf, and all they contribute not just to their own community but to the world at large.

For instance, the last several years have seen an increase of Deaf architects creating what’s become known as “Deaf space.” This Deaf space focuses on the movement, flow, and lighting in buildings and individual rooms that is different from traditional architecture. Deaf spaces have round tables so everyone can see each other, lots of light (natural and not), and open environments where visual access is unobstructed. This encourages people to interact rather than wall themselves off in small, private spaces.

Finally, I want to discuss American Sign Language (ASL). In terms of language bio- diversity for our world, the study of ASL has opened up new vistas in understanding the history and evolution of human languages throughout time. Aristotle is credited with the idea that without speech there is no thought—an idea that guided scholars, linguists, and researches for ages in looking at spoken language while ignoring signed language as being nothing more than a crude gestural system for conveying speech.

The recognition of signed language as legitimate language has dramatically altered how the concept of language is perceived. Everything from acquisition to production to our ability to create language has been upended by examining signed language. This is just one example of how Deaf gain has contributed to society and human knowledge.

It has been widely documented that infants develop the motor skills necessary to produce signed communication prior to their ability to form spoken words. As such, “Baby Sign” has exploded as an industry in the US and parents delight in teaching their infants (who can hear) signs for MILK, MORE, ALL-GONE, etc. By being able to express themselves earlier through language (signs from ASL’s lexicon), children feel less frustrated because their needs are better understood. (Ironically, Deaf children are still denied access to ASL from the medical profession, education, and their own families.)
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention ASL’s cinematic qualities. Being a visual language, ASL can take advantage of space and movement in ways that spoken languages cannot. A beautiful example of this is the ASL video “Vital Signs” that was produced as part of a show for PBS. In this video, the Deaf narrator uses American Sign Language to tell a story visually while cinematic clips of the story are being superimposed on the screen. For the initiated, the video clips only serve to augment the already cinematic story unfolding in ASL. You may access the video with subtitles here (https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=csDH8Af6DLM).

These are only a few examples of the myriad ways in which Deaf people enrich our world through Deaf gain. I’m hopeful this blog has given you a little glimpse of a world you might not have known existed.

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