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> Columns > Boston Globe > Deaf like me?

Deaf like me?

By Cathy Young | April 15, 2002

AS IF THERE weren't already enough news stories to make one think that the world has gone mad, ponder this: A deaf lesbian couple in a Washington, D.C., suburb took steps to ensure that they had a deaf child, by selecting a sperm donor with an extensive family history of deafness. What's more, Candy McCullough and Sharon Duchesneau, whose baby boy was born last November, went public about their decision, agreeing to be profiled in a cover story in The Washington Post magazine. The women already have an older daughter who is deaf by design.

Unfortunately, the only group to speak out forcefully against this outrage, the conservative Family Research Council, chose to make an issue of the women's sexual orientation. Heterosexual parents can behave in equally appalling ways. The recent public television documentary, ''Sound and Fury,'' featured a deaf couple, Peter and Nita Artinian, who refused permission for their deaf daughter to get a cochlear implant - a surgically implanted device which would have enabled her to hear.

It's hard to imagine a starker example of parental selfishness than wanting your child to be disabled because you want her to be just like you. But these parents don't see it that way. They subscribe to the credo of the ''Deaf Pride'' movement, which holds that deafness is not a disability but a culture to be valued - no different from being black or Chinese.

''If somebody gave me a pill that would make me hearing, would I take it? No way,'' Peter Artinian asserted in sign language in the documentary. ''If the technology progresses, maybe it's true deaf people will become extinct, and my heart will be broken.''

To many Deaf Pride activists, attempts to ''fix'' deafness through cure or prevention amount to nothing less than cultural genocide. Somewhat less outrageously, they also invoke efforts to ''cure'' homosexuality as a parallel.

In fact, neither the gay nor the ethnic analogy holds up. Deafness, positive thinking notwithstanding, is defined by the absence of a basic faculty. One may define cultural deafness as the ability to use sign language, but hearing people can and do learn it too.

Gays, arguably, would not be disadvantaged if it weren't for societal prejudice and discrimination. The same can hardly be said of the deaf. Sign language imposes unique, severe limitations on its users. If it's dark, if your hands are busy, if you're not facing the person to whom you are talking, you are effectively speechless. Surely, too, the inability to hear environmental sounds -- an oncoming car, a falling object, or a baby's cry -- is a real impairment.

Deaf activists deplore the arrogance of the hearing, who cannot imagine that there could be anything positive about being deaf. But quite a few deaf people see these activists as an arrogant minority trying to impose its will on everyone else. Of the estimated 2 million profoundly deaf people in the United States, only about a quarter use sign language.

Nevertheless, the fringe ideas of Deaf Pride have had consequences. At many schools for the deaf, sign language has been dogmatically treated as the only acceptable form of communication, and children with some hearing have received little if any training in auditory and speaking skills. While cochlear implants have been growing in popularity, particularly for children under 3 who are in their primary speech-learning stage, deaf activists have compared the procedure to Nazi medical experiments. Tensions have run so high that some parents have allowed their children to be interviewed for positive stories on cochlear implants only on the condition of anonymity.

Perhaps it's not surprising that some deaf people would try to come to terms with their condition by insisting that they love being deaf and would never want to be any other way. What's shocking is such arguments are being taken seriously.

''Sound and Fury'' approached the controversy over cochlear implants and the preservation of ''Deaf culture'' as a debate in which each side merited equal time. Northeastern University psychologist Harlan Lane, a (hearing) champion of ''deaf culture'' who asserts that to define deaf people as hearing-impaired is like defining women as ''non-men,'' has received a MacArthur fellowship for his work.

Perhaps, in our multicultural age, the media and other institutions feel obliged to show deference toward anyone minority group that celebrates its identity and asserts its difference. But maybe the best way to learn something from the Deaf Pride movement is to see it as a reductio ad absurdum of modern identity politics.

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