Sunday, October 11, 2009

Disability, Deafness and Citizenship

Contemporary constructs on deafness are also defined over two newer constructions- that of deafness as a disability versus that of deaf people as a linguistic minority. These contemporary discourses are rooted in the activism and experiences of the deaf people. Both the constructs are nurtured by the campaign for equality and full participation in all spheres of social life and human rights, and both are given political meaning and power by personal biographies that detail the experience of being deaf in a hearing world.
The physiological model of disability, based as it is on the normal characteristics of body, its physical, and/or cognitive functioning, finds persons with impairment ‘abnormal’, ‘disabled’, and ultimately ‘handicapped,’ in fulfilling social roles. Such a view on deafness as a disability ‘establishes the tone of official thought’ (in the words of Carol Padden and Tom Humphries) on deafness as a handicap.
With the emergence of such a view on deafness, there also emerged a professional group, whose livelihood and existence depends upon ‘bestow benevolence on deaf people defined as in need’. Therefore, deafness becomes a ‘need’ for intervention. Though the technology and the level of sophistication has changed in the decades that have followed, the focal idea has remained the same - the role of such intervention is to make the deaf hear. This amounts to a rejection of sign in favour of spoken language, and the adoption of lip reading as a sign of normalisation.
The social model of disability, on the other hand, views it as a product of complex social structures and processes, rather than as the simple and inevitable result of individual differences or biology. It suggests that it is not impairment in itself that causes disability, but the way in which societies fail to accommodate natural aspects of difference between people. Disability, therefore, is caused by material, social, structural, and cultural forces and ideas that shape disability labels and social roles.
Both the models of Disability accept a sense of loss, which is true among other interested groups like visually challenged, physically challenged, etc., and seeks social integration with the hearing world through care, service, and assistance. However, the question of loss is contested in the case of deafness - while late deafening and moderate impairment is associated with loss (hence supporting the disability construction), the Deaf community has argued that pre-lingual deafness is not so easily conceived of as such. Unlike the audist’s perception, the Deaf community views deafness as not a loss but a gain, in terms of culture, of language, and values. This is demonstrated in their resistance to the construct of a category of ‘hearing-impaired’ to include the deaf and the hard-of-hearing, as it overlooks the linguistic and cultural difference between the Deaf and the hard-of-hearing. The Deaf/deaf, unlike others who share the hearing culture, experience a different kind of exclusion related to language and culture. As the D/deaf cherish their unique identity and seek an honourable integration into the larger social fabric in a fashion that upholds the difference of their culture and language, they contest a characterisation that suggests they have an impairment and/or disability.
Such beliefs, further, establish deafness as a culture that disregards the disabled-non-disabled distinction and does not seek to discipline disability. In opposition to the disability construct, and with the arguments put forward for deafness as a culture, the D/deaf construct an argument in favour of linguistic minority status. Besides the demographic facts, there are several reasons to identify and validate the D/deaf as a minority vis-à-vis the hearing population. It is an acknowledged fact that in all societies, deaf people have been subject to oppression, or discrimination by the hearing with respect to their values, culture, and language. In developing societies, this still continues, and the majority of deaf children do not have access to education. In most of the cases, the educational ideology pursued for deaf education runs contrary to their right to receive education in their mother tongue of sign language. As their sign language has been subject to oppression and their culture and values have been suppressed, they qualify as a linguistic minority.
Among the scholars that seek solution in Sen’s Capability Approach, which views disability as one aspect of human heterogeneity rather than as abnormality, Terzi (2004) introduces the concept of ‘alternative functioning or of doing the same thing in different ways.’ She cites an example from Martha’s Vineyard and argues that the use of sign language like by the Vineyarders expands the capabilities of deaf. Under such a conceptualization, however, signing is emphasized to be an alternative functioning rather than the most valued of all the other functionings of the signers. In other words, it still reiterates the audist’s view and fails to accommodate sign language within the league of natural human languages.
In India, the provisions for the deaf provided under the Disability Act have failed, as is painfully evident, to ensure their empowerment. The same applies with equal force to the claimed minority status too (as evident in the case of the minorities in India). As a matter of fact, the D/deaf people’s lack of access to resources have resulted in their inability to build alliances with other socially discriminated groups, has become an obstacle in ensuring their participation in the social process. Drawing a parallel based on social discrimination with the dalits, for whom the policy of reservation has significantly ensured their growing participation in the social process, it is imperative to mobilise the D/deaf people on the demand for reservation. In this sense, it is necessary to politicise the deaf world, so that the Deaf culture and perspective can be heard in a democratic society, so that society may come to guarantee them their rights as citizens.

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