To Be or Not To Be Deaf, That is The Question

Helen Keller, a well known deaf-blind American said: “Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus — the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keep us in the intellectual company of man.”

That’s what many hearing people would think, too. As a deaf person, I would disagree with Helen’s statement, and so would do many others like myself. One reason is that people – even those with profound deafness – can access sounds with hearing aids and cochlear implants. While those devices do not cure or restore hearing, they do bring the sense of sound and help many people hear better.

Another thing about language and communication is that society is very audio centric and often doesn’t think about making communication and information accessible via other means. For many centuries deaf people have been considered less intelligent solely based on their hearing and oral communication limitations. It’s further from truth. Communication is not limited to hearing and speaking only. There are many ways to communicate – like via lipreading, sign language, cued speech, captioning, etc. It may be surprising, but deaf people actually make better communicators than hearing people because they pay attention to body language, speak one at a time, are simple and precise in conveying information, ask questions for clarification, and use visual words and stories.

Patrick Boufreault, a deaf linguist, said: “Universal language is in our minds.” It’s true. It does not matter what communication tools you use – all information is processed via brain. For these reasons, some people interpret information better via hearing while others do better via visual means and yet others do better via tactile methods – regardless of hearing status. If we all could read each others’ minds, we would not even have to worry about communication access issues as we would use telepathy to exchange our minds directly.

Not all deaf and hard of hearing people are same. Experiences of those born deaf or deafened early in their lives (like myself) are different from those growing up with progressive hearing loss or those deafened later in their lives. Those raised in signing communities would not be as much interested in restoring their hearing as those who have used oral communication. And there are those who are in between like me who use both spoken and manual languages. I feel that it’s great if you can benefit from hearing aids and try to maximize your abilities, but if you need visual access, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

Even though many people can benefit from hearing devices – especially those who are late deafened, hearing loss is sadly stigmatized by society to the point that it takes them on average 5-7 years to finally start wearing them and if they do, they feel embarrassed and try to hide their hearing devices because in their opinions only old people wear them. It’s not true – more and more younger people are losing their hearing due to constant exposure to noises.

There are talks about using hair cell regeneration and gene therapy to restore hearing. It may sound great, but it would not benefit all deaf people. It’s good enough for me to be able to hear with my cochlear implant. The best thing about it is that I can have the OFF switch – I would not have that choice if I have my hearing restored naturally. It would be a nightmare for people like myself to hear sounds all time. And it would make no difference if I hear with a cochlear implant or naturally in terms of speech discrimination, but it would to those who are late deafened with enough of auditory memory to understand speech and are used to hear all time.

I’m bilingual in Russian and English, know basic French, and have learned a bit of other languages – it is not hard for me to learn foreign languages in written formats. But no matter what language information is in, if it is in aural format only, I cannot access it. For these reasons it’s very important to couple aural information with verbatim captions to make it accessible for more people who rely on them.

There are pros and cons of being deaf, but there are also pros and cons of being hearing. I can sleep peacefully not hearing anything, for example – even through thunderstorms (unless they are close enough that can wake me up with bright lighting and strong vibrations that I’m sensitive to). I can easily sign in noisy places to other signers while non-signing hearing people are trying to scream to each other on top of their lungs.

I am proud to be deaf and have no reason to hide my hearing loss – it is part of who I am. It is better that people know about my deafness than assume that I’m stupid or rude. I am happy to be able to speak and lipread and love my cochlear implant, but no matter how much I try to maximize my abilities, I still have limited access to aural information. Signing Deaf people say that if everyone used sign language being deaf would not be a big deal. Its true. I forget about my deafness when I watch captioned aural information or when people make efforts to sign to me or use writing or speak more clearly.

If we had lived in a barrier-free environment, we would not have felt disabled. Having a disability is not a misfortune – It’s not our disabilities that make us disabled, but physical and attitudinal barriers by society that could be easily removed.