An Inclusive Litany

3/18/02

A new PBS documentary, "Sound and Fury," examines the continuing controversy over cochlear implants, which allow deaf people—primarily children—to hear. Many deaf people view the technology as a threat to their identity and their belief in the distinctive value of deaf culture. The documentary focuses on a deaf Long Island couple who refuse to allow their five-year-old daughter to have the implant.

Deaf people used to be discouraged from using sign language and were often dogmatically forced to read lips, severely reducing their ability to communicate with others. Yet, as Cathy Young reports in Reason, many schools for the deaf now regard American Sign Language as the only acceptable form of communication, even for children who have some hearing and would benefit from learning auditory and speaking skills. Deaf schools that promote "oralism" have even been the target of protests and pickets. Heather Whitestone, a deaf woman who won the 1995 Miss America contest, was denounced by some militants as unfit to represent the deaf because she speaks. The Washington Post profiled a deaf lesbian couple who even sought out a sperm donor who would increase the chances that their baby would also be deaf. Their five-year-old daughter, conceived by the same sperm donor, is also deaf.

Such "Deaf Pride" has received approval in some quarters. In his book The Mask of Benevolence, Northeastern University psychologist and MacArthur Foundation "genius" award winner Harlan Lane argues that deaf people have been oppressed and "colonized" by an "audist establishment" bent on "the medicalization of cultural deafness." According to Lane, defining deaf people as hearing-impaired is like defining women as "non-men." And in a 1994 essay in the New York Times Magazine, Andrew Solomon declared: "Perhaps, like the search for a cure for gayness, the search for a cure for the deaf will be dropped by respectable institutions—which would be both a bad and a good thing."

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