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The Hearing World Must Stop Forcing Deaf Culture to Assimilate

Too many hearing people view deafness as a deficiency rather than a separate linguistic context, worldview and culture.
What the hearing world calls “hearing loss,” the Deaf community counters with “Deaf gain.”
What the hearing world calls “hearing loss,” the Deaf community counters with “Deaf gain.”S?bastien Plassard / for NBC News

The big summer action movie “Baby Driver” made waves in the Deaf community — CJ Jones, a Deaf actor, plays the deaf foster father of the film’s protagonist, Baby. It’s exciting for two reasons: deaf characters rarely appear in big mainstream films, and it’s even rarer that deaf people play themselves.

But the fight for authentic representation is far from over.

Many in the Deaf community now have their eyes on the new Todd Haynes film, “Wonderstruck,” which makes its mainstream theater debut today. It spotlights the Deaf community, yet stars Julianne Moore as one of the deaf protagonists. Moore is only the latest in a long line of hearing actors playing deaf roles — most recently Chris Heyerdahl in the new Syfy-turned-Netflix series “Van Helsing.”

Filmmakers have offered many excuses for not casting deaf actors — everything from not knowing where to find a one, to asserting a deaf woman would get injured during the shooting of an action sequence.

More disappointing than Hollywood’s justifications, however, is the way the Deaf community’s critiques are portrayed as political correctness run amok.

Consider the way the public treats other Hollywood excuses: When the spotlight falls, for example, on the film industry’s lack of racial and gender diversity, consumers and journalists alike are rightfully outraged; when the same thing happens to deaf artists, the mainstream offers only silence.

The reason could lie in a fundamental misunderstanding of deafness: Hearing people view deafness as a deficiency rather than a separate linguistic context, worldview and culture. Conversely, Deaf people who identify with the Deaf community and use a signed language — here in the United States, American Sign Language (ASL) — consider their Deafhood their primary cultural identity. Those who identify this way use the capital “D” to mark the difference between the physicality of not hearing and the social, cultural and linguistic implications of thinking and communicating in a language other than English.

But what is Deaf culture? Like many others, it is rooted in language.

The manual modality of signed language gives rise to common mannerisms and codes of behavior in Deaf settings. By incorporating gestures, movement and facial expressions, Deaf people tend to be far blunter with one another than considered appropriate in hearing company. Stomping on the floor, for example, or throwing something at a Deaf person (known as “beanbagging”) are accepted ways of getting someone’s attention.

What the hearing world calls “hearing loss,” the Deaf community counters with “Deaf gain.” It avoids terminology like “handicapped,” “hearing impaired” or “mute.”

I’m speaking from the North American Deaf cultural experience, which uses ASL. Sign languages are not universal; they sprout organically from communication within a deaf population and develop over time, like spoken languages.

But what is Deaf culture? Like many others, it is rooted in language.

American Sign Language likely evolved from a combination of home signed systems created by deaf people with individual families and friends, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language and French Sign Language. Due to Martha Vineyard’s high rate of genetic deafness (1 in 155 versus 1 in 5,728 on the mainland), its sign language was used by deaf and hearing inhabitants alike from 1714 until the early 20th century. It connected with French Sign Language in early 19th-century Connecticut, with the 1817 establishment of America’s first deaf school — now the American School for the Deaf. Frenchman Laurent Clerc was one of its founders. These two languages entwined with home signs that the diverse student body brought from across the nation to become the ASL we use today.

As is often true with minority cultures, Deaf culture has been carried forward through its connection to a shared history — and a shared oppression.

Alexander Graham Bell offers a prime example. In addition to inventing the telephone, Bell was a prominent eugenicist with mommy issues. (Bell’s mother was deaf, as was his wife.) He sought to purify the human race of the congenitally defective, as laid out in his famous lecture, “Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race.”

Bell understood that deafness was a social identity as well as a physical attribute. So he campaigned for the closure of Deaf social clubs and schools, and sought to prevent deaf people from marrying each other.

Bell’s call for the eradication of deafness was in part implemented by a shift in deaf education practices. After oral-education resolutions were passed at the Milan Convention in 1880, deaf students were increasingly forbidden to sign; some reported having their hands tied to their desks to “encourage” speech. This had devastating linguistic effects on deaf children for generations — and is still propagated today through the Alexander Graham Bell Association.

The association routinely asserts that learning ASL can harm English acquisition. It says speaking and listening are the only way for a deaf child to be a productive member of society. Today’s science negates the idea that bilingualism has a deleterious effect on a child’s development, but with respect to sign language, the stigma remains.

Yet AG Bell, or organizations like it, don’t need to do much to sway public opinion. More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents and, for many, their child is the first deaf person they’ve met. The relationship often begins with a doctor saying, “I’m sorry” when he presents the news, using terms like “treatment” and “cure.” Since parents are naturally inclined to want their children to be like them, it’s an easy sell to say that speaking and listening will make a child happy, healthy and a successful part of society.

What if being in a Deaf school, with no communication barriers between one’s teachers and peers, is the least restrictive environment?

Bell’s perspective on deafness also continues to affect U.S. educational legislation. The 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is designed to funnel students into “the least restrictive environment” wherever possible. For hearing people, this reads as mainstreaming deaf children into regular schools. In reality, it confuses the concepts of language and speech.

Despite technological advances, learning to speak and listen while deaf is a complex process that can take time. Meanwhile, the human brain’s critical period for language acquisition is birth to 5 years. Without sufficient exposure, a person may never be fluent in any language. This is to say nothing of the social and emotional impact of constantly being the only deaf person in one’s class or school. What if being in a Deaf school, with no communication barriers between one’s teachers and peers, is the least restrictive environment? What if bilingualism is the smoothest path to success?

Though the hearing community may view deafness as a hardship, having a common language and collective experience can foster a spirit of inclusivity. Race, class and gender-based discrimination are further amplified by disability. But because deafness can impact people of all races, religions and classes, American Sign Language often serves as a connection between people from otherwise disparate backgrounds.

Such diversity is a fertile breeding ground for rich artistic expression. ASL poets use visual rhythm and rhyme. ASL slam poetry, vlogs, and music videos are burgeoning genres, and the institution of Deaf theater is thriving, most recently in Deaf West’s Tony-nominated Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening,” and a coming 2018 revival of “Children of a Lesser God.”

But the Deaf community is increasingly endangered by education policy crafted without its input, and a scientific community racing toward a cure for deafness without considering the ethical ramifications. There seems little concern about, for example, what inherent value a language or culture can have, or what it might mean to knowingly pursue its extinction. In short, who gets to define normal?

To keep society’s definition of normalcy from becoming too narrow, the hearing mainstream must accept a cultural view of deafness, even when it is inconvenient. Because only when the hearing world respects deaf people as intellectual equals, when it parses out the difference between accessibility and forced assimilation — and yes, when it starts casting deaf actors in deaf roles — will Deaf culture be allowed to reach its full potential.

Sara Nović is the author of the novel “Girl at War” and an assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton University. Find more about her writing on her website.