American Deaf Culture

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Perspectives on Deaf People

    In recent years (beginning as early as 1980 with increased awareness of and acceptance of American Sign Language) it has become clear that one can adopt either of two opposing perspectives when interacting with the Deaf Community. While these perspectives have been given different names or labels by different authors and researchers, we will refer to the differing perspectives as the "pathological model" and the "cultural model." It is essential to understand which of these perspectives you might hold for each results in vastly different ways of dealing with and treating the Deaf Community. Indeed, the first perspective, at least in some of its extreme manifestations, would seek to deny the very existence of the Deaf Community.

    The "pathological" view of Deaf people has also been called the Clinical-Pathological view or the Medical Model. Essentially this view accepts the behaviors and values of people who can hear as "standard" or "the norm" and then focuses on how Deaf people deviate from that norm. This is the perspective that has been traditionally held by a majority of non-deaf professionals who interact with the Deaf Community only on a professional basis. In a sense, this is the "outsider's" view - a view that focuses on how Deaf people are different from non-deaf people and a view that generally perceives those differences negatively. It is also a view that deaf people have something wrong with them, something that can and must be "fixed." Those who hold a pathological view might define the Deaf Community as:

  • a group of people whose hearing loss interferes with the normal reception of speech;
  • a group of people who have learning and psychological problems due to their hearing loss and their perceived communication difficulties;
  • a group of people who are not "normal" because they cannot hear.

    It should be fairly easy to see that this view, the "pathological" one, results in paternalistic and oppressive behaviors and attitudes towards Deaf people. Recently this way of dealing with Deaf people, of treating them as incapable of self-determination, has been called "audism" to emphasize the fact that this view shares much with other paternalistic perspectives such as racism, sexism, and anti-semitism. The "pathological" view stands in sharp contrast to the view based on linguistic and sociological research findings which is the cultural view. The cultural view recognizes that there is a complex set of factors that must be considered when examining the Deaf Community. Indeed, it is this very fact that makes defining the Deaf Community a complex task. Those who hold a cultural view might define the Deaf Community as:

  • a group of persons who share a common means of communication (sign language) that provides the basis for group cohesion and identity;
  • a group of persons who share a common language (ASL) and a common culture;
  • those whose primary means of relating to the world is visual and who share a language that is visually received and gesturally produced

    Deciding which view of Deaf people you hold is crucial for it will, in large measure, determine the relationship you have to, and with, the Deaf Community. Your attitudes towards the Community's language and its culture determine your perspective towards Deaf people. You will hold either a medical/pathological or cultural view of the Deaf Community.

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