BUSM Professor Co-Authors First Book on Deaf Ethnicity

in Health & Medicine, News Releases, School of Medicine
February 14th, 2011

Contact: Jenny Eriksen, 617-638-6841 | jeriksen@bu.edu

(Boston) – In the first book to examine the 300-year ancestry of deaf people in America, Richard C. Pillard, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and his co-authors argue that deaf people who use sign language to communicate are members of an ethnic group. The book, “The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry,” examines the lives and culture of the people who identify themselves as members of Deaf-World and compares them to other ethnic groups, delving into controversial questions surrounding whether being deaf is always a disability or, for some, an ethnicity.

There are more than 10 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States, most of whom communicate using spoken language and identify themselves ethnically based on factors other than deafness. For these, loss of hearing is indeed a disability. However, most of the estimated 500,000 Deaf people who use sign language constitute an ethnic group, so say the authors, because they share a language, a history, a culture, social institutions, a sense of shared identity, and a name – the Deaf-World. Moreover, a majority are kin in that they share ancestry as do the members of many ethnic groups.

“Characterizing the Deaf-World as an ethnic group is challenging because it argues that Deaf individuals who use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate are not disabled; instead, like many ethnic groups, they have a physical difference that goes with their ethnicity – in this case, reliance on vision. Members of the Deaf-World generally do not see themselves as disabled though many doctors would disagree,” said Pillard.

The book includes the first compiled ancestries of Deaf families dating back to the 17th century. The authors have traced more than 200 lineages most of which can be accessed from an on-line data base. These provide information for those curious about their personal ancestry or relations to the Deaf-World, and they identify the persons and conditions that led to the founding of the Deaf-World in America.

The book’s senior author is Harlan Lane, professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of a number of books about the history and culture of the Deaf. A second co-author is Gallaudet University’s Director of Deaf Library Collections and Archives, Ulf Hedberg. The book is published by Oxford University Press.

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