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Should the Deaf Be Considered an Ethnic Group?

Med Prof, co-authors bolster case for culturally distinct “Deaf World”


Bailey Rice (SED’12, CAS’11), Michael Bruffee (CAS’11), and Jeanine Pollard (SED’11) chat in ASL with Sophia Bucci, daughter of SED instructor Bruce Bucci, at Deaf Deaf World, an SED-sponsored event held in the GSU last month to raise awareness about deaf culture. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Deaf Americans who sign share much more than a language; they comprise a common culture with its own ancestry, art, and humor. A recent book titled The People of the Eye, coauthored by Richard C. Pillard, a School of Medicine professor of psychiatry, goes further, offering a compelling argument that the deaf should be recognized as a distinct ethnic group.

Subtitled Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry, the book’s other authors are Harlan Lane, a hearing professor of psychology at Northeastern University, and Ulf Hedberg, a deaf-from-birth archivist at Gallaudet University, the nation’s oldest college for the deaf. Published recently by Oxford University Press, the book grew out of a 40-year friendship between psycholinguist Lane and Pillard, a clinician captivated by genetics. “We won’t call deafness a disorder; in fact we never use the word ‘deafness’ in the book,” says Pillard (below), who hopes the slim, heavily footnoted volume will help convince hearing people that not only is being deaf not a catastrophe, but “deaf people get along perfectly fine in the world and they have for centuries.”


Jason Norman agrees. A sign in the School of Education Deaf Studies program offices designates the area as an American Sign Language–only zone. A curriculum and teaching instructor in the program, Norman says, through an ASL interpreter, that for him, being a deaf person trumps any other aspect of his identity, and he and other ASL speakers share deaf jokes, deaf ways of attracting attention, and a powerful cultural bond. “It is not a disability to me in any way to be deaf,” says the ASL poet and storyteller, who joined SED last August. Born to hearing parents who learned to sign, he’s “very accustomed to interacting in a hearing world,” he says. “I feel quite comfortable among hearing people. But when you can’t sign for days on end, you feel like you’re going to go out of your skin without the oasis of ASL.” Norman has attended both deaf-only and mainstream schools.

But beyond being the means of communication for the deaf, ASL has a rich literature that includes “history, stories, tall tales, legends, fables, anecdotes, poetry, plays, humor, naming rituals, sign play, and more,” Pillard and his coauthors write. And deaf theater has its own conventions, which encompass choreography, mime, and the artistic use of ASL.

Like other ethnic groups, the deaf, to a large and verifiable extent, share a biological bond as well. By tracing deaf people in America to colonists from Weald, England, who famously populated an area on Martha’s Vineyard, Pillard makes a strong case for a shared deaf ancestry. The book meticulously charts the ancestry of the island colony as well as of deaf clusters in New Hampshire and Maine. “Ethnicity is family writ large,” says Pillard, who with Lane traced a group of deaf people back to the 1500s.

While there are many genes contributing to deafness, the western world has seen a dramatic decline in deafness caused by diseases such as meningitis and scarlet fever. Outside of the elderly, most deaf people in America today are either extremely hearing-impaired or deaf from birth. And more and more, the deaf identify with what they call “the Deaf World,” Pillard says. Not a place but a mindset, it is a shared heritage and language—functionally, an ethnic group. The Deaf World may lack a cuisine, say the authors of The People of the Eye, but like other ethnic groups, it thrives in family life, and outside the home in ethnic associations, sports events, ASL-interpreted religious services, cruises, senior citizen clubs, and recreational associations, even as the expansion of Deaf World has made traditional, marginalized deaf clubs superfluous.

The authors argue that being identified as an ethnic group would afford the deaf not just a greater respect, and in some cases the protections of the law, but could finally dispel the assumption that deaf people consider themselves handicapped or as failing to meet an accepted physical ideal of wholeness and health.

They point to an ongoing transition from a world where deaf people live in isolation to one where they enjoy a rich cultural identity. But the media have trailed behind, says Norman, with TV shows from Heroes to Seinfeld presenting deaf people for the most part as expert lip readers who often speak. That is akin to a racial slur, he adds. “The power of the media can’t be underestimated.” He believes in the transformative power of film, which can enlighten without being pedantic.

Michael Bruffee (CAS’11), a hearing former ASL student of Norman’s, often finds himself gently correcting hearing friends’ misconceptions about deaf culture. “They think there’s a universal sign language,” he says, “and I say, is there one universal spoken language?” And there was the hearing friend who could not understand why Gallaudet University students protested against the school’s hiring a hearing person as president. “Imagine,” he says, “if BU hired a president who needed an interpreter to speak English. We can’t imagine that, and that’s what deaf people deal with.” Bruffee hopes to work in deaf education or as an interpreter.

As much as he endorses the concept, Pillard acknowledges several potential problems in categorizing deaf ASL users as an ethnic group. For one thing, most deaf people are elderly or became deaf later in life and are far more likely to use hearing aids than embrace ASL as another way to communicate. Identifying throughout their lives as hearing people, they may now indeed consider themselves handicapped. Also, while deaf people are in reality “no more disabled than a Ukrainian speaker would be in this country,” he says, the deaf qualify under the law as disabled, and if benefits are provided, they take the money. “You can’t have it both ways. Either you’re disabled or you ain’t.”

Another divisive issue in the debate is the rise of cochlear implants among the deaf or hearing-impaired. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that newborns be screened for hearing, and if they’re found to have profound hearing loss, doctors should consider surgical cochlear implants. While infants are incapable of informed consent, “technology rolls over the ethical arguments,” Pillard says. “Doctors say it’s best to do it early, so what’s a parent to think?”

For people unfamiliar with them, the implants sound like a medical marvel. But they are problematic, he says. “They work poorly, and that’s something worth emphasizing. You get 24 channels for different octaves and tonal recognition, but the price you pay for that is you’re a kid trying to play soccer and so on with this business strapped to your body.” And the implants, designed to be optimal when used in both ears, destroy residual hearing in people who were not completely deaf before the implants. “It seems to me that what we’re doing is transforming someone who could have a perfectly healthy ethnic identity and turning him into a marginalized kid who can’t speak or hear well, but could learn to sign beautifully,” Pillard says.

v_JasonNormanNorman (left) says that cochlear implants are a “complex and thorny issue.” He doesn’t oppose the technology (“It’s just technology, so it’s neutral”), but wishes doctors would make options clearer to parents, informing them that kids fluent in ASL can excel and enjoy life and community in every way without invasive surgery. “If you do almost nothing but train to listen and speak, you may learn to speak well” with implants, he says, “but you may not be a social being.”

Aside from the polarizing issue of implants, the Deaf World ethnicity concept is not without critics. Writing in a collection of scholarly essays titled Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking, Lennard J. Davis warns that the ethnic model is dubious because it feeds divisiveness, and “because of the association now between ethnic groups and violence.” Others express concerns about the Deaf World label being too polarizing or forcing an identity on sign language users who are hard of hearing and also speak or on those who become deaf later in life.

At the conclusion of People of the Eye, the authors reflect on what they call the ethnic “conceptualization” of the Deaf World. They ask, “Are ASL signers simply hearing people manqués, most of them beset by a genetic mutation passed on through intermarriage, or are they members of an ethnic group whose common descent, language, and culture can be traced against generations?” Being recognized as an ethnic group would be a “powerful force” in acceptance of the Deaf World, they say. And they’re not just speaking of subjective changes; the ethics of, and standards for, treatment of ethnic minorities is spelled out by the United Nations in its Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

Pillard and his coauthors are bracing for, and welcome, lively debate on the subject.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.


14 Comments on Should the Deaf Be Considered an Ethnic Group?

  • Jordan on 04.11.2011 at 7:49 am

    By equality: yes they should

    My initial reaction was no thinking that such isn’t a passed down trait or culture. But in thinking about it for just a few seconds realized indeed it CAN be genetically passed down, and DOES have its own culture. In the same way that I and many others that are gay have our own sub culture in the US (and indeed the world) so too do those who cannot hear. Once you know you’re a part of something like that, with traditions and culture and ways of life, you feel stronger, more whole; there’s a sense of camaraderie that means a great deal.

  • Easy on 04.11.2011 at 11:25 am

    Not Convinced

    I’m inclined to agree with Lennard J. Davis on this issue. To define those who are deaf or experience hearing loss as a separate ethnicity would pigeon-hole everyone who experiences a form of deafness regardless of their own personal identity.
    While it is true that the deaf community possesses its own unique culture, language and, in some cases, ancestry, attempting to define it or label it will only serve to alienate or exclude those who don’t match the criteria. This trend to emphasize and underline the things that make us different from each other seems to only lead to further division.

  • Anonymous on 04.11.2011 at 2:02 pm

    Ministry with the Deaf

    Recently our church underwent a HUGE merger with a MUCH larger church..in that process practically EVERYTHING was transformed to mirror the larger church…and unfortunately, so was our ministry. We USED to be on stage with the singers for the signed music..we USED to be center-right stage on a platform for our interpreters. NOW, we are shoved in a CORNER!!! with poor lighting and now our music signers are on the floor platform, where our deaf have to sit sideways practically to see us, and POORLY see us at that, the lighting stinks. We will be appealing these changes, in the beginning of this merger/takeover we were told that our ministry would not be effected..but on the grand opening day (the day before at rehearsal) we had the bad news dropped on us. Discussing the changes with the NEW leader was futile..the LEADERS above him made the decision based on what they thought was best..I told him that I understood the majority of the changes in the church,,,they all had PURPOSE..when asked what the PURPOSE was to changing our situation…it “DISTRACTS” the hearing
    AHHHHH!!! i wanted to scream!! there is alot of stuff that hearing do that distracts me but it does not get “REMOVED” to accommodate me! thanks for letting me vent.

  • Anonymous on 04.11.2011 at 2:39 pm

    I’d sooner define it as a subculture rather than an ethnicity. Deafness can be passed down genetically but often isn’t, one could just as easily come from deaf parents and have your hearing or get it through unnatural causes. An ethnic group is typically defined by a common geographic origin rather than the cultural traits that its members may or may not share.

    It seems like this is an attempt to force a categorization that doesn’t quite fit in order to replace the stigma of being categorized as handicapped. It seems well intentioned but misses the mark.

  • Anonymous on 04.11.2011 at 3:11 pm

    I have a cousin who is deaf. She will tell you that she is Austrian. THAT is her ethnicity.

  • Anonymous on 04.11.2011 at 4:12 pm

    Disabilities are not ethnicities. We are living in an absurd society. Politicians have succeeded in dividing us up into groups that can be manipulated and victimized in the name of equality and diversity. Make sure to thank a liberal today for such dehumanizing ideas.

  • Anonymous on 04.11.2011 at 4:57 pm

    Your def cousin

    It would be much better off if your def cousin thought of herself as just “human” instead of “Australian” or “deaf”.

    We need to find less ways of keeping ourselves apart as human beings. Making everyone into some part of a minority, so that we can fight over our little corner of something, or little piece of the pie, just creates problems and misunderstandings.

    There is nothing wrong with seeing differences in those around you, but I rather look for similarities and ways that bind than ways that differentiate.

  • Elizabeth on 04.11.2011 at 6:31 pm

    I’d have been more likely to consider the discussion more seriously if Pillard hadn’t undermined his own credibility by stating that cochlear implants work poorly. There are some people for whom they don’t provide the level of hearing hoped for, especially when implanted well after the critical first few years of language development, but the overwhelming majority of CI users find the technology to far surpass expectations.

    They work brilliantly for my profoundly deaf daughter, who is fluent in ASL, spoken English, is learning Mandarin, and practices Kung Fu, gymnastics, and piano with those two CIs “strapped on” her body.

    I think being Deaf is an important part of who she is — a subculture including a distinct language, common customs. But ethnically? She’s Chinese.

  • Hardin Coleman on 04.11.2011 at 8:34 pm

    Cultural or Ethnic Identity

    What a great story. It is clear, from the comments, that it makes us all think about what makes our identity. Is it genetic? Is it lived experience? Is it driven by our context? Is it racial? Just as important, is it one thing? Finally, who gets to define our identity? This story makes us struggle to find answers for ourselves and to find a common ground. Thanks for sharing it.

  • James Blyth on 04.11.2011 at 11:16 pm

    Yes and no

    Fully agree with the article, we should be called ethnic or even cultural BUT it depends on what environment we are in. For example, while I’m at home, workplace or friends place where there is majority of Deaf people, I’d see that as ethnic or culture. If I am at someplace that is dominated by hearing, I.e- airport, shopping centre, cinema or train station where there is no accessibility for Deaf people, I consider myself disability and demand access and rights. Because in this situation, we will need some adjustment for either hearing or deaf like interpreter, captioning etc.

  • Anonymous on 04.11.2011 at 11:32 pm

    A subculture worth preserving

    Everything about the article implies that Deaf culture is a subculture rather than an ethnicity. Although there are genetic links, Deafness is not strictly genetic, meaning that Deaf parents will not necessarily have a Deaf child, and hearing parents may spontaneously have a Deaf child. This is contrary to true ethnicities; Armenian parents will, by the definition of ethnicity, necessarily have an Armenian child. On the flip side a child born to native-American parents who chooses to join a tribe and live on a reservation is not then eligible to receive benefits reserved for those ethnicities.

    Also, the fact that Deafness happens to older people shows that it is not related to heredity or location like other ethnicities. Putting emphasis on the “Martha’s Vineyard connection” in order to prove a Deaf lineage is a disservice to Deaf persons who are completely unrelated to that lineage. It implies that they may not actually be part of that Deaf ethnicity.

    Almost all of the criteria that they are using to suggest ethnicity fits better for subculture: shared history, language, humor, art, etc. Accepting the designation as a subculture clarifies the somewhat fluid boundaries. A Deaf person does not have to identify with Deaf culture in the same way that a gay person does not have to identify with gay culture; a person who comes from a hearing culture either at birth or later may choose to join the Deaf subculture even though they were not born into it.

    However, arguing that Deaf culture is a subculture does not imply that it not worth preserving. Some subcultures such as gay culture actually equal or surpass ethnicities in terms of self-identification and feelings of closeness (especially in pluralistic societies) and they allow for greater inclusiveness for individuals who choose to self-identify in that way.

  • Richard on 04.12.2011 at 1:26 pm

    In Response to: "Disabilities are not ethnicities."

    How does it benefit anyone to make this a binary political issue? The issue of Deaf identity is not a liberal or conservative issue, but a complex human one. Make sure to thank a television today for such reductionist thinking.

  • Anonymous on 04.13.2011 at 9:22 am

    Constantly seeking to divide our people into smaller and smaller groups based on a real or perceived difference was started by politicians as a divide and conquer technique that was very effective. It has been adopted by the left leaning academia and led to a culture of identity politics. This article just highlights the problem. Everyone wants to be a part of a special little interest group that is recognized and therefore officially esteemed and/or persecuted.

    We have lost all sense of what was best about us because of such nonsense.

  • Riichard on 07.05.2011 at 3:20 pm

    In response to "Constantly seeking to divide"

    So, facilitating the exploration of complex cultural identity is a no-no? We should all just “toe the line” with the dominant culture? Whose culture, I wonder? And you blame politicians (and — surprise — members of the so-called “left-leaning academia”) for the fact that people identify as members of a certain group? Granted, politicians (and advertisers) exploit these identifications, or at the very least include them in their campaign strategies, but to say that they (or your liberal bogeymen) are responsible for the phenomenon of cultural diversity is a sloppy leap of thought. One can only wonder at where such ridiculous ideas were learned. Why, oh why, must folks oversimplify? Seriously, people — you can handle complexity if you give yourself the chance. Makes life more interesting, I promise.

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