Deaf Hearing Boy: A Memoir
by R.H. Miller
A Note on Deafness and Deaf People
by R.H. Miller
In 1990-1991, the Deaf in America consisted of a population of approximately 421,000 people, or about 0.16% of the total population of the U.S., of which about 65,000 were children or adolescents, 90% of whom had Hearing parents. This percentage is generally considered fixed for the Deaf population as a whole. The Deaf consists of those individuals who are described by professionals as profoundly deaf; that is, who have no hearing ability whatever. It does not include individuals who have some hearing ability but who cannot recognize the sounds of speech (about 552,000 persons), nor does it include those individuals who suffer from varying levels of hearing loss, often referred to as hearing-impaired or hard of hearing (about 21 million persons). The Deaf dislike the label hearing-impaired when it is used erroneously to describe them. They consider it a euphemism and an effort to deny their condition and the culture that arises from it. They prefer the straightforward term deaf.
Of the deaf student-age population for 1992-93, approximately 47% were born deaf, or prenatally deaf. Of that group, 28% (13% of the total Deaf population) were the victims of hereditary deafness (the largest single cause), caused by complex recessive genetic factors that are only now being understood, and 72% were rendered deaf by rubella, cytomegalovirus (congenital CMV), r-h incompatibility, prenatal or birth trauma, or unknown causes. The remaining 53% of the Deaf population lost their hearing postnatally either because of accident or illness, particularly meningitis (15% of the postnatally deaf; 8.1% of the total deaf population). Although no data exist to document the numbers of prelingually deafthat is, persons who lost their hearing before they acquired any language skills, generally defined as before the age of 2 yearsof the Deaf population, a very high percentage can be assumed to be prelingually deaf. (The term deaf is capitalized when it refers to Deafness as a cultural phenomenon and is not when it refers only to deafness as a hearing loss, as is also the case with the term hearing. This convention is followed by writers treating Deaf topics.)
Because of their substantial numbers and because of their English language impairment, the Deaf exhibit a cultural identity not found to such a high degree among other handicapped groups and have more in common in terms of their culture with ethnic groups who ground their identity in a common language. The cohesive bond that provides this identity is American Sign Language, or ASL. Along with all sign languages, ASL lost favor among educators in the latter part of the 19th century to oralism, an approach that seeks to teach the deaf to speak and to recognize spoken English through various methods, but depends heavily on speech reading, commonly referred to as lip reading. It was not until the 1960s that ASL once again attracted support among deaf educators.
ASL and manualism, or the teaching of sign language, have always been overwhelmingly endorsed by Deaf adults. Although the exact number of ASL users is not known, it can be assumed to be a very high percentage of the Deaf population. In my own personal experience with the Deaf over many years, I knew of only one Deaf person who was not literate in ASL. It has now gained wide acceptance and is offered in many college curricula for academic credit, although disagreements between the oralists and manualists still exist.
Because more than 90% of deaf children have hearing parents, in these families there is a constant struggle with the cultural reality of Deafness, and many hearing parents feel their deaf children are isolated and stigmatized by the use of ASL. They search for cures for their childrens deafness, the most efficacious of which is the surgical procedure known as cochlear implantationa controversial topic among the Deaf and many scholars studying Deaf culture, as they question its efficacy for the profoundly deaf and view it as a panacea for Hearing parents who cannot accept the reality of their childs deafness. Cochlear implants often render deaf recipients able to hear sounds, and more recently the procedure has had more success in rendering users able to distinguish speech sounds. But many users are not able to do so, and so for a time they live in a kind of limbo, unable to function linguistically in either the Deaf or the Hearing community, and eventually abandon the implants in favor of ASL. In other cases, implants are successful and provide a unique opportunity for deaf people to experience spoken English.
My parents are both prelingually deaf: my mother prenatally deaf as a result of genetic factors, my father postnatally deaf as a victim of meningitis in infancy. Both of them were brought up in families where the knowledge of ASL was nonexistent, and both learned ASL clandestinely from fellow students at the State School for the Deaf in Columbus, Ohio. And of course both have had to overcome the deprivations caused by that lack, especially poor language and reading skills. At the time of their schooling, oralism was very much in vogue among educators of the Deaf, and while the skill proved useful in some situations, it was inadequate to any kind of sophisticated communication. The net effect of the emphasis on speech reading was that my parents and their peers received poor educations and were victimized by professionals efforts to deny the fact of their deafness and their promotion of a technique that was doomed to fail.
On the other side of the coin, and relevant to my situation, more than 90% of children born to Deaf parents have normal hearing. In fact, so unusual is the birth of a deaf child to Deaf parents that often the event is greeted by the parents with great joy, since they have brought into the world one of their own. Among the Deaf, these D-O-Ds (Deaf-of-Deaf) often are the movers and shakers, the leaders in the Deaf community, because they have had the advantage of communicating in ASL from the day of their birth on and are linguistically far ahead of their peers.
The result of this yoking of Deaf parents and hearing children is of course that the hearing children live in an amphibious environment, pulled in one direction by the Deaf and their use of ASL with their parents, in another by the Hearing population and by their need to be skilled in its language and ways. Some years ago many of these children, sensing a common bond in their plight, came together to form the organization Children of Deaf Adults, or CODA, to foster study of these problems.
The memoir I have written touches on many of these issues but focuses on the conflicts I experienced in my life as I mediated between the Deaf world and the Hearing, particularly as I dealt with it in the environs, first, of the city of Toledo and an urban Deaf population, and then of an extended family on a farm in Ohio, which included my Hearing grandparents and my Deaf parents. We lived side by side in the same house, in separate quarters, and my father worked in partnership with his stepfather in a dairy farming operation.
Data and information cited in this discussion were taken from Douglas C. Baynton, Forbidden Signs (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996); Judith Holt, Sue Hotto, and Kevin Cole, Demographic Aspects of Hearing Impairment: Questions and Answers, 3rd ed., 1994, provided by the Gallaudet Research Institute of Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.; Harlan Lane, The Mask of Benevolence (New York: Knopf, 1992); and Various Statistics Concerning the Deaf [now] at http://www.zak.co.il/deaf-info/old/demographics.html.
© 2005, R.H. Miller