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Deafness and the Mulatto Connection

For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with me. As my hearing impairment progressed, social interaction with the world around me became less accessible. You'd think common sense would havetold me at some point that I needed to switch to the deaf world.

For there is a deaf world. No, actually, it refers to itself as the Deaf world, with a capital D. After years and decades of frustration and feeling inadequate in the hearing world, I made a few excursions into that Deaf world but soon found that it was just as inaccessible to me. I discovered that in the Deaf world I am classified into a sort of fringe group known as little d people—late deafened adults—whose primary social anchor is in the hearing world. As I talked to other Late Deafened Adults (LDA), I realized that our experience is similar to that of people who are biracial. I'd always felt like I was the mulatto of the disability world, never fitting squarely into either group. I just hadn't known this was a shared feeling.

In every group where I can lay a claim, my experiences are tangential. Yet, I am one Self and can not deny any attribute that makes me who I am. Certainly, I cannot deny the physical conditions that govern my actions. Understanding these groups—even knowing that such groups exist—has helped me to understand myself, why I do the things that I do and have the experiences that I have.

Big D-Little D Classification is Similar to Racial Classification

As is the case with any social group, classifying individuals as Big D or little d is not cut and dried. Individuals vary in their actions and experiences. How, for instance, does one classify a person who is totally deaf but reads lips well enough that all his social interactions are with hearing people? What about the individual who has some hearing but becames severely hearing impaired before acquiring language? To some, classifying someone as Big D or little d can be as consequential or inconsequential as classifying someone as Black or White. Human beings come in a varying mixture of hair textures, skin tones and bone structures. Some people have very dark skin but straight hair and an aquiline nose, while others are light skinned with kinky hair. On what scientific basis can they be classified into a specific racial group? In a logical world, such physical characteristics should not matter. But this is not a logical word and certain social privileges are granted on the basis of these characteristics. The same can be said when it comes to disabilities. For someone who acquired a hearing impairment after being socialized into the hearing world (notice there is no Big H little h grouping), fitting into a world of people who use vernacular sign language can seem like culture shock where they find themselves standing out. In any case. strict classification can be problematic. However, there are characteristics that are more useful in understanding the dynamics of the two groups rather than classifying individuals into one or the other.

Lack of Understanding Can Lead to Inimical Relations

A basic rule of thumb may be that Big D people view deafness as a cultural phenomenon, while little d people view deafness as more of a medical issue. These divergent worldviews can sometimes lead to inimical social encounters. One LDA woman reported that she was accused of being a fake deaf and told to “go back to her stupid hearing friends.”. Why do people do what they do? Why do people see themselves as this and not that? The question “can't we all just get along” may not have much practical meaning for some folks, but maybe we can just try to understand one another and at least not hurt one another.

Seeing Deafness as a Medical Issue

As I mentioned above, little d people see hearing impairment as just that, an impairment—a medical issue requiring the professional assistance of doctors and technology.. When I became profoundly deaf and started interacting with Deaf people to learn sign language, I was told I had to choose between the Deaf world and the hearing world. I could not sit on the fence, so to speak. And the Deaf world was indeed a world all its own, with its own language and culture. My failing vision made a visual language just as inaccessible to me as an audible one. Fitting into this other world was frustrating. Then I realized that what others were telling me I had to do wasn't even my goal to begin with. I wasn't trying to get into another world. I just wanted to remain functional in the world I already knew but which had slipped away from me.

The Deaf World and the Hearing World

On the other hand, Big D people often see deafness in the same way ethnic nationalists see their particular ethnic group. The Big D Deaf philosophy tends to be exclusive with a strict definition of what constitutes “Real Deafness.” You might call it a “Deafinition.” Such people do not see deafness as an impairment at all and are seldom seen in audiologists offices. They may even see fitting children with hearing aides and cochlear implants* as child abuse. This is only human nature doing what it is bound to do. The person starts with excepting his/her deafness and finds solace in a community that affirms their personhood and even goes so far as to say that “Deaf is beautiful.” Everything is fine so far but the group goes on to reason that if Deaf is beautiful how could anyone want to be hearing? Culture solidifies the group and language isolates it. I know the feeling. When I don't know what people around me are talking about, yet know from non-verbal cues that they are talking about me, when everyone seems to sneak up on me because I can't hear their footsteps, when I have to depend on others to tell me what's going on and they get to decide what I do and don't need to know, when I am expected to “act normal” even though I don't have the same information to go on as hearing people do—these experiences can lead to anger, resentment and suspicion towards the hearing world which I can look at and be affected by but not fully participate in. put me in a community where I don't have these problems, a world which reinforces my feelings of anger, resentment and suspicion and I will develop a strong sense of “us” and “them.”

Individuals and Group Dynamics

As a person who has experienced sound—speech, music, environmental signals, etc.—and knows full well what I am missing, I try to understand how anyone can see deafness as a desirable thing. I can not affirm my decision to get a cochlear implant by writing a diatribe about what's wrong with being deaf. That, to me, is the crux of the problem. People like to feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, affirmation within a group often culminates in finding fault with those outside the group. Self preservation is innate to every group. No group can long survive if it does not protect and perpetuate itself. A group bonded around deafness may see members who opt for hearing aides or cochlear implants as subversive. Individuals within any group may have their own private opinions towards “outsiders” but the dynamics of the group tends toward a clear separation. This being the case, is it possible for an LDA to ever be accepted as a member of the Big D Deaf community? That depends on what the individual LDA is willing to do. It's not possible to be an insider and an outsider at the same time. People in the hearing world probably won't care if someone has deaf friends but people in the Big D Deaf community might see someone as a traitor or the disability equivalent of an “Uncle Tom” if they have hearing friends “on the side.” Each person has to be honest about where and with whom they feel the most comfortable. When we bend ourselves out of shape to be what other's require us to be, we may wind up regretting the things we do and say to please the group and somewhere down the line we may have to painfully reconsider our association with that group. Better to be honest to begin with. As my mother told me “Go where you are celebrated, not tolerated.”

*Cochlear Implant: A device implanted near the auditory nerve (cochlea) which transforms sound waves into electrical signals which can be sent to the brain and interpreted as sound. This device bypasses damaged parts in the inner ear. If the cochlea itself is damaged, there is also a brain stem implant.
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