The Deaf Community: Disabled or Different
In the U.S., members of the Deaf community use a unique language– literally. Not only does the sign language used by individuals with hearing impairment link them to their colleagues in society, but it also acts as a membership card that allows them to join a linguistic subculture of society that many people do not have the privilege to enjoy (Ball, 2010). A common way used by Deaf people to distinguish themselves is by focusing on the word Deaf and working toward changing the U.S. attitude. According to the Deaf culture, people with hearing impairment are not disabled; rather they belong to a minority culture with specific norms and language. Under the ADA, Individuals with hearing impairment are entitled to equal rights and services like anyone else. ADA is an acronym that stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act which came into force in 1991 prohibits the discrimination of people living with disabilities in various areas of life like transportation, schools, jobs, public places and private places (U.S. Department of Justice 2006). The ADA ensures that individuals with disabilities are accorded the same opportunities and rights as other people. The Act protects the fundamental rights of American citizens with disabilities similar to those accorded to people based on religion, age, origin, nationality, sex, color, and race by availing equal opportunities in public local and state government services, telecommunications, transportation, public accommodations, and employment.
Before the enforcement of ADA, a few regulations geared toward benefiting the deaf community were constrained in scope and required equal communication access for people which hearing impairments only for entities that received federal funding. The group included different hospitals which accepted Medicare and learning centers that benefited from grants funded by the federal government but did not include places like Wal-Mart. H & R Block, Macy’s UPS, and virtually all private healthcare centers and employers. Notably, before 1990, telephone firms were permitted to exclude the Deaf community (U.S. Department of Justice 2006). The situation has, however, improved with the development of ADA. Relevant systems have been put in place across the U.S. to provide operator centers for a sign and text language and serve as facilitators to telephone communications between hearing people and the Deaf community. In other terms, telephone communication has been refined with the development of ADA. Also, the enactment of ADA has made it easier for firms to be compliant by offering credits to offset accessibility costs.
Empowerment is an extremely complex concept. Empowerment means giving a person authority and power. In that sense, empowerment pertains to the distribution of power and resources (Ball, 2010). Within the same framework, the deaf community is usually able to participate in health care work, make decisions about their health, and represent themselves. The breakdown in communication is an apparent consequence of deafness, whereby the communicative function requires to be either restored or initiated. In this sense, empowering strategies in the Deaf community should focus on the elimination of communication barriers. Such may involve the provision of the necessary information and the enhancement of legislation about communication barriers. Some people may develop a negative attitude toward deaf people; a condition called audism. Audism is simply a notion that some people can be superior to their colleagues based on their ability to hear or behave in the same way as the hearing people (Harvey, 2013). It is an attitude grounded on pathological thinking which causes a negative stigma toward deaf people. Like sexism or racism, audism limits, labels and judges people regarding whether they can hear and speak. Audists hold a notion that the life of a deaf person is miserable and futile and that the loss of hearing is a tragedy. Audism imposes negative impacts on the deaf community because it limits the culture and pride of deaf people by creating an environment that makes them conform to behavior and ways of life of the hearing people. Audism also makes deaf people shun the U.S. sign language and try to favor communication in spoken words.
The notion that deafness is separate from disability has elicited conflicting views as some people claim that being deaf is not a disability, rather it is a cultural and linguistic minority. Other people, however, consider deafness as a disability and a life-limiting condition. Ideally, the Deaf community adopts a seemingly paradoxical view that society should not define them as having a disability or impaired (Harvey, 2013). The Deaf community believes that its members are only different. At the same time, they demand to receive the legal accommodations and benefits individuals who fit in the bracket of people with disabilities are given by the law. Therefore, the Deaf Community desires to receive the benefits and protections accorded to people with disabilities while denying the notion that the Deaf have a disability that necessitates the legal benefits and projections that they want to enjoy.
The paradox and philosophies surrounding the Deaf culture give rise to difficult issues like the level at which individuals who dispute being impaired should benefit from laws and regulations designed to protect the fundamental rights of individuals with different impairments and whether the state should expand or modify existing regulations to accommodate this minority group’s views. Jones, (2002) argues that deaf people should not reject the views of other people who do not conform to their belief system, establish their communities different from the rest and expect to be accommodated by society on the same grounds that it accepts other persons who accept having conditions generally considered as disabilities. The rejection of the disability label and deaf persons who consider themselves to be having disabilities, while at the same time demanding the protection and special rights granted to people with disabilities raises a complex question as to whether disability should be defined by the person with a disability or by society. To date, Federal legislation seems to adopt the former, while the Deaf community have continued to advocate for the latter.
Regardless of the perceptions of society, the belief that deafness is a minority culture, has empowered the Deaf community and allowed them to view themselves as a unique group with distinct social norms and language. Besides, the standpoint helps in promoting the rights of the deaf people to a collective space in society to pass their culture and language to future generations (Jones, 2002). Identifying with Deaf communities and associating with their culture has been revealed to contribute significantly to positive self-esteem to Deaf people. The community can provide easy social interaction, support, and refuge from frustrations of the hearing people. As such, the perspective that being deaf is not a disability has enabled the deaf to cope with discrimination and frustrations from the hearing people like audism and paternalism. Conversely, people with hearing impairments who are not members of the Deaf community may not enjoy the same support from the hearing community which may lower their self-esteem. Negative attitudes, lack of knowledge, and stereotypes about Deaf people cause widespread discrimination that could lead to lower economic status and education of deaf people.In summary, people with hearing impairment are entitled to equal services under the ADA like anyone else. However, some Deaf community members have been exposed to different forms of prejudice and discrimination by the hearing people. As such, the concept that being deaf is not a disability, but rather, a minority culture with different norms, language and ways of life, boosts the self-esteem of people with hearing impairment.