Deaf Awareness

There are three primary definitions listed for the word deaf. (Dictionary)  They are:  partially or completely lacking in the sense of hearing, relating to the deaf or their culture, and unwilling or refusing to listen. The first of these definitions is accurate in describing the condition which prompts this essay.  All of these definitions will be discussed.   Historically speaking the deaf have long been held as disabled. As long ago as 1000 BC the Torah protected the deaf from being cursed by others, but did not allow them to participate fully in the rituals of the Temple. Special laws concerning marriage and property were established for deaf-mutes, but deaf-mutes were not allowed to be witnesses in the courts. In the period from 384-322 BC Aristotle claimed that Deaf people could not be educated because without hearing, people could not learn. (Deaf History)  It was also Aristotle who created the term deaf and dumb to distinguish those people who could not speak because they could not hear. In keeping with this thinking, the deaf son of King Croesus of Lydia is not recognized as his father's heir.

During 345-550 AD early Christians saw deafness as a sin, based on teachings from St. Augustine who told early Christians that deaf children were a sign of God’s anger at the sins of their parents. Meanwhile, hearing and speaking Benedictine monks were taking vows of silence to better honor God, a somewhat contradictory action. To communicate necessary information, they develop their own form of sign language. It was not until the 1500’s that serious efforts began to educate the deaf in Renaissance Europe.  The physician Geronimo Cardano of Padua, Italy, attempted to teach his deaf son using a code of symbols, as he believed that the deaf could be taught written symbolic language. Meanwhile, Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Benedictine monk, successfully taught speech to people deaf since birth.  Juan Pablo Bonet was an advocate of early sign language and wrote the first well-known book of manual alphabetic signs for the deaf in 1620. Progress continued in the period from 1690-1880.  A French priest, Charles Michel De L’Eppe, established the first free public school for the deaf in France. De L’Eppe tried to develop a bridge between the deaf and hearing worlds through a system of standardized signs and finger spelling. This priest also founded a shelter for the deaf in Paris and a school for deaf children in Truffaut, France. In 1788 he published a dictionary of French sign language. At the same time, educators made strides in Spain, Germany, France, Holland and England. Many used secret methods to teach lip reading to their deaf pupils. Among the most successful oral teachers of the deaf is Samuel Heinicke, a German educator. Using techniques developed by a Dutch doctor, Heinicke teaches pupils speech by having them feel his throat while he spoke.  This orally based educational techniques is called “the German Method.”   In 1817 Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, an American interested in deaf education, traveled to Europe where he mets De L’Eppe’s successor, the Archbishop Roche Sicard, the author of “Theory of Signs.” Sicard sent one of his instructors, Laurent Clerc, back with Gallaudet, and the pair found the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Many teachers of the deaf trained in Hartford, and soon sign-based deaf schools in New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and elsewhere started to achieve success. Alice Cogswell was Gallaudet’s initial inspiration to teach the deaf, and was the first to graduate from the American School.The easiest, most readily available form of communication for most of us is speech.  We simply say what we mean, and expect those listening to understand us.  But this is only one form of communication, although it is the one we tend to rely on.  It’s not quite that simple for the deaf. The belief that the deaf are incapable of learning has been proven false time and time again.  But society still holds a lingering prejudice against people who cannot hear.  It is still debated as to whether or not deafness is a disability, or at what level of deafness it becomes so.  The deaf themselves prefer to be called deaf or “hard of hearing”. (NAD)  They do not care for the term hearing impaired as they feel this is a negative approach, and limits them unnecessarily.  They do think of themselves a minority group however, and accept the fact that at some levels it is a disability.  While we may not see deaf individuals as severely handicapped or disabled, they do often have a handicap to equal opportunity. (Silva, Robert). There are communication difficulties inherent with deafness.  Obviously the deaf cannot hear spoken words, or certain alarms those with hearing take for granted:   telephones, doorbells, sirens, and automobile horns.  The two major sign languages in use today BSL (British Sign Language) and ASL (American Sign Language) which are not completely compatible, and are not understood by most hearing people.  Lip reading is in common use by many deaf people, but requires a face to face meeting, where many hearing people hold at least partial conversations while not facing the party they are addressing.  And the deaf cannot share in some social activities with mainstream population such as enjoyment of musical events, although they are able to dance because they can feel the beat of the music.  Since those people who are deaf since birth have never heard music, they do not consider this a particular loss. When a parent discovers his child is deaf he/she is faced with a number of decisions.  It must be decided if the child should learn sign language, and/or lip reading, and if the child should be placed in a school for the deaf or in a public school that has special provisions for their special status. It has been suggested that these students be enrolled in English as second courses to help them deal with the difficulties of a language they can only use as written.  It becomes apparent that without a verbal knowledge of language it is more difficult to make a correlation with the written word, and these classes can alleviate that problem. If medical correction of the problem becomes available the parent must decide if repairing the problem is worth the possibility of alienating the child from the rest of the deaf community and the culture they have formed as a support group.  Among medical treatments available are cochlear implants and hearing aids, which in many cases restore at least partial hearing.  Sadly though, many people feel uncomfortable wearing a noticeable hearing aid and elect instead to struggle to hear sounds. Discrimination against the deaf does exist.  The term Audism (from Latin audire, to hear, and -ism, a system of practice, behavior, belief, or attitude) has been variously defined as:  the belief that life without hearing is futile and miserable, that hearing loss is a tragedy and “the scourge of mankind,” and that deaf people should struggle to be as much like hearing people as possible. (Library).  Audism is the hearing way of dominating, restructuring, and exercising authority over the deaf community.  Audists may be hearing or deaf, and they ignore the available tools which would enable communication with the deaf.  Many deaf people rely on the deaf culture for much of their social needs, as only the deaf can truly understand the barriers they face in life.  Those who hold a cultural view might define the Deaf Community as: a group of persons who share a common means of communication (sign language) that provides the basis for group cohesion and identity; a group of persons who share a common language (ASL or BSL) and a common culture; those whose primary means of relating to the world is visual and who share a language that is visually received and gesturally produced. (American Deaf Culture)  Even on the internet one can find social groups and even dating services for the deaf. In a hearing society there are limitations to the employment the deaf can find.  Many jobs require use of a telephone or verbal skills.  So they may be limited to positions where communications can be made electronically (by computers), or by written or signed instructions, or where someone is able to communication by sign language.  A number of systems have been designed to make the world more accessible and safer for the deaf.  Using light sources to announce phone calls and doorbells are a common practice in deaf households.  A TTY is a device that enables people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-disabled to use the telephone by typing messages back and forth to one another instead of talking back and forth. In order to communicate, a TTY is required at both ends of the conversation, unless the call is placed through Relay.  (TTY)  Televisions are available that provides closed captioning and allow the deaf to keep up with current events and popular programs.  More recently sign language symbols have been added to those programs.  Today, there is video programming for the deaf on the internet, and more will probably be coming as broadband grows. (ABOUT).Dogs have been trained to facilitate travel and safety issues for the deaf, much as Seeing Eye dogs have been used for the blind. (Hearing Dogs)  These dogs are trained with positive reinforcement and love to alert to seven possible sounds: fire/smoke alarm, telephone, door knock, doorbell, oven timer, alarm clock, and name call. A dog may be trained for an eighth sound, the baby cry.  In addition to sound training, they are also obedience trained and socialized. (Dogs for the Deaf, Inc). Considering that most of us will face some level of hearing loss as we age perhaps it would be wise for all of us to be better educated to the difficulties and possibilities present with that possibility.  Gradual deterioration of the ear means that for most people, deafness is an unwelcome feature of later life.  Although the degree of disability varies greatly, and some people adjust quite well to the slow decline in their hearing, for many this form of hearing loss, known as presbyacusis, causes frustration, loneliness and depression.  Presbyacusis occurs in both ears and affects over half of all people over 60.   years old, making it the second most common cause of disability in older people. (Defeating Deafness).Education appears to be the key, both for those currently deaf who are capable of making a contribution to society, and for those who may face deafness in their future.  Providing education to those born deaf, or facing it from early childhood on, and providing education about the deaf to those who have perfect hearing will enable society to set aside any negative prejudices which might be held towards the hearing impaired.


ABOUT, Deafness/Hard of Hearing, Television Programming for the Deaf, 2005

American Deaf Culture, Perspectives on Deaf People, 2005,

ASL, 2005,

British Sign Language, 2005,

Deaf Culture, Sound and Fury, 2005,

Defeating Deafness, Age Related Hearing Loss, Feb. 2005, 2005,

Dogs for the Deaf, Inc., 2005,

Hearing Dogs, for deaf people, 2004,

Library, Deaf Related Resources, 2002

NAD, 2005,

Silva, Robert, Audism, 2005,

Ten Reasons to Learn Sign Language, 2005,

TTY – Telephones for the Deaf and Speech Impaired, 2004,

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