In deaf culture we have a rich tradition of storytelling, including a stable of myths passed down through generations of deaf people. One of these stories is about a planet called Eyeth, a utopian world where deaf people communicate freely and live without stigma. Rather than the audio-centric societies that dominate the Earth, Eyeth centers the eye. In some accounts, everyone on the planet is deaf; in others, the company is designed around visual communication and sign language, and everyone signs regardless of their hearing status.
Back here on Earth, most deaf and hard of hearing people know how far away the dream of an unstigmatized existence is. In the United States, deaf people have inequitable access to Justice, health care and education systems, an increased incidence of employment discrimination and police violence and higher levels of sexual violence than their hearing peers.
While some of the discrimination we face comes from a place of bad intentions, I’m willing to bet most of it comes from ignorance and inexperience. According to the 2011 American Community Survey, about 3.6% of the US population is deaf or has severe hearing loss, meaning that many average hearing people have never had a significant relationship with it. a deaf person. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that more than 5 percent of the world population has “disabling” hearing loss, still a relatively small number. Without this personal connection, deafness remains amorphous, impenetrable, even frightening.
But what if the deaf and hard of hearing population increases?
In March 2021, the World Health Organization released a report predicting that unless measures such as increased access to healthcare and noise protection are adopted, 2.5 billion people worldwide, or one in four people on Earth, will have some degree of hearing loss by 2050. Almost 700 million of them will experience moderate to severe hearing loss, a 63% increase over current numbers.
An increase in global noise pollution and unsafe listening practices, resurgences of childhood illnesses due to vaccine reluctance or limited international availability, the use of ototoxic antibiotics and a lack of preventive health care. Ear and hearing and hearing care specialists around the world are some of the leading causes of hearing loss cited in the WHO report.
Reports of hearing loss linked to Covid-19 infection have also been documented, although the data sets are small. Yet one thing is clear: the future of humanity is about to become much more deaf.
No doubt many people hearing this news will want to know how to “fix” it – with some technological or scientific breakthrough, or a “cure”, that will stop the advent of this more deaf world. And while assistive technologies like hearing aids and cochlear implants are powerful, often transformative forces in the lives of people who are deaf and hard of hearing, they may not be the most effective way to account for loss. generalized hearing to varying degrees. Rather than a purely curative goal, we should try to eradicate the stigma that surrounds hearing loss.
A societal change in attitude like this is certainly ambitious. But we have sort of a model for a successful integrated society for the deaf-hearing, an Eyeth here on Earth: a community built in the 18th and 19th centuries on Martha’s Vineyard.
In the late 1600s, a deaf carpenter named Jonathan Lambert and his wife, Elizabeth, landed at Martha’s Vineyard as part of a subset of Massachusetts Bay settlers. Many of them shared ancestors dating back to Kent, England, and that, combined with the difficulty of travel from the island to the mainland, meant that very little genetic diversity was introduced there for nearly a century. The result was a high incidence of hereditary deafness: while approximately 1 in 5,700 Americans at the time were deaf, on the vineyard there was 1 in 155. A sign language has developed on the island. It was known as the Chilmark Sign (named after a town on the island), and later called Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). It was used by deaf and hearing Islanders, allowing for fully integrated work, worship and social interactions. Hearing people sometimes signed in the absence of deaf people, and some islanders said they could not remember who was deaf or hearing.
The deaf population of Martha’s Vineyard peaked in the 1850s, but increased movement capacity made it easier for people to travel, introducing genetic diversity to the island population. Meanwhile, on the mainland, the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, founded in 1817, has drawn a growing number of deaf students, teachers, and community members into its orbit. The MVSL was either absorbed or overtaken by American Sign Language (ASL) training in the school for the deaf, and by 1952 the MVSL was considered extinct.
The lesson from Martha’s Vineyard is simple: When society doesn’t make deafness a barrier, it isn’t. And it was all done with a 0.65 percent deaf population – imagine the profound changes that integrating a deaf or hard of hearing population of up to 25 percent could bring.
Today’s world is not ready for a deaf future, but it can be. Rather than a reactive and narrow approach, like Hereditary deaf in CRISPR editing outside the genome, or accumulate retroactive accommodations designed to maintain the status quo – we can take a proactive cultural approach that incorporates a one-size-fits-all design, dismantles structural barriers, and includes people who are deaf from the ground up.
As in Martha’s Vineyard, an inclusive future requires community cooperation. Ideally, this would mean hearing people learn the sign language of their local Deaf Community (ASL in North America). Unfortunately, the hearing world tends to resist learning to sign.
This is in part due to misinformation that learning to sign will delay speaking, and in other cases it is the result of a lack of resources, especially for working families or in rural areas. Making ASL courses and materials widely available and integrating ASL into public education programs and early childhood settings would support deaf and hard of hearing people and their families.
But while it is not possible to teach the world to sign, we can still learn from the Vineyard signers by applying their global mindset of recognizing deaf and hard of hearing people as equal citizens who deserve to live alongside them. hearing.
Consider, for example, subtitles. Closed captioning is inexpensive and widely available technology. Since listening to and reading speech is largely dependent on context and atmospheric conditions – for example, whether there is background noise – even those of the 2.5 billion people projected with hearing loss slight are likely to benefit from captioned material. Yet, the content of many websites, video apps, and social media platforms is still not captioned. Even theaters often choose to forgo open captions, instead employing modernized “solutions” that overcomplicate and underperform.
In many movie theaters today, if closed captions are available, they are read upside down on the back wall of the theater, written in small LED dots; deaf viewers receive pieces of plexiglass and must try to capture their reflection to access the film. Although this is technically an arrangement that meets the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, it does not perform well and the device literally makes the user stand out in a crowd, reinforcing the stigma of deaf people like being strange or different.
If the subtitles were just shown on the big screen, everyone could enjoy the movie together. But, because many hearing people dislike the aesthetics and have probably never considered that deaf people live in their community and enjoy watching movies, the company chooses to prioritize the pure enjoyment of some viewers instead. than accessibility for all.
A movie theater is a unique, low-stake example of the many obstacles a deaf person faces every day, but it indicates how a slight change in the attitude of society could have a huge impact on the lives of many. people. Rather than opening up access to hearing people’s desire to avoid acknowledging their own discomfort with deafness, society might choose to reckon with the stigma it has built.
You don’t have to go to Eyeth; simple interactions with deaf people here on Earth will reveal the truth of deafness as another way of being human. With deafness normalized, it will be easy to think of reserving seats for us at tables where you host your events or draw up plans for building your theaters, so that we can offer a fresh perspective on what works best, for all of us. . One in four future readers might be grateful.
Sara Novic is a writer and professor of deaf studies at Stockton University in New Jersey. She is the author of two novels, “Girl at War” and the upcoming “True Biz”, which explores the life of a group of students and the principal of a school for the deaf. She lives in Philadelphia.
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