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Ryan Commerson. (Photo: D. Scott Clark)

Is There a Global Effort to Eradicate Deaf People?

• January 16, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Ryan Commerson. (Photo: D. Scott Clark)

Exploring subculture in America.

In the 1970s, about half of all deaf children in America attended special schools, many of which immersed them in sign language. Today, 80 percent of deaf children attend ordinary local schools, and more than half of kids born with hearing impairments receive cochlear implants, with the proportion rising every year. A dramatic shift is under way in the American experience of deafness. To many who are hard of hearing, this shift represents not a victory over disability, but the dissolution of a thriving culture—what they call Deaf culture, with a capital D.

  • There are those of us who do not view our being Deaf as something that needs to be overcome. In fact, we don’t even think or talk about it. I was blessed at birth.
  • There is a global effort to eradicate Deaf people and sign languages from the human gene pool. Doctors intimidate parents into using cochlear implants on their newborns. Deaf children are forbidden to learn American Sign Language.
  • For years, the conflict was between oralism—a philosophy of teaching the Deaf to communicate through speech and lip-reading—and sign language. Organizations that promote American Sign Language are nearly 100-percent Deaf-run. The National Association of the Deaf is completely Deaf-run—as opposed to the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which is mostly hearing-run and practices oralism.
  • Deaf people’s brains are wired differently. We have greater spatial cognition because we use the world’s oldest and most natural three-dimensional language. American society doesn’t know how to talk about or address Deaf people properly. The term deaf itself is an eternal battleground—in Old English, deaf means “empty, barren.” We need a new word that tells the truth of our identity.

Ryan Commerson, 37, filmmaker (as told to Ryan O’Hanlon)


This post originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “Deaf Culture.” For more, consider subscribing to our bimonthly print magazine.

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Grantland, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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