13 October 2013

Words Matter: Political Correctness and Deafness

Image courtesy Pyrro

Political correctness; it's a tricky issue to navigate in a variety of socio-cultural contexts. and the question of offensive language with respect to labeling deafness has been around for a long time. Most people can see why terminology like "deaf and dumb" is outright offensive and no longer in use. But here are some other thoughts regarding the use of "politically correct language" when it comes to deafness and the Deaf community.

The Lingo:
As with the nomenclature for describing people of different ethnic or racial groups, the language used to discuss deafness has evolved over time, and continues to do so. Currently, the terminology favored by the Deaf community is "deaf" and "hard-of-hearing." The difference between identifying oneself with these two terms is generally left up to the deaf person, but a broadly accepted rule of thumb is that if you can speak on the phone you're hard-of-hearing; if you can't you're deaf. The capitalization of the word Deaf ("Big D Deaf people") references a person who identifies as a member of the Deaf community and (nearly always) considers sign language their language of choice.
Words that the Deaf community generally dislikes? Well "dumb" as a reference to being nonverbal is obviously a no-no. Hearing impaired is often considered offensive as well, given its focus on deafness only as a deficiency. Many deaf people don't consider themselves "impaired" in any way, and the Deaf community considers itself a linguistic minority who speaks a language other than English as its first, just like any of the many linguistic minorities that exist within countries that have a dominant or national language (see "Five Things I Like About Being Deaf").

The Pros of Watching your Language:
We all know the "sticks and stones" mantra isn't true--words can hurt--but how far should a society go to standardize its language? Why should we as d/Deaf people care about politically correct language? Or why, as a hearing person, should you care about your language use in reference to deafness or disability?
Firstly, the power of language is extreme; language provides us with the capacity to think. We need look only as far as Orwell's 1984 to see that words give us the power to have a thought, or, in the case of Winston Smith, have a thought removed. Language shapes the way we think about things, and if our language inherently suggests that deaf people are "dumb" or "impaired" or otherwise broken, this becomes a part of our cultural understanding.
A quick Google search of the terms "deaf" and "news" produces a variety of newspaper headlines utilizing the phrase "falling on deaf ears." While these articles usually have nothing to do with actual d/Deaf people, the use of deafness as a metaphor for someone's political ignorance or inaction has no doubt had a subconscious effect on the way people understand deafness-- negative, and in relation to some mental deficiency, willful or otherwise. It is analogous to the way internet trolls use the word "gay" to mean lame or stupid in their YouTube comments. While these comments usually have little to do with LGBTQ issues, they still harm gay people by creating a connection to "gayness" as a negative quality.

What's most dangerous about these word choices is that language is habit-forming. We develop turns of phrase and ways of speaking dependent on where we live or who we hang out with; a quick perusal of health guidance websites offer advice on addiction to cursing. It's clear that slang and sayings and figures of speech permeate our lives quickly, and now travel faster than ever through our globalized society via the web. Perpetuating inherently discriminatory language through this medium, and others, is a perpetuation of discrimination itself.

A Counterargument:
Some suggest that creating a standard code of language that is "acceptable" in dealing with deafness or disability in general is offensive, given that it draws more (negative) attention to the disability itself. For example, the employment of "people-first" language, a system of speaking in which the person comes before his or her characteristic disability in a sentence (e.g. "a person who is deaf" instead of "a deaf person"), is argued by some to foster this kind of negative attention. In English, this kind of phrasing is repetitive and goes against the grain of natural syntax, in which adjectives are normally placed before the nouns, thus drawing more attention to the disability. Furthermore, having a specific formula for "dealing with" disability implies that it is not normal, and possibly something to be ashamed of or talked around.

What Do we Do Now?
I imagine that some people might feel defensive about previously making use of these words and phrases: well I didn't mean it that way. Or, it's just a figure of speech; don't be so sensitive. And I'm the first to admit that, when it comes to first-person language, I'm inclined myself to agree with the counterargument. But words that equate deafness with impairment and "stupidity" are a different story. Deaf people and sign language as "less than," as in need of fixing or curing to be more like hearing people, is already ingrained in our societal understanding. It will take a long time to undo. But the answer, I think, is relatively simple.

Since the Deaf community is in fact a socio-linguistic minority group (see information about ASL linguistics, or the oppression and attempted eradication of deaf people via eugenics) should they not be afforded the same rights of other racial and ethnic groups in identifying and controlling the language used to speak about their own identities and issues?

The language that defines deafness should belong to d/Deaf people, on an institutional and individual basis. Talk to a d/Deaf person about it. Or better yet, sign it, write it down, cue it, or say it, on their terms.

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