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Do Deaf People Have a Disability?

From: Sign Language Studies
Volume 2, Number 4, Summer 2002
pp. 356-379 | 10.1353/sls.2002.0019

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Sign Language Studies 2.4 (2002) 356-379

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Do Deaf People Have a Disability?

Harlan Lane

RECENTLY I asked a colleague, a university professor I'll call Archibald, whether he thought that Deaf people have a disability. "Of course they do," he answered, "it's common sense." I believe that most hearing people and some Deaf people, too, would say the same thing. When my colleague called the conclusion common sense, he implied that the meanings of the words themselves answered my question. A disability is a limitation of function because of an impairment. Deaf people are limited in some functions because of an impairment of hearing. Therefore, Deaf people have a disability. That nicely closes the issue for my colleague, but it closes it too soon for us. To travel this issue with the common sense meanings of the words is to travel with too much a priori baggage. In particular, these meanings take deaf and disability to be physical attributes of individuals, like their blood pressure or eye color. A great deal follows from this biological understanding of deaf and disability, including much that Deaf people find hurtful and inimical to their interests. I propose, therefore, to suspend common sense on this issue long enough to explore the concepts of deaf and disability so we can see what was buried in both the question and the answer.

How did the concept of disability arise and what purposes does it serve in our societies? In several of his works, the French philosopher [End Page 356] Michel Foucault (1980) showed how "bodies are the battlefield"—that is, how political and economic forces in the history of the Western world have fought for control of the human body and its functions. By the eighteenth century, the Western tradition of esteeming the poor was replaced by a political analysis of idleness that continues to the present. To make productive citizens out of idle burdens on the state, it was necessary to distinguish those who could not work (the sick and disabled) from those who would not work (beggars, vagabonds, and thieves). In 1994 presidential aspirant Phil Gramm, a senator from Texas, confirmed this policy objective of separating the infirm from the indolent: "[We want able-bodied] people riding in the [welfare] wagon," he said, "to get out ... and help the rest of us pull." The incoming Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, agreed (Welfare Helps Kids 1994). Likewise, the British government has stated that the products of special education "should be productive if possible and not a burden on the state" (Department of Education and Science 1978). A 1993 Japanese law similarly aims to make people with disabilities independent and thus employable (Nagase 1995).

To reduce the numbers of those who could not work and must be given a free ride, the state, starting in the eighteenth century, assumed great responsibility for ensuring the health of the population and could even penetrate the tightly knit family unit and prescribe what should happen to the child's body: hygiene, inoculation, treatments for disease, and compulsory education (Foucault 1980). These practices are generally quite desirable, and they thus formed a continuing basis for the state's claim on the control of bodies. During this era of the rise of modern medicine and the growing intervention of the state in the health of the family, the first national schools for Deaf people were founded. In order to ensure that those who could work would do so, a central purpose of those schools was to teach the Deaf pupils a trade, removing them from their families where they were poor dependents and converting them into productive members of society. The Deaf schools in Europe contained shops to teach trades such as printing, carpentry, masonry, gardening, tailoring, and so on. When schools for Deaf people were founded in the United States, they followed this model (Lane 1984). [End Page 357]

With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, much larger numbers of people were marginalized; machinery, buildings, and transportation were designed for the normative worker. To separate the...