Deaf geographies, and other worlds.
I’ve been spurred back to writing by yesterday’s response to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill by Tomato Lichy and Paula Garfield on Radios 2 and 4… and particularly by the responses from John Humphries who demonstrates perfectly the cross-purposes at which people are arguing.
The issue of Clause 14 is hotly debated elsewhere and I don’t want to add my voice to the mêlée… Rather, I’d like to suggest that the problem be considered on a different level… one that unfortunately gets swamped by the (very real) necessity for urgent political action, the lack of time available to opponents of a process that moves quickly and the pressure to achieve an end goal… but one that, in my view, warrants a move from the entire academic community to prevent an initiative that threatens to destroy our access to knowledges that differ from those of the temporarily approved set of ‘Truth’.
Humphries’ responses in the Radio 4 exchange with Tomato clearly demonstrate the problem. He cannot perceive of deafness being anything other than a disability… and sign language, or sign language-mediated knowledges, being anything other than a compensatory system for those who cannot hear… consequently, his perception of what might be the ‘right choice’ is limited to the one that appears ethnically inevitable.
Consequently, as Tomato (and Paula too in the exchange with Jeremy Vine) assert Deaf culture and language, the non-disablement of Deaf people, the dis-abling of hearing people in Deaf spaces and so on… it makes no impact on Humphries’ single-minded assumption that there is only one reality… his own.
I don’t want to argue epistemologies or ontologies etc. head on. It has no impact on people who are that stuck inside one knowledge system. So let’s start a different way, by embarking on a ‘make believe’.
In 2003, the British Government finally accepted the linguistic evidence that BSL is a language in its own right (note: they did not accept BSL as an official language of the UK, nor did the government in its entirely participate in the validation, only the department of work and pensions did… and only within the remit of disability provision… so there is a whole lot more work to do yet). By so doing, they accepted that BSL (and therefore other natural sign languages, that’s another debate) is fully able to mediate human linguistic and cognitive development.
Let’s dial back then to the point in time where humankind developed language. What if, at that point, instead of adopting speech, they had adopted the perfectly viable alternative: sign language. There’s evidence that some might have done, and indeed nothing within the language to stop it from happening, and there’s nothing inherent within the decision to make it any less viable or likely than the current status quo.
And it’s here that the problem lies. If we accept that this is a possible scenario (and we must given the evidence) then the ‘only-ness’ of the world in which we live is challenged. If it is entirely possible that the world might have developed based on sign language-mediated intervention, then neither spoken-language culture and society nor sign-mediated culture and society is inherently ‘better’ than the other… simply different… equally validly ‘other’… complimentary… distinctive of human creativity… maybe even prone to different creative expressions and holistic mediations of what it means to be ‘human’…
And this is what Deaf people argue. They do not merely equate their sign language with deafness. Presented not only as a language through which Deaf people find their full humanity, but as a full, other form of communication that embodies the body/world relationship far more holistically than does linear spoken language, Deaf people have suggested that their ‘other’ knowledges are a compliment to the hearing-authored world.
OK… I know there is the reality of history and the current situation to consider (but most of that is a ridiculous worry about Deaf people not being able to hear traffic and suchlike), and I know that the political situation of the Deaf community has made it less than easy to extricate emotion, argument, anger, resentment, reactionism and so on. But what would happen if instead of seeing this debate as one in which Deaf people are (mistakenly) accused of trying to deliberately disable their future children, we flipped the debate on its head and looked at the issue of Clause 14 as symbolic of ways of exploring and celebrating the variety of what we consider fully ‘human’ instead of attempting to wield a 200 year-old, paternalistic, scientifically-informed scalpel to distinguish between those considered valid and those who are not.
Not so long ago Black people were also considered inferior… and so were gay people… and so were Jews… and so were women… And yet by embracing their knowledges, knowledge itself has been transformed… How much more than could Deaf people bring to the sum of human knowledge if they were allowed to express themselves without immediate prejudice.
It is time, now, to embrace the challenge of Deaf people’s physical, cultural, perceptual, linguistic, ontological otherness.
All the eradication of Deaf people and Deaf knowledges achieves is the impoverishment of humanity as a whole.