At the outset of this article I must state that I am a hearing person. I have no qualifications in deaf culture. I feel compelled to write this article in response to a funeral I recently attended. I was embarrassed by the false claims held by many of the other hearing people who attended the funeral. The aim of this article is to broaden cultural understanding of deafness.
Many people are born deaf. Others become deaf at a very young age, due to measurements, meningitis or other illnesses. They grow up with their own language, customs, culture and pride. It is these people this article refer to, not those that lose their hearing some time after birth.
I am privileged to have friendships with a number of deaf people. I talk with them using Auslan (Australian Sign Language). I have learned that there are vast differences between hearing and deaf communities and cultures. I know that many hearing people have a lack of understanding of deafness. My aim is to increase understanding.
The funeral was for a deaf friend of mine. I will call him Kurnai. He was born deaf and proud to be deaf. He was known and respected in both the deaf and the hearing communities. Both deaf and hearing people took part in his eology. A sign language interpreter was present. He interpreted for the hearing people. He did this by translating the visual sign language into spoken English. He also interpreted for the deaf people. He did this by translating the spoken language into Auslan.
Kurnai's deaf friends spoke about his love of sport. They praised his football prowess. They talked of times long past when they played tricks at school. They talked of his smile and his love of having fun. None of them mentioned the fact that he was deaf. The hearing people also talked of some of the personal exercises of Kurnai. However they focused so much on the 'dreadful disability' he had. They told stories of how well he had done in spite of his disability. They talked about how sad it was that he could not talk. When the truth was that he could talk. His language, Auslan, is a rich an expressive language.
One loving relative marveled that Kurnai danced with his deaf friend. She had no concept that deaf people can 'feel' music through vibrations in the floor. Another brave thanks that now he had passed to the other life he would be able to 'talk'. Another joked that Kurnai had told him he was glad he was deaf. The gathered hearing community laughed in disbelief. The gathered deaf community smiled and nodded in agreement.
Kurnai had a terminal illness. He spent much time consulting with the medical profession. Their disability was that they did not know his language. In their arrogance they did not think it necessary to have an interpreter present at all appointments. Everyone has the right to know what is being said. Even if it is just a simple appointment. "Is my temperature, blood pressure normal". Surely it is the patients' right to be able to ask these questions. The medical profession would benefit from being able to ask the patient "How do you feel? Do you have any pain"? Without an interpreter present, these simple questions can not be given an accurate response. Too many hearing people assume that deaf people can fully understand written English and can lip read. In fact lip reading is a very difficult skill. Those who master it well can understand about 30% of the conversation. Written English uses very different grammar and syntax to Auslan. Therefore it is very easy for deaf people to mis-interpret what has been written. Often smile, or nod in response. Otherwise they take a 50/50 bet and reply either "yes" or "no".
When you are trying to communicate with a deaf person, follow their lead. Generally gesture and mime is more effective than written communication. Surely you would never attempt to communicate with a person whose language was not English by using written English? The same applies when communicating with deaf people. Their language is not English.
Kurnai was a very dear friend. The comments that his hearing friends made at his funeral would not have upset him. As a deaf person, he would have smiled and accepted the fact that no harm was intended. This is another example of the differences in our cultures. While listening to the stories of his life I was upset by the mis-understandings. I was embarrassed by the 'politically incorrect' statements that hearing people were making. I was upset and felt the need to defend Kurnai's statement that "Deafness is not a Disability".