Disability and cultural relativism: a Deaf perspective

The concept of disability is a social and cultural construct. It's a mix of illusion and reality. Our members of the Deaf community are probably the only ones labeled 'people with disabilities' who do not regard themselves as people with disabilities. We see this as a misnomer.

The Deaf represent a cultural-linguistic minority group (again, I wouldn't use this term 'minority' but that's another story). Although, we live with a double-identity. To ensure our human rights, we have to operate under the label of 'people with disabilities'. And all the while, we reject this term and its logocentric nature.

The definition and concept of disability differs considerably from that held by hearing people. Our concept is somehow more fluid and complementary; the hearing concept is more constrained by boundaries and dichotomy.

The Deaf often say that hearing people are disabled when they are in the Deaf world where signing was the modality of language and they don't adhere to the constructs of our Deaf culture that is different from the hearing culture.

"Just a thought...it is interesting to see that DEAF people can function in the hearing world very well while hearing people cannot function well in the DEAF world." -- Gil Eastman (1934-2006), Gallaudet Theatre Art Professor.

Not only is the above quote true, it contrasts with what hearing people believe or imagine to be true. Next, I will show some examples.

Some people in India looked at me intently, wondering how can a Deaf woman travel alone in India. It was not a cultural norm, let alone being a woman traveling alone in their country. Though I don't speak English (only write/read English), many Indians don't speak English either and many other tourists in India had a wide array of communication challenges. Yet, many other Deaf globe-trotters and I functioned well in many other non-English speaking countries. Many of us have a knack of overcoming communication challenges.

My Deaf father figured out a way of fleeing from the communist country and eventually took refuge with his Deaf family in Austria for immigration asylum before we all emigrated to Canada. The Polish villagers of our hometown buzzed around, believing that we made a serious mistake. They gossiped that we'd suffer a poor, worse life.

Years later, my hard-working father came back for a visit several times, driving a rented BMW. Our lives were getting prosperous and comfortable. These villagers, who struggled financially and had health issues, sincerely conceded that we were blessed and fortunate.

As a young boy, my Deaf father lost his four closest pals just because they were hearing. His deafness saved his life and I wouldn't exist if he were hearing. How? He lived in a residential school one autumn day while his hearing friends found a World War II bomb and played with it. R.I.P. (For a full story, see the related link, "Deaf or Dead".)

So, who, then, is disabled? And exactly what is disability? The concept is kind of fluid. And its degree of disability is also somdhow fluid under various circumstances and life variables. Even our deafness is permanent, our disability is not always permanent. Hearing is permanent but their accessibilty is not always permanent. The reality of "Deaf-gain" does exist. Some Deaf people function better in their relationships, work lives and social lives than some hearing people do. And also true for vice versa.

People tend to conjure up the notion that disability is something physical that is 'missing'. In truth, we all are both "able" and "disabled" in our own ways.

Our Deaf people are not disabled in our own vibrant world nor in our language. Hearing people may be disabled in our Deaf world or also be disabled when traveling in a foreign country. The Blacks were disabled by the Whites based on their skin color. Woman can be disabled by man by using his pumping testerone. The poor can be disabled further by the rich by increasing loan interests and/or lowering revenues or increasing tuition fees.

A friend left the university voluntarily because of anxiety attacks that prompted him a refuge in his familiar, secure dwelling. He claimed his disability yet he wasn't qualified for the services. A person without eyeglasses cannot read or drive. A person cannot attend college because of limited finances. And so on and on endless.

A concept of disability is largely shaped by attitude and affected by personal perceptions, cultural construct, values, and so on. A barrier is not due to differences but due to attitude and social power of structure.

To eliminate the dichotomy of 'disability and not' is to change the attitudes, to accept and embrace diversity, to sacrifice privileges, and to meet everyone's differences half-way. It means to provide accessibility for everyone and the concept of "disability" blends with everyone.

The University of Alberta recently changed their service name from "Specialized Support and Disabiliy Services" to "Student Accessibility Services". Exactly, spot on!

This is a sign of the current, positive movement to reframe from the concept of disability to the concept of providing accessibility for everyone.