Eugenics and ethnic cleansing: Deaf in the 20th century and onward

Eugenics, coined by Francis Galton in 1883, promotes the idea of improving the genetic quality of humanity. The practice of eugenics varies in the forms of sterilization, infertility, segregation, abortion, euthanasia, and so on.

Who gets to decide what genetic qualities to edit?

eugenics
Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM101667

Deaf people have been aware of the eugenics movement of the past alongside the lines of medicalization and hearingization. We have experienced oppression like First Nations or American Natives, Blacks, and other oppressed groups have experienced.

Genocide and sterilization

Murder and sterilization of deaf people were commonly practiced in Nazi Germany. "During the Nazi era, Germanisation turned into a policy of ethnic cleansing and later into the genocide of some non-German ethnic groups." -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanisation . In the Nazi regime, Deaf people were deemed unworthy of life by the Nazis.

In Audism Unveiled, a story was told that a Deaf man chatted with a Deaf couple and asked why the couple couldn't have a child. When the mother gave birth to a stillborn, her father privately talked with the doctor to perform sterilization (without consent) on the mother for the fear of more deaf grandchildren. When the mother later found out and was infuriated, the couple moved out of the state away from their parents.

In the 1980s at a deaf school in North America, a Deaf teacher noticed a male Deaf student/immigrant who took a pill regularly. Asking about it, the boy didn't know what it was for. The school sent the drug sample for lab testing. When the lab report arrived, the result showed that the pill was for infertility. The boy stopped taking the pills.

Abortion

In the 2000s, a highly educated American bilingual Deaf couple - a pregnant woman with her husband who was a doctoral candidate - were in a doctor's office. The doctor asked if they wanted a prenatal genetic testing to determine whether their baby was deaf so they could decide whether to have an abortion. The couple was shocked and offended.

This case is not alone. There are many prenatal screenings.

Segregation

Alexander G. Bell (1847-1922) was an oralist proponent and eugenicist. He advocated the elimination of sign language, the removal of deaf teachers and administrators, and the elimination of residential schools in order to reduce the deaf race through oralism and mainstream.

Hearingization

Scientists work on gene therapy and stem cell therapy to restore deaf people's hearing. Beside this, cochlear implants in babies (instead of using hearing aids) deprive deaf babies of making their own choices (basic human rights) with regards to their own bodies, identities, and languages.

Eugenics today

In 2017, one of my ASL students (level 200 where we discussed eugenics and other topics in this semester) wrote in her essay on the topic of eugenics. In her philosophy discussion group on the topic of eugenics, the student brought up the topic of "Deafness as being problemetic to the conversation of eugenics." She continued, "I was appalled when I heard privileged individuals, in this case white, hearing, straight men, speak about how getting rid of (eliminate) deafness would benefit the greater population." This, she wrote, didn't surprise her that their view was not abnormal in the hearing community and the discrimination of the Deaf people. She concluded in her paper, "eugenics in the deaf community, without the input from deaf individuals, is an institutionalized form of discrimination."

Mainstream laws, closing deaf schools, the ban of sign language in oral educational settings, cochlear implants, and others are still the practice of the modern days of eugenics in the shadow form of eugenics, much similar to Alexander G. Bell's strategies.