By Nadina LaSpina

"Are people who are deaf, despite the protestations of some, individuals with disabilities?" In the last issue of the Activist, Frank Bowe, Professor in the Department of Counseling, Research, Special Education and Rehabilitation at Hofstra University, author of numerous books and articles on disability issues, powerful and tireless civil rights advocate, and himself deaf, tried to answer that question.

According to federal laws such as the ADA and the IDEA, Frank Bowe explains, people who are deaf are disabled. They meet the statutory definition of "individuals with disabilities" and may, therefore, avail themselves of the accommodations and protections offered in those laws. However, Frank adds, that does not mean they must consider themselves disabled. Indeed, the community of people who capitalize the word "Deaf" very vehemently rejects the label "disabled". As a way of explaining that position, Frank argues that Deaf people have more in common with people speaking languages other than English than with those of us who have disabilities.

As a linguist and language teacher, and also as someone who learned English as a second language (and whose mother, after many years in this country, still speaks only Italian), I am very familiar with issues of language structure, language function, and language acquisition; and I understand only too well the problems encountered by those who do not know the language of the country in which they live. The analogy is a very good one: sign language users are faced with the same communication barriers as other foreign language users. We could even carry the analogy one step further: like deaf people, other non-English speaking people in America must deal with discrimination, since in this land of immigrants, the most recent immigrants are invariably regarded as the most inferior. Consequently, any foreign language spoken by a minority - including Sign Language - is considered to be "not as good as English".

As a linguist, I am fascinated by Sign language (in fact, I am trying to learn ASL) and by the Deaf Community as a linguistic minority. I know what a powerful unifying force language is. A shared language makes for a shared identity. A shared language makes it easier to feel pride in that identity. A shared language makes it easier to build a culture. That's why Deaf people leaped ahead, leaving us - people with other disabilities - way behind while they built their separate culture. Deaf people have every right to feel proud of their beautiful language and rich culture. I am envious of Deaf people. Without the advantage of a shared language, it has been very difficult for the rest of us to find a sense of identity; only recently have we started talking about "disability culture" and "disability pride". Our sense of identity and pride has emerged out of the struggle for disability rights, while for Deaf people it has remained centered in their language and in their separateness. That is a big difference. But there is no reason why that difference should divide us. There is no reason why the Deaf community has to insist that because they are a linguistic minority they are not disabled like us.

At times a deaf person may be perceived by others as simply someone who does not know English, or, if the deaf person speaks, as someone who is not a native English speaker. I recall a conversation I had with Frank where he jokingly related the efforts of a salesman trying to recognize his "accent". "I bet you're from Russia," the salesman concluded. Frank had me laughing so hard I never asked him if he told the salesman what the "accent" really was. But I do know exactly what the salesman's reaction would have been if he were told. Embarrassment, profuse apology, amazement that Frank could function at all... the same type of reaction I would get when, still able to walk on crutches, I would answer truthfully when asked by someone with a big smile on his face "did you do it skiing?" The smile dropped off the poor devil's face so quickly when he realized I wasn't just temporarily injured, but permanently "disabled".

The point I'm trying to make is that Deaf people are not just a linguistic minority, that deaf people have more in common with those of us who have (other) disabilities than they do with speakers of foreign languages. It is not just the language of the law that defines us all as "disabled". To the nondisabled majority all of us who have physical, intellectual or emotional differences are on the other side of the line: we are all "disabled". That line to the nondisabled majority is more significant than any other dividing line drawn on the basis of social status, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, even race.

Throughout the ages a whole baggage of myths, fears and stereotypes has accumulated around the realities of biological difference/disability, resulting in what in the social sciences we call a "social construct". The social construct of disability defines us all - people with mobility impairments, blind people, deaf people, people with retardation, people with psychiatric disabilities, etc. - as inferior, defective, dysfunctional, afflicted, pitiable. The social construct of disability has far ranging consequences, leading to poor education, training for failure, desexualization, unemployment or underemployment, discrimination of all sorts. The injustice Deaf people have suffered throughout the centuries, therefore, goes beyond that suffered by other linguistic minorities. We know because we have suffered the same injustice.

Sign language in the past was not just considered "inferior", it was considered "unnatural" and "not normal", just like my way of getting around is considered not normal even though I may get where I'm going faster in my chair than someone on foot. No member of a linguistic minority is ever going to understand the Deaf community's opposition to cochlear implants. But those of us who were tortured as children with painful contraptions and multiple surgeries (I had 17 operations because the doctors and my parents insisted I had to walk) understand the Deaf community's unwillingness to have their children "cured". Those of us who have come to embrace our disabilities as integral parts of ourselves, know what a threat that miracle surgery or "fix it all pill" they keep raising money to discover really is to our precious sense of identity.

Frank Bowe sees very clearly the dangers of separation in the political arena. "For purposes of public laws, for purposes of advocacy in civil rights, etc., Deaf people have to work with others who have disabilities as members of the disability community" he writes. Yes, today more than ever! Given the current political atmosphere of cost-cutting and contempt for anyone who is not healthy, rich and successful, with the foes of ADA riding high in Congress, we simply cannot afford not to work together!

There is another danger in working separately instead of working together. When our needs and our goals differ, as they must at times since our disabilities are different, we can end up working against each other. That has already happened: the disability community has fought to have our children included in the regular classroom, but, as Frank points out, the regular classroom is not "the least restrictive environment" for a deaf child. We must make sure that we understand our differences, so that we never end up unknowingly hurting each other.

I disagree with Frank on one point: I don't believe that Deaf people can join forces with us in order to fight for rights and, at the same time, insist that they are not disabled. Somehow, Deaf people must be made to understand the harm they are causing when they say "they are not like us".

Deaf linguists Carol Padden and Tom Humphries write: "The term "disabled" describes those who are blind or physically handicapped, not Deaf people" and again: "Deaf people do not, at the center, view themselves as disabled or handicapped. Instead their view of themselves is one of wholeness and completeness. They view themselves as competent individuals..." Have these authors been watching the telethon? It must have been from Jerry Lewis that they got the idea that people with disabilities are not competent or whole, that they are, as Jerry would put it, "half persons".

It's obvious that Deaf people have accepted the non-disabled majority's definition of disability. They do not want to be defined as disabled because they don't want to shoulder all the negative baggage that `comes with the territory' of having a disability? Well, neither do we. That's why we're working hard to free ourselves and them from all that baggage. By separating themselves from us, by calling themselves members of a linguistic minority and calling us disabled, all they are doing is perpetuating the notion that disability is "bad". And they're not really helping themselves, since the nondisabled majority is still going to think of them as disabled. Wouldn't it be better if they joined us in saying: Yes! We’re all disabled, and we're all just fine, we are whole, complete, competent individuals... and we are proud of our separate identities as Deaf people, as Blind people, as wheelchair users, etc.... and we are also proud of our common identity as People with Disabilities.