Pathological vs. Cultural Point of View on Deafness

In deaf culture, people often talk about the "pathological" versus the "cultural" view of deafness. Both hearing and deaf people can adopt either point of view.

The pathologic view tends to look at deafness as a disability that can be corrected via medical treatment so the deaf person is "normalized." In contrast, the cultural view embraces the identity of being deaf but does not necessarily reject medical aid.

As you might imagine, these two opposing views can strike up quite the debate. It's good for both deaf and hearing people to understand both perspectives.

Deaf school children sign to each other in School class room
Brian Mitchell / Getty Images

Pathologic Perspective on Deafness

In the pathologic, or medical, point of view, the focus is on the amount of hearing loss and how to correct it. Correction is done by using cochlear implants and hearing aids as well as learning speech and lipreading.

The emphasis is on making the deaf person appear as "normal" as possible. This approach takes the perspective that the ability to hear is to be considered "normal" and, therefore, deaf people are not "normal."

Some people who subscribe to this point of view may also believe that a deaf person has learning, mental, or psychological problems. This is especially true of the learning part.

It is true that being unable to hear makes it more difficult to learn the language. However, many parents of newly identified deaf children are warned that their child may have a "fourth-grade reading level," a possibly outdated statistic. That can scare the parents into committing to the pathological point of view.

A deaf person who is focused on the pathological perspective may declare, "I'm not deaf, I'm hard of hearing!"

Cultural Perspective on Deafness

Deaf and hearing people who adopt the cultural perspective embrace deafness as a unique difference and do not focus on the disability aspect. Sign language is accepted. In fact, it may be viewed as the natural language of deaf people because visual communication is a natural way to respond when you cannot hear.

In this view, deafness is something to be proud of. That is why terms like "deaf pride" and "deafhood" are sometimes used.

From the cultural perspective, the actual degree of hearing loss does not matter. Hard of hearing people can call themselves deaf. Cochlear implants are considered a tool akin to hearing aids and not a permanent fix for deafness.

Who Takes What View?

In an era where cultural deaf people opt for cochlear implants and embrace learning to talk and lipread, how do you distinguish between the two viewpoints? A good way might be through this hypothetical example of parents with a deaf child:

  • Parent A: My child is deaf. With a cochlear implant and good speech training, my child will learn to talk and will be mainstreamed. People will not be able to tell that my child is deaf.
  • Parent B: My child is deaf. With both sign language and a cochlear implant, along with good speech training, my child will be able to communicate with both hearing and deaf people. My child may or may not be mainstreamed. People may or may not be able to tell that my child is deaf, and it does not matter if they can or can not.

Interesting Discussions to Pursue

As with any debate such as this, there are many opinions on the matter. You will find that a number of writers and studies have examined this sociological-medical debate in great detail and it makes for fascinating reading.

For instance, the book Damned for Their Difference by Jan Branson and Don Miller examines how the pathological point of view came to be. It's a historical look that begins in the 17th century and studies the discrimination and "disability" associated with deaf people over the last few centuries.

Another book looks at the cultural perspective and is titled "Cultural and Language Diversity and the Deaf Experience." Many people associated with the deaf community contributed to this book. It's an attempt to view "deaf people as a culturally and linguistically distinguished minority group."

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