By Gary Malkowski, MA
Special Advisor to President, Public Affairs
The Canadian Hearing Society
About the Author
Gary Malkowski, MA, was the world’s first Deaf MPP, who served in the Ontario provincial legislature during the 1990s. He is currently the Special Advisor to the President- Public Affairs at the Canadian Hearing Society. He can be reached at: [email protected]
One of my earliest memories was from my days in a pre-school program for deaf and hard of hearing children. My teacher, a woman who later went on to win a number of awards for excellence in teaching, was focused on oral instruction and sign language was banned in the classroom. On one occasion I asked to go to the bathroom and was denied permission because I wasn’t able to ask clearly in spoken English. When I peed on the floor out of desperation, I was forced to clean up my urine, wash my clothes, and was sent to my dormitory without an evening meal. What is at the heart of a teacher’s insistence that a child use a language that is neither natural nor accessible?
With my lack of speech intelligibility and residual hearing skills coupled with poor lip reading skills, I experienced low expectations and noticeably different treatment from teachers, counsellors, and even peers compared to deaf children who had mastered these skills. In my classrooms, I noticed that these classmates were given more attention, encouragements, supports, privileges, positive reinforcements and obtained more formal education while children like me did not. Discouraging me from using sign language in my early years, the lack of support and encouragement, and the deferential treatment of my more “accomplished” classmates are all examples of audism.
Unlike racism, sexism, and ageism, “audism” is an unfamiliar concept to many. Tom Humphries, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, originated the term in 1975 while working on his dissertation on a bilingual approach to Deaf education.
Humphries defined audism as “the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or behave in the manner of one who hears.” Although there is currently no unanimously accepted definition of audism, the Canadian Hearing Society (CHS) has adopted a definition in our official position paper on discrimination and audism using Humphries definition and expanding it to include two additional definitions: “A system of advantage based on hearing ability” and “A metaphysical orientation that links human identity with speech.” Discrimination rooted in audism is systemic, subtly woven into every facet of our society – housing, education, employment, government services, and health care. The attitudinal barriers it engenders, the direct and indirect discrimination it fosters, and the impact on those who are Deaf or have a hearing loss can be devastating.
During my childhood, adolescence, and some of my adult years, I grew accustomed to the attitudes of those in authority who surrounded me. Among just some of the attitudes I encountered were:
• “Sign language is bad for deaf children to learn”
• “Sign language ruins a person’s chances at careers, friends, family, and being a responsible citizen.”
• “You can’t play sports at regular house leagues because you are deaf.”
• “You can’t get a summer job because you are deaf.”
• “You will not have a successful career because you are deaf and cannot speak.”
• “You can’t drive because you can’t hear.”
• “You can’t be served in the restaurant because you are deaf.”
Sadly, these types of attitudes persist today in one variation or another. It is still common practice, for example, for audiologists, speech-language pathologists, early intervention and early childhood education providers, educators of deaf children, boards and government ministries to discourage deaf children from learning and using their natural and accessible language – sign language. In fact, many parents of deaf children who are making decisions around their child’s education are still not given balanced information about the benefits of sign language.
This restriction of the use of sign language coupled with a fundamental belief that a deaf child should learn to use residual hearing or the hearing that is a result of a cochlear implant and learn to speak is the most blatant form of audism. Sadly, when spoken language, both expressive and receptive, is not accessible, precious time is wasted. The child is labelled a spoken language “failure” and the window of opportunity to acquire language quickly closes.
Unfortunately, these spoken language deficiencies can be identified as a learning disability. In some cases there is no cognitive disability; in others, learning disabilities are compounded by language deficiencies. In both instances, it is too late for the language deficit to be repaired and this can have enormous associated costs in terms of special education requirements, and long-term mental health issues, among others.
A great number of professionals – audiologists, interpreters, educators, speech-language pathologists, and medical practitioners – have enormous amounts of power and influence. How that influence is exercised over the lives of people who are Deaf, and Deaf children and their parents is important and the information they disseminate needs to comprise the facts fully and be in the best interests of the individual.
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