Pathological Versus Cultural Point of View on Deafness

What is the difference?

Deaf School children sign to each other in School class room

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.

Pathologic (Medical) Perspective on Deafness

In the pathologic point of view, the focus is on the amount of hearing loss and how to correct it. This correction is done through using cochlear implants and hearing aids, and learning speech and lipreading.

The emphasis is on making the deaf person appear as "normal" as possible, with the perspective that being hearing is to be considered "normal," and deaf people are not "normal."

Some people who subscribe to this point of view may also believe that a deaf person has learning or mental/psychological problems. Especially the learning part. It is true that being unable to hear makes it more difficult to learn 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of newly identified deaf children are warned that their child may have a "fourth-grade reading level," a possibly outdated statistic.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!" I have actually heard some deaf people say that.

An About Visitor on the Pathological Point of View

When Hearing parents have a Deaf child what’s the first thing they do? They go to the "Experts"! What do they tell them? "We have this surgery," "We have these marvelous Hearing Aids that can help your child!" That schools parents in the Pathological Model.

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 "ok," and in fact may be viewed as the natural language of deaf people, because visual communication is a natural way to respond when you cannot hear.

Deafness is something to be proud of - aka deaf pride, or deafhood. In 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? In my opinion, a good way to distinguish it might be through this 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, and 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.

Books and Articles

The book "Damned for Their Difference" examines how the pathological point of view came to be. Another book looks at the cultural perspective - "Cultural and Language Diversity and the Deaf Experience." 

A search found the article "Understanding deafness as a culture with a unique language and not a disability," from Advanced Practice Nursing Quarterly, Fall 1996 issue. I also found an interesting sounding article on, "Employment of deaf people as influenced by potential employers' perceptions: pathological compared with sociocultural perspectives," published in the International Journal of Rehabilitation Research, June 2005 issue. According to the abstract, that article reported on a study that looked at whether the two different perspectives influenced hiring decisions.

Do you have any books, articles, or comments to submit for addition to this article?

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