Social Norms within Deaf Culture

Posted: May 23, 2014

Laraine Mangan is a Community, Environment and Development major, with a specialization in Community and Economic Development. She aims to pursue a career in City Planning and Economic Development.

Deaf culture is unique, in that there is no distinct dress, cuisine, geographical location, or scriptural tradition. Instead, it is solely formed from the bond created through an attachment to the deaf and hard of hearing community, through either being deaf or having a relationship to those who are. Although some make the argument that the deaf community is simply a subculture, or a political or social construct, I hold that based on the shared values, practices, goals and attitudes of the deaf community, it constitutes its own culture.

As with any culture, there exist several debates and obstacles that the deaf community faces. A recent issue is the argument over cochlear implants and their role within the culture. A cochlear implant is an electronic device that can provide a sense of sound to those either deaf or severely hard-of-hearing. The internal part of the implant is surgically placed under the skin while the external part remains behind the ear. While this device does not provide complete sound, it can give a deaf or hard-of-hearing person a representation of sound as well as help the individual to understand speech. Are those who receive cochlear implants cutting their ties to the deaf community? Should parents have the right to choose to give their children cochlear implants? Is funding being unevenly distributed between cochlear implant research and technology and other services necessary to deaf individuals, in favor of cochlear implants? Here, I seek to address the social debates in the deaf community, in reference to cochlear implants, with a focus on social norms and policy.

For the purpose of this essay, Deafness (with a capital 'D') will be used in reference to those who consider themselves to be culturally Deaf, while deafness (with a lowercase 'd') will be used in reference to those who are physically deaf. There exists a large misunderstanding of deafness and the social construction of what "deafness" means. To some, deafness is seen as a flaw, and as something that needs to be cured in order to make one whole or "normal." From this perception came the creation of the cochlear implant, as a panacea that will fix the deaf. To those within the Deaf community, they view this as a part of who they are and nothing more. It is this difference that defines the contrast between being deaf, and being Deaf - uppercase 'D'. It is this dissonance that is also causing conflict within the Deaf community.

A big factor in this debate is public misconception of deafness. Misleading publicity in the form of mass media and other informational sources causes many to view deafness as having a negative connotation. The general publicly shared opinion is that deaf individuals are lacking in some way, invoking a sense of unnecessary sympathy and pity. This message encourages the idea that these individuals cannot communicate effectively with hearing individuals and therefore are in need of a cure for this "problem". This opinion and its publicity stems from a history of viewing deaf individuals as outcasts or as incompetent, until eventually organizations were formed to advocate rights of the deaf and hard of hearing, the first being created in 1880.

Social norms are defined in the book, Social Norms and Global Environmental Challenges: The Complex Interaction of Behaviors, Values, and Policy, as a "rule governing an individual's behavior that third parties other than state agents diffusely enforce by means of social sanction" (Kinzig et al. 165). These so-called "rules" are enforced through rewards or punishments implemented by others within the social group.

Here, that social group is others within the deaf community. Many believe that to be considered a legitimate member of the Deaf culture, an individual must be deaf. There are various levels of being hearing impaired, including hard-of-hearing and deaf. These different levels have different places within the Deaf community. When a person decides to invest in cochlear implants, that choice goes against the social norm within Deaf culture. This may cause negative consequences for the implant receiver and those in close relation to them. They may become outcasts and be seen by others as betraying their culture.

This creates an unusual dynamic, as those unaware of this particular social norm perceive the addition of hearing as a positive and revolutionary event. This is particularly important for parents of a deaf child, whom may or may not otherwise choose to embrace the Deaf culture as they grow up, making the decision for their child to receive the cochlear implant. Further, those who are unaware of the seriousness of these social norms are indeed the ones influencing the rejection of the norm. Here, people outside of the culture are determining the norm of another culture. This is due to the attempt by the non- Deaf community to equalize all into what they see as their social norm, which would be the act of hearing. These opposing social norms within such intertwined and interdependent communities cause an unfortunate social rift. This goes to show the powerful trouble between social norms and personal norms. The same book, Social Norms and Global Environmental Challenges: The Complex Interaction of Behaviors, Values, and Policy, explains personal norms as "rules governed by self-sanctioning or reward (feelings of guilt or pleasure) and are followed irrespectively of what others might think" (Kinzig et al. 166). While the overarching social norm within the Deaf community has, until recently, been to take pride in your Deafness and stay true to the culture, personal norms may differ. Those who opt for a Cochlear implant or those who were given them as a child without their consent may ultimately feel a sense of guilt for what may be seen to the Deaf community as disrespect to their culture. On the other hand, they may eventually feel a sense of pride in this decision and influence others and to take the same action. Will an increasing amount of deaf individuals and their relatives opting for cochlear implants eventually lead to a shift in the social norm?

With this increase in modern technological advances in hearing, there comes an issue of funding. There is a divide between those that think modern technology should be used to further development in hearing implants and those that believe this is not something that should be cured and the focus of funding should instead be placed on services to support the Deaf. It is often costly to develop these devices due to the need for research and development, clinics for the implant surgery and post-operative aid. If the social norm within Deaf culture is that the deafness should not be altered, this to them is unnecessary time and money that could be channeled elsewhere. There are more basic needs that Deaf individuals need to manage their ability, such as special education services, interpreters and certain technology to help deaf people to contribute as much as possible to society and for themselves. This is a policy issue that again is very difficult to implement. With such divided opinions on the morality of these decisions due to differences in social and personal norms, it is difficult to imagine a fair and equal policy towards funding.

A last aspect of the cochlear debate to address is allowing parents to make the decision for their deaf children in regard to cochlear implants. In particular, hearing parents of a deaf child. It is clear that there would likely be struggles for a family such as this, with a sense of misunderstanding and a short-term difficulty of communication. With publicity and other sources of information skewing the parents' perception of what is "right," it could be easy for a parent to choose the implant. However, advocates for accepting deafness as it is, would suggest learning all the information from both deaf and hearing individuals to get a sense of the culture and identity that can come with deafness. This, however, cannot be immediately remedied through the implementation of a policy.

Although it is a common belief within much of the Deaf culture that it may be immoral to make such drastic, life-altering decisions before an individual has the chance to explore their own options, it is difficult to strip parents the right of making decisions for their children under the age of 18. The problem lies within the opposing expectations about what is best for the child, or furthermore, which culture's social norm to succumb to.

It is difficult to assess a culture, as it is a complex network of interconnected beliefs, values and behaviors. Despite overarching shared values and beliefs of a culture as a whole, there remain various levels to which these values and beliefs are held on a personal level. This distinction between social and personal norms impacts how the community functions and the issues that are prioritized. The ongoing debate about the issues surrounding deaf individuals receiving cochlear implants is a good representation of the values that the Deaf community and culture holds. This is a debate within the deaf community that may never be settled, therefore, individuals must make a personal decision on how to define their personal culture, or for parents of deaf children, how to define their child's right to a culture.

Works Cited

Kinzig, Ann P., Paul R. Ehrlich, Lee J. Alston, et al. 2013. "Social Norms and Global Environmental Challenges: The Complex Interaction of Behaviors, Values, and Policy." BioScience 63:164-175.

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.