The Grateful Deaf

The FDA’s approval in 1990 of cochlear implants that enable some of the deaf to hear set off a political struggle. On one side were the hearing parents of deaf children, who tend to assume that five senses are better than four. On the other were deaf civil rights activists who saw technological fixes for an identity they didn’t view as needing repair as stigmatizing and even genocidal toward “Deaf culture.”

Curiously, this clear predecessor of the Great Awokening, the promotion of deafness as equal to hearing, has never quite taken off the way crazier manias such as transgenderism have. Sympathy for the deaf would seem natural, but other identity groups attract more allies these days.

The high points of deaf activism were the 1988 and 2006 student strikes at federally funded Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington, D.C., over plans to appoint as president persons not fully fluent in American Sign Language.

In contrast to residential schools for Canadian Indians, which are now the worst thing ever, boarding schools for the deaf are prized by activists as the font of deaf culture because it’s where deaf children can talk to each other in sign language. Yet, deaf militance over the cochlear menace appears to have faded somewhat in recent years even at residential schools. (By the way, in this article when I use “deaf,” I’m referring only to those who were deaf as children, like Helen Keller, not adult-onset deaf people like Beethoven.)

I hadn’t thought about deaf demands for a while until reading geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden’s new book The Genetic Lottery in which she enthusiastically cites, perhaps to show that eugenics can be Woke, two deaf lesbians who are trying to find a congenitally deaf sperm donor to help one of them conceive a deaf child for, as they say, the culture.

Then I was reminded again by a New York Times op-ed “Fear of a Deaf Planet” complaining that hearing people don’t learn sign language. But even that was phrased in less abrasive language than the typical identity-politics manifesto:

Rather than a purely curative focus, we should be attempting to eradicate the stigma that surrounds hearing loss.

Much of the argument for spreading sign language would seemingly fit in well with current obsessions such as remodeling American society, the Spanish language, and human nature in general to suit the whims of the differently gendered.

And yet, I was struck by how seldom lately we hear about the deaf community and their fears of eradication by technological progress. Not long ago, Deaf Replacement Theory was a big deal among the deaf, but it has gotten drowned out by more fashionable identities.

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