John Walker: What disabled people are learning from taking a Deaf perspective

Posted on November 7, 2013


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When I’m at work, it is my job to meet with people. I work in a University, which is made up of academics, professional staff and, of course, students.

I am very aware that ‘university’ is a scary place for some. It shouldn’t be, but it often is. In fact, the University of Brighton, where I work, is committed to a ‘community university partnership’.

They have worked for 10 years (we have just had a birthday) to bring the community, which is pretty much everyone, and the university closer together.

So, the next time you drive past a university, don’t look at it like some monolith or ivory tower – the front door is more ‘open’ than you think.

I want to tell you about one of my ‘meetings’. It was a meeting where I learnt a big deal – a moment when my perspective profoundly shifted. It might come across as a ‘eureka’ moment, but for me it was more like a confirmation; when theory has found proof.

Let me tell you about the meeting, I was talking with some colleagues and two representations from the Student’s Union. The students represented the disabled members of the union. We were having a conversation about opportunities for disabled people to influence the university’s approach to disabled students and staff.

I feel a bit awkward using the word, ‘approach’. I am not only talking about services (as required by law) but also attitude, energy, enthusiasm, and ambition.

We side-stepped our conversation about how the university has or should frame disability. Are we just a bunch of people with missing/broken body parts? Is it our sole ambition to have those body parts fixed and become ‘normal’ (even though I have yet to meet a ‘normal’ person; we tend to come in all shapes and sizes).

We all came to a quick agreement that this is not how we saw ourselves. We know this. Disabled people, deaf people included, have been fighting against the ‘fix you’ mantra that we see around us all the time.

This promptly led me to the ‘social model of disability’ as defined by Oliver. It contrasts the ‘fix you’ to ‘I’m ok, lets fix them’.

By ‘them’, I am talking about everyone else who is not disabled. Just because I can’t hear the doorbell chime doesn’t mean that I am less of a person, the issue is this piece of technology is not suited to my needs – it is the doorbell that needs to change, not me.

The student came back with a surprising comment, “in our group, we don’t follow the social model’. My eyebrows raised – I love it when people challenge commonly accepted ideas and raise different ones.

“We follow the Affirmative Model. It suits how we see ourselves a lot better.”

The Affirmative Model is a brainchild of John Swain and Sally French and their article on this new perspective was published in 2000. They argued that even if the social model were made reality, disabled people would still be impaired.

Imagine a world where everything was put right. Interpreters everywhere, everyone knowing some signs, subtitles everywhere, and flashing lights galore – disabled people would still be disabled because they will be regarded and treated as victims of misfortune.

The authors perceived the Personal Tragedy Model of disability as the cultural realisation of the medical model – or ‘we can’t fix you, so you should be sad.’

It is quite intrinsic to our cultural identity in this country. I mean, look at the magazines with perfectly shaped bodies that have been implanted with artificial breasts and pictures photoshopped. Artificial beauty has been aligned with happiness and real, different bodies are ‘sad’.

The Affirmative Model challenges this state of mind to create a cultural position on disability. We are no longer ‘people who suffer from deafness. I am deaf. This is who I am. This is me.’

The Affirmative Model was proposed as an idea to enable us to recall, that actually, our difference is a core part of our being and of our experience.

In the paper written by Swain and French, one of the examples they referred to was Deaf people, and how Deaf people have gone past the inability to hear and cherished the Deaf life: a life with lipreading, signing, facial expressions, touch, Deaf spaces, and a Deaf community (to be brief).

Disabled people still find themselves under pressure to keep quiet about their condition(s), to try and assimilate, as if their impairments were not part of who they are or just a minor part of who they are and to regard their condition as an embarrassing hindrances to be overcome.

It is the assumption that the ‘disabled body’ is a prison and a ‘normal person’ is trying to break free.

There are disabled people who do experience real difficulties day by day, some conditions can be associated with pain, so being disabled is not always a wonderful experience. But there are people who would rather accept their disability than forever eat themselves up endlessly wishing things were otherwise (this is partially quoted from Disability Arts Online).

This reminds me of my years as a young person when my friends and I talked about the ‘identity crisis’, when we moved from being ‘an pseudo hearing person, to a fully-functioning Deaf person’. It is a point of realisation that while everyone is trying to normalise us, it is easier (and more fruitful) if we accept who we are and use the resources the ‘Deaf way’ has to offer.

It is my realisation that disabled people want to be more like Deaf people. Well, at least these students do. They were more interested in how they could be valued and respected as disabled people, as well as having fun together as a community.

I left the meeting with a buzz.

If you liked this, read John Walker’s last article for us, My Journey to ‘Capital Deaf’

John Walker is a senior research fellow at University of Brighton. Deaf, and sign language user by informed choice. He writes a blog on topics related to the Bourdieusian principle, by the title “Deaf Capital” . It is concerned with the ‘value’ that people place on the Deaf community or the cultural elements of deaf lives that can be askew or misconstrued. Follow him on twitter as @chereme

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