JH: I don't think anybody would say - no sensible person would say - that deaf people are inferior to hearing people, but the fact is that they have a disability: a pretty serious disability. They cannot hear. Surely you have no right to effectively impose that disability on another child? The child doesn't belong to you; the child is a person in its own right.
TL: You say it's a serious disability. I disagree with that. We have an interpreter here for you to be able to understand me. If I go to a deaf club or a deaf academic conference with thousands of deaf people, you would be lost. You're the one with the disability, because you can't use sign language.
JH: Isn't that a slightly perverse point? I, after all, don't need, somebody to sign for me. I can hear the music of Beethoven or listen to a play by Shakespeare or pop music or whatever it happens to be - you can't. So therefore you have a disability. Surely that's simply a fact?
TL: Well, I feel sorry for you, because you haven't acquired sign language, you can't appreciate deaf plays, you can't appreciate deaf poetry, you can't appreciate the joy of being part of the deaf community, the jokes that go on. I feel sorry for you.
JH: But I could learn sign language if I set myself to it - at least I assume that I could. You can't learn to hear.
TL: Yes, but now it's recognised that deaf people do have a culture, a community of their own. You know, in the old days people used to say that deaf people were certainly inferior to hearing people, but recently Baroness Deech said in Parliament: "I hope that your Lordships will be pleased that the deliberate choice of an embryo that is, for example, likely to be deaf, will be prevented by Clause 14". So in saying that, the government is saying quite clearly that deaf people are inferior to hearing people, and it should be that deaf people should never have been born. She's basically saying that she wants deaf people to be stopped from existing.
JH: Well, no, she isn't saying that, is she? What she's saying is that deaf people have the right to exist because they have been born. It would be utterly absurd to suggest otherwise. But there is a great difference between that and making a positive selection so that somebody is born who is not able to hear, as opposed to somebody who is able to hear.
TL: Again, we're talking about different perspectives about what disability means. I don't see myself as disabled. You're not deaf, but you're labelling me as disabled. I could say "Oh, well, black people are disabled. Deaf people have to struggle to achieve equal rights, and gay people could be regarded as being disabled - let's put them into hospitals and make sure that they're cured, make sure they're not born". That's not the case - we do accept that black people and gay people are equal. Why can't you do the same with deaf people?
JH: But we do. I accept entirely that you are equal to me, but I would not presume - and many people I think listening to this programme would not presume - to make a decision on behalf of somebody else. That's the crucial aspect here, isn't it? On behalf of somebody else, an unborn child, that they should have what I said was a disability, and I repeat that.
TL: But that seems to be somewhat contradictory, because you say that deaf people are equal, but then you say, well, it's better not to be born deaf. That seems a contradictory statement. Really, it's up to us as deaf people to decide whether we're disabled or not.
Two things strike me from this: first, the words ‘disabled’ and ‘disability’ are of absolutely no use here; they are loaded and contentious, generating more heat than light. Second, Mr Lichy has some fair points but his argument evaporates round about the words “yes, but” in his third reply here. Pretty much everything that follows is irrelevant to his case.
His remark that “you say that deaf people are equal, but then you say, well, it's better not to be born deaf” is contradictory illustrates the key failure of logic.
It seems that in fighting the prejudice ‘deaf people cannot do certain things, so they are inferior human beings’, there’s been more focus on rejecting the premise than on rejecting the implication. The premise has certainly been exaggerated, but the implication is the really nasty bit: ability does not determine personal worth. Nor does misfortune.
It’s better not to be born with sickle-cell anaemia. It’s better not to lose your leg in an accident. It’s better not to develop arthritis. But being in these situations – or being born deaf – does not mean that you have less than equal worth as a human being.
It does, though, restrict your options.
It’s useful to be able to speak Spanish. This is a skill that will reduce your chances of finding yourself in a situation where you can’t communicate. But if you can’t speak Spanish, that needn’t reflect badly on you: maybe you’ve not had the chance to learn. Or maybe you think the benefits aren’t worth the effort and expense; fair enough, that’s your call.
If you can’t speak Spanish, it’s still useful to be able to learn – even if you currently don’t want to. Facing a closed door is better than facing a locked door. But if you can’t learn Spanish, that needn’t reflect badly on you either: maybe you’re just no good at languages. That’s unfortunate, but you shouldn’t be blamed nor sneered at for that.
So, by analogy: it’s useful to be able to use sign language. This is a skill that will reduce your chances of finding yourself in a situation whereyou can’t communicate. And if you don’t know sign language, it’s useful to be able to learn it – although if you can’t get you head round it, that’s unfortunate – but you shouldn’t be blamed nor sneered at for it.
It’s also useful to be able to hear. This is a skill that will reduce your chances of finding yourself in a situation where you can’t communicate (among other things). And if you can’t hear… well, the category of people who can’t hear but can develop the ability to is limited to cases of temporary deafness (a far more trivial issue) and deaf people who may choose to have cochlear implants – although these are of variable efficacy and not risk-free. So if you permanently can’t hear, that doesn’t reflect badly on you: you shouldn’t be blamed nor sneered at for it.
Being able to hear doesn’t render you unable to use or learn sign language; but being permanently deaf does of necessity restrict your options for communicating. The asymmetry is undeniable. No amount of well-designed infrastructure or accommodating social attitudes will eliminate situations in which being able to hear would be useful.
Deliberately intending that your child should lack certain communicative options can’t be a good idea. Acknowledging that should pose no threat to your cultural identity and self-confidence.