Working at a school (of all places), I came across someone who had expressed surprise at my being able to drive a car. “But she is deaf! How did she get her license?” it was asked of another woman who knew me well as I drove up to work. “Out of a cereal box”, came the quintessially Australian reply, followed by a perplexed “Seriously?? She’s deaf, not blind!”. When I was told about this, I thought it was hilarious and perhaps revealing of the person’s own mental abilities.
But it did make me stop to think. There are many misconceptions out there about the abilities of deaf people. Some of these misconceptions come from the very old social stereotype of “deaf and dumb” which carries a double meaning of not being able to speak and of being not right in the head!
The deaf and dumb stereotype comes from the view that deaf people who can't speak properly are also lacking intellectual capabilities. Like it or not, with every stereotype there is always a grain of truth in there somewhere.
Language is at the root of comprehension and understanding for humans, the basis of learning and growth as social animals. Without the language of the society they live in, a human being is at a gross disadvantage. Deaf people are at a disadvantage in any society that is largely hearing, no matter what language is spoken because language is typically passed onto babies and children via oral methods.
So with that in mind, it is the lucky ones who have families involved in ensuring deaf children get language - either by learning sign language or helping the child to lipread and learn to speak with speech therapy, or a combination of these things. There are too many deaf children who grow up disadvantaged and end up with a poor grasp of the dominant language of their society.
When one has a poor grasp of the English language in Australia, they are often considered “not all there”. Deaf people are not the only one who face this stigma, non-English speakers also face similar issues of being treated as lesser or stupid by those who are intolerant of others’ differences.
What most Australians will not be aware of is that a deaf person fluent in the Australian sign language (called Auslan) is also a non-English speaker. Auslan is absolutely not a visual form of English. It is its own language system with its own grammar structure and inflections and no, it is not English. If one were to translate literally into English, an Auslan sentence, it would come off as sounding mentally inept.
The Collins English dictionary even goes as far as describing the noun deaf and dumb as being a deaf person without speech, and suggesting the phrase profoundly deaf is a suitable alternative to deaf and dumb. This continues to operate on the assumption that someone who is profoundly deaf (zero hearing as opposed to hard of hearing) does not have oral speech. There are many profoundly deaf people who have fully functional voice boxes and have been taught how to talk clearly so they are understood by others.
It is true many deaf people do not have easily understood oral speech, and many may struggle with the English language (or the dominant language of their society) given the disadvantages many deaf children face in a hearing society. However, many deaf people are not stupid or lacking in commonsense, (no more than hearing people anyway), and most will have language - either a sign language or the dominant language of their family or society. This does not make deaf people unable to speak, and nor does it make them stupid.