Degrees of Listening

Deafness is a cultural construction as well as a physical phenomenon. The difference between hearing people and deaf people is typically construed as simply a matter of hearing loss. For most, this is the common sense of the matter—deaf people cannot hear, and all else about them seems to follow naturally and necessarily from that fact. The result is that the relationship between hearing and deaf people appears solely as a natural one. The meanings of “hearing” and “deaf” are not transparent, however. As with gender, age, race, and other such categories, physical difference is involved, but physical differences do not carry inherent meanings. They must be interpreted and cannot be apprehended apart from a culturally created web of meaning. The meaning of deafness is contested, although most hearing and many deaf people are not aware that it is contested, and it changes over time. It has, that is to say, a history.

Douglas Baynton, Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 2.

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