The growing power of the Deaf professional-managerial class

It seems absurdly ironic that the Deaf Professional-Managerial Class (PMC) in the UK are emerging in times when people are expected to tighten their belts in times of assumed austerity and when revolution lights up the middle east.  It is possible, however, for the Deaf PMC to be pushed into taking actions of its own – let me explain what I mean here.

The triggers for this blog entry are the Sorenson VRS campaign in the UK, and the Deaf Managers course being set up at Heriot Watt University, but the ideas contained within it are ones that I first wrote about 20 years ago. It was possible to see what could happen, but it was not inevitable that it would. Plus I felt clouded by my own political ideology and philosophy back in those days. I wrote about Deaf nationalism and equality in a mini-dissertation for my BA in Cultural Studies in 1991, but had only a tentative understanding of the nature or state of the Deaf world back then. [1]

I’ve been meaning to re-visit these thoughts for a last few years, but the timing seems right to do so now.  Any constructive views and thoughts are welcome; this blog entry is a hypothesis, a philosophy that has empirical reasoning.  It is also written with the coming of the eighth anniversary of the UK government’s acknowledgment of British Sign Language (BSL), and the key tenets are as follows:

1. The Deaf PMC has grown and strengthened in the last 8 years, but remains restricted to further growth due to societal barriers;

2. This class is dominated by political ideologies that reflect its material interests, and the emergence of a Deaf intelligentsia reflects its growing development and influence; [2]

3. The main beneficiaries of BSL recognition have been the Deaf PMC, and any further campaigns and protests for ‘rights’ will mostly benefit that class, unless these are specifically campaigns for social equality.

The concept of a ‘Deaf middle class’ is not new: historical studies pre-Milan 1880 have consistently referred to Deaf people working in professional managerial occupations and holding an above average education, although the notion that the majority of deaf children who went to deaf schools ended up in manual and labouring occupations tends to receive less recognition. The strengthening and developing of the modern PMC has been simmering ever since BSL acknowledgment, and doesn’t begin there, but goes further back. Paul Redfern, for example, draws attention to a growing ‘professional class’ as far back as 1996[3], while Paddy Ladd[4] addresses class issues in his 2003 Deafhood publication.

Before continuing, I want to clarify that I use the ‘professional-managerial class’ rather than ‘middle class’ as the later term tends to be far too stretched, referring to everyone who owns a home (or two), possess a lot of cars and takes several holidays a year: I much prefer to use the term ‘professional-managerial class’, since it is easier to associate this with people who have a bit, however small, of power, control and independence within the system. They are a person who typically sits between the working and upper classes and was first coined in the 1970’s by Barbara and John Ehrenreich. [Hopefully, also the use of that term will inspire the creation of an appropriate sign in BSL!] Critically, they are best understood as a class, albeit a sometimes contradictory one, and not amalgamated isolated individuals who add up to make up a whole. Deaf people of all classes regularly come together, with class differences holding little sway amongst those who are keen to express their thoughts, views and feelings in sign language, and gather collectively to celebrate Deaf culture in a myriad number of spaces.

To be more specific, here are a section of the various people who I would deem to constitute the Deaf PMC:

1.      the managers of services and charities, be they independent or part of the voluntary or public sector;

2.      those who run a business, which are mostly quite small scale at the moment, but may aspire to become something a lot larger and more profitable;

3.      growing numbers of tutors and lecturers within the field of further and higher education, including the growing ‘Deaf intelligentsia’, linguists, psychologists, social scientists, anthropologists, etc.[5];

4.      ‘professionals’ who work within a whole range of services such as mental health, community development work, social services, the legal profession, and so on;

5.      celebrities and artists from the world of t.v., theatre, drama, etc, especially those engaged in free expression of the culture.

My personal observation of this ‘class’ is that it is working and acting for the collective good and interest of Deaf people and the Deaf community. Those who teach sign language, for example, are people who are tutoring the future generation of sign language interpreters, raising deaf awareness amongst the hearing community, teaching effective means of communication between hearing and deaf people.

Businesses are invariably focused on promoting effective services to hearing and deaf people: be it telecommunications, translation services, video relay services, etc. One could, in fact argue that they have very little option but to work as a profit/loss service, since they rely on the formulation of business plans, and so on.

But even a momentary analysis of the Deaf community from a this class perspective can begin to recognise that Deaf political issues on Deaf / deaf / hearing / Coda / Interpreter / culture / disability, etc. lines, is invariably far more complex when there is the recognition of a class of Deaf people who do have some form of power in the world of work.

The class perspective cannot really be understood without recognition of other classes. An unemployed working-class Deaf person on benefits, for example, or Deaf people who work by selling their labour, be it to work in a supermarket, in post offices, office work, nurseries, cleaning, printing, child-minding, interior design, hairdressing, etc., have different material interests to the Deaf PMC. They may all share the experience of day to day language and cultural oppression, but there are also differences; ones that come to the fore when there is a crisis in the system.

The vast majority of Deaf people feel a bitter sense of injustice that they continue to miss out on day to day services hearing citizens take for granted, such as telecommunications and interpreting, and they suffer exclusion from citizenship due to lack of access to the justice system, politics, and a whole range of social services.[6] The Deaf PMC are more likely to have access to sign language interpreting services, since they are well versed in knowledge of their rights, and of making use of legislation such as Access to Work (which could change pretty soon, however). [7]

But these two classes also need to be considered in relationship to those who have real wealth and power in society: the huge banks who control vast amounts of money, large and profitable businesses who have an annual turnover of millions, the massive telecommunications and media industries, governments and civil servants who frame the law and decide under which discourses Deaf people are placed and, of course, the even vaster medical apparatus which produces technology and research on hearing aids, cochlear implants and genetics.  There is practically no Deaf-control that comes anywhere near matching the power and wealth of these corporations: but there are people who no doubt aspire to do so.

This theory is a simplistic one, and the situation is far more complex, but I defy anyone to suggest such a theory based on class is ‘outdated’, as critics of Marxism (especially postmodernists – and there are many lovers of this theory within Deaf studies) tend to do. There are real differences, for example, amongst businesses, some of which will aspire to capitalist and profitable greatness, others who will certainly not have any interest in doing so but hold a very strong not-for-profit ethos. Deaf political differences amongst professionals will also be evident, with the liberal-minded Deaf wanting to drive forward and reward individual developments, opening up choices for all, while the socialist-minded Deaf will seek to stress the importance of staying true to the communitarian roots of the Deaf community.

Artists are also a mixed-bag, with individuals no doubt dreaming of worldwide individual recognition (whether it be amongst Deaf or the mainstream) in order to demonstrate ‘yes we can’; while yet others will be far more keen to reflect the tensions within and between the communities, or who desire to create works that simply celebrate the beauty of sign language and Deaf culture. In between there are those with nationalist tendencies, for whom ‘all things Deaf are beautiful’, and it cares not what class they are from, or how they develop their Deafhood. [8] Many of us are probably a mix of all three at various times.

The growing Deaf PMC is, arguably, an inevitable consequence of the development of the Deaf community within capitalism, a system based on competition for profits and the reliance on the labour power of working people to create these profits. The same kinds of developments are evident, for example, within many other oppressed groups, the growth of Black businesses for example. What I am putting forward is a theory that is very common, and in some cases very well developed, in other academic studies, but has been badly neglected in Deaf studies. Theories of culture, for example (which celebrate resistance from below and sub-cultures), or Black studies, Womens studies, and so on, have debated class and Marxist theory for years; as has Disability studies. Deaf studies, with few exceptions, largely shuns it, or deals with it superficially, but this type of perspective can surely do nobody any harm other than to those who aspire to be oppressors or part of a powerful Deaf elite.

We might even find it strangely empowering to feel that the Deaf community is an amalgam of such a mighty group, one which does have some form of power collectively, and hence is able to assert its strength at times when it would be of great benefit politically. It may also assist us with understanding that the decline of Deaf schools, Deaf clubs and the near-virtual mainstreaming of deaf children does not equate a weaker and less significant of less powerful Deaf community. That is not to suggest nobody should worry about the fate of deaf children in mainstream schools – it is a strong feature of the culture to care and campaign for natural justice for its children[9] – or fears of what genetic technology will create.

The community has simply shifted and changed, and it also exposes as premature those academics who have decried the decline of the community[10], in very much the same way as mainstream academics never tire of suggesting the working class is dead (until it rises up, yet again), that postmodernism denies there are any more ‘grand narratives’ possible in history (even while they spring up everywhere in new forms), or Fukuyama champions the victory of liberal democracy (even while the citizens of the world take to the streets to fight for real peoples’ democracy).

Understanding this power, however, is also recognition of its potential dangers, and of recognising whose interests’ Deaf political activism can end up benefiting in the long run.  Hence the courageous fight for the human rights of Deaf people and the recognition of sign language, that many are engaged in worldwide may well give some protections to the Deaf community as a whole, but it is invariably the Deaf PMC who will be the key benefactors, as their material situation improves through the opening up of political opportunities.[11]

It is also recognition that without self-awareness and consciousness of the ‘Deaf PMC as a class’, Deaf people themselves can end up becoming oppressors. Indeed, Deaf people have been recognised as promoting linguistic genocide in the developing nations, not necessarily consciously, but simply by failing to understand the effects and impacts of their power. [12]

What does it mean and what should or shouldn’t happen? I do not think it is possible to stop or curtail these developments at the present time. They may even be necessary for the advance of Deaf self-determination, and therefore celebrated. But I do think there are some important questions they raise.

What we have not yet witnessed (in the UK at least) is the development of wealthy businesses, Deaf owned, controlled and run, being set up and gaining profits, so that they can enter the top echelons and champions of capitalist society. Definitely nowhere near the company ‘Cochlear’, for example, lauded by an ex- Australian PM as an embodiment of Australian values, never mind that of extreme-oralists! Most businesses of the Deaf PMC are much lower level and lower key (what Marx would have termed petite bourgeoisie) of which Remark! is just one, and others are those such as Significant or DeafWorks. Is this what the Deaf community should aspire to, having control of vast amounts of capital in order to achieve the kind of control those such as Sorenson have in the telecommunications industry? It is only a matter of time that this is what we will indeed see happen if the UK Deaf community continues to pursue reformist and liberal politics in order to advance the betterment of Deaf people.[13]

In order to be a ‘capitalist’, it is necessary to embrace fraud, competition, the undermining of rivals, to fall in love with having power and control, ‘loads-a-money’, all the worst aspects of humanity.  Intentions might be genuine, but ultimately they play to the system, to compete with rivals and make profit, to put it bluntly, to ensure they try and get from their workers (Deaf or hearing) as much profit as they can. Capitalism then becomes part of the problem, not the solution.

This brings me, briefly, to the Deaf Managers course, being run in May by Heriot Watt University[14]. From an impartial perspective, it’s certainly welcome. The numbers of Deaf Managers are growing, and they face challenges, as I have seen at first hand on many occasions over the years. [I would certainly never take on their tasks!] The system under which they are operating places on them difficult demands, not least because of the institutional audist nature of their environment; so how do they work within these worlds? [15] Some questions they might ask is: can Deaf managers avoid being oppressive in the workplace to their workers, Deaf or hearing? If so, how will they address potential oppressive practices and behaviour?

Research to explore class issues would be very welcome, particularly in political philosophical areas such as Marxism, or in disciplines such as economics.  Thinkers, who can flex their minds on how to change the world, rather than endlessly seeking to interpret it and reinterpret it in a comfort zone that builds a postmodern cul-de-sac, would also be a welcome addition to Deaf epistemology.[16]

I hope this blog entry will make a small contribution to encouraging that process.


[1] When I first attempted to campaign for better resources for Deaf and hard of hearing students at university (induction loops for hard of hearing people, interpreters for Deaf people), I was responsible for making some scathing comments about support services.  They didn’t, I argued, provide enough. I was met with some very harsh observations on my actions from other Deaf people at the university. Looking back, I think some of those criticisms of me were fair.

[2] I have used the term ‘Deaf intelligentsia’ in my PhD and elsewhere, but my current thinking owes much to Dr Sarah Batterbury using the term in a recent article.

[3] Redfern, P. (1996) Deaf Professionals: a growing stream. In C. Laurenzi and S. Ridgeway, Progress Through Equality, BSMHD Publications.

[4] Ladd, P. (2003) Understanding Deafhood: In search of Deaf culture. Multilingual Matters:  Clevedon.

[5] I include myself, with some reluctance, as part of the Deaf PMC. In spite of my fondness and pride at stating that my upbringing is solidly working-class, I hold a PhD, work within academia, and have a pretty comfortable material life: this is not something I state with pride by the way, and I am certainly not rich (nor do I want to be), and I experience oppression every day. Even if, politically, I want to see wealth sharing and a celebration of diversity in our society, I have some degree of power in relative terms, and, once again, I state this as a matter of observation, and not self-satisfaction.

[6] My PhD addresses this subject, providing empirical evidence of Deaf people’s concerns.

[7] Access to Work payments have enabled Deaf people to enjoy Interpreting services for the past 20 years; Disability Support Allowance has given the means for Deaf students to become educated, and hence more empowered and assertive. ATW state that half their budget is spent on service provision to Deaf people, since Interpreters are an on-going requirement. The cutting or loss of payments, therefore, would be utterly devastating to the Deaf PMC who will have very little option but to resist any deep cuts, or face a far greater degree of unemployment and already far disproportionate underemployment.

[8] At the 2011 ‘Supporting Deaf People Online’ conference I wrote about these three political tendencies – liberal, nationalist, and liberationist – in more detail.

[9] The term ‘natural justice’ should be credited to Rachel O’Neil during the ‘supporting Deaf people online conference’, February 2011. Once again, my PhD provides empirical evidence, as does my follow up to the PhD on group rights, where most of these rights are deemed necessary to ensure the protection of deaf children as well as Deaf culture. I will be publishing on the findings from the research as soon as possible.

[10] The ‘deaf decline’ theory was first addressed in Australian by Trevor Johnson in ‘Sign Language Studies’, and has since been applied to the UK by Graham Turner in the Journal ‘Current Issues in Language Planning’. Even if they were correct, most Deaf people are resident in the developing nations, where not only technology, but Deafhood philosophy has yet to permeate.

[11] It is not necessarily a conscious act. Marx famously wrote: ‘Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ And then went on to write one of the best phrases ever: ‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ See: “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” Karl Marx 1852.

[12] I first came across empirical evidence of these developments from a presentation given by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas at the 2003 World Federation of the Deaf Congress in Montreal, Canada. A presentation was given on this subject at the 2006 Deaf Academics conference, in Stockholm, Sweden, by Hilde Haualand.

[13] The granting of minority group rights is partly suggested as a theory to ensure spheres of telecommunications, for example, are genuinely Deaf-led and Deaf-focussed, as opposed to being at the mercy of the market. It appears to me that one of the possible reasons Deaf communities have demanded human rights rather than, say, minority group rights, is because Deaf studies academics worldwide haven’t yet brought to conscious awareness the potential power of the professional-managerial elements of its class.

[14] For more information see:

[15] The concept of audism has become so disputed, and so stretched nowadays that it is depressingly almost meaningless.  I blame those intellectuals or philosophers who love to indulge themselves in the meanings of words or signs, only to end up confusing everybody even further, probably even themselves. I therefore use the term ‘institutional audism’, first coined by Graham Turner, but I use it partly in order to try and rescue its original meaning: i.e. social policy is not determined or decided by Deaf people; the Deaf community has never historically been recognised as a cultural linguistic minority group, and is absolutely nowhere near doing so, in social policy. Until it has collective self-determination, the original meaning of audism seems the best one.

[16] A brief discussion I had with Dai O’Brien recently raised the issue of the economic purpose and benefits of Deaf people as a cultural linguistic minority group. This perspective might appear a bit determinist, and there is, in my view, no material benefit to capitalism in keeping Deaf and hearing people divided in the way racism and sexism does, for example. Geneticists seem to think it would make economic sense to wipe out deafness. One scientist equated the costs of deafness to be akin to building three motorways around Germany! [See ‘Genes, Hearing, and Deafness’ by Martini et al eds. 2007] These kinds of debates were happening in Disability studies 20 years ago. In Deaf studies they have had little, if any, attention, but I would expect a new wave of Deaf and hard of hearing scholars to be keen to address such questions.



  1. Interesting perspectives. On one hand it is a hopeful advancement of the Deaf communitiy, but in the process some of the quality of being Deaf is lost when one competes with Hearing society.

    Maybe it could be mentioned that the PMC Deaf are best regarded when they never forget their common experience and stand solidly in support of their everyday Deaf compatriots.

  2. Class has always existed always will, it is naive to suggest any sort of level playing field or mutual acceptances are going to last long when one person has higher aspirations or even higher or different communication access approaches than the other, nobody wants to be the same as anyone else. Really, you only have a duty to be true to yourself., or you are no use to anyone. Just when they though class was going to be a dead issue we find every single area on the planet exists via this system, or else we have nothing, to aspire to….

  3. Most enlightening and echoes a discussion I had with Alison a few days ago on this very theme. The way I see it is: there are 2 issues here namely power within the Deaf Community and Deaf Managers.

    The two are not mutually exclusive.

    But managers within a specific community have a social responsibility – to foster the develpoment of their own communities. But at the same time they need to protect their own interests to they can remain in a position of power and influence.

    There is no better analogy for this theme than the US election system. Presidents are elected for 4 year terms at a time but there is so much campaigning and poiliticking within this time I would say that they need to spend at least half their time defending their own positions and the other half of their time pushing their own policies.

    The Deaf community is liek this – if they want to effect change they need to ensure that they are in a position to effect this change.

  4. As one who has been a middle manager for 30 years (in or working for very large companies), I have to say that oppressive managers tend to be those who haven’t actually had any management training. At its best, management training includes managing and leading people, which in turn includes understanding human behaviour and motivation, the importance of meaningful work, reward, recognition, etc. Without these insights the manager is left to work out for himself how to get the job done and ends up resorting to relying on inflexible systems and, ultimately, bullying.

    ‘Managing people’, by the way, doesn’t just mean managing subordinates. It also means managing relationships with fellow managers.

    Incidentally most of the managers I’ve ever worked with also rose from the working class backgrounds – as indeed, did I. If you were born before 1970 the odds are that you were from a classic working class background – ie parents left school at 14 or 15 and did manual work, home was a council house or rented flat, no family car or holidays, etc. The social mix and material wealth profile of GB has changed dramatically in my lifetime and it is now unclear whether the term ‘working class’ (or indeed ‘middle class’) is an indicator of wealth and status, or of attitude and cultural preferences.

    Something else that has changed during my working life is the rise in the number of managers who are women. Prior to 1980 managers were almost always men. White men. Women might be promoted to supervisor or ‘manageress’ positions, but rarely to positions of real authority (‘manageress’ always implied much less authority and power than an actual male manager).

    So the management landscape has changed. And managers are now reviled, not so much for abusing their power over workers, but because they are increasingly seen as having too little power and contributing very little of value. Witness public reaction to proposed cuts in the NHS – ‘get rid of the managers’. Whether this is fair or accurate is another matter. Managers are, after all, merely organisers and any large organisation, whether the NHS, the education system, an army or a factory, does need people to do the organising, take care of the logistics…or maybe that’s just the housewife in me rearing it’s pretty little head.

    Consequently, managers in many sectors now prefer to refer to themselves as ‘professionals’. Which means that the term ‘professional’ (formerly applicable to practitioners of medicine, law, etc and having no connection to ‘managers’ at all) is also losing its meaning.

    My contention is that PMC is a mis-nomer. Professionals and managers are not and never were a ‘class’. PMC is simply an alternative label for the old term ‘white collar’, which meant anyone who had a desk job. Assumptions about the power that this confers may well be over-stated. The very diversity of occupations listed under Deaf PMC reinforces my view. It doesn’t look like a unified whole.

    Incidentally, most businesses in GB are very small concerns. Something like 97% of businesses have fewer than 50 employees and it’s a moot point as to whether these business owners have serious ambitions for growth. Napoleon was right when he said Britain was nation of shopkeepers. Not everyone wants to be Alan Sugar. Or to put their head above the parapet for a cause.

    What a very good thing it is that some people do have the energy and courage to stand up and shout (or sign) ‘this ain’t right’.

  5. Some Comments from Dr Sarah Batterbury:

    The British Government did not recognise BSL, only one department, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP, and it has no legal status.
    My view is that the intelligentsia is currently in retreat – focus has shifted from campaigning to furthering local causes and the establishment of successful deaf enterprise. Its influence was strongest in the run up to 2003 but this has not yet rebooted fully in the form of younger Deaf leaders.

    Which system? The hearing world or the Deaf world [when writing that the DPMC are those who have power, independence and control]

    [Regarding Note 15 -] I definitely agree with this – my own work is focused on trying to demystify this closed shop to SLPs both in day to day interactions with SLPs and in my reserach [SLPs = Sign Language Peoples]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s