deaf politics

Collective minority group rights: some considerations

In this post (which is a bit long I’m afraid. and unavoidably abstract in places), I write about collective minority group rights*.  This entry follows my viewing of the BDA/DCAL event [19th March 2013] to mark the 10-year anniversary of British Sign Language (BSL) ‘recognition’. As I wrote in my previous entry, the event has thrown up a grassroots Facebook campaign group, spit the dummy, calling for a BSL Act.


I want to focus on something Paddy Ladd raised at this event, that any BSL Act should take into account that Deaf communities are collective in nature.  The way legislation is framed, the rights of the individual tend to take precedent, and the reasons for doing so date back to the end of the Second World War. Any campaign for a BSL (or any other language) Act therefore tends to focus on individual rights.

The question I pose here is: can a BSL Act incorporate any elements of collective minority group rights? If so, what might these be? The Grumpy Old Deafies blog has already fired off some excellent examples of which parts of legislation any Act or campaign could target. It is a sober and direct article that pulls no punches: the place to begin is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (UNCRPD), it states. What I will attempt to do here is look at things from a different angle, and hope that it will be of some use to activists, because I have been researching, writing and presenting on the subject for around 5 years now. It is written to outline what my research has found, and share my critical thinking from the process of conducting it.

Now I have nothing against individual rights but I don’t think they go far enough to protect collective communities.

As Bob Duncan kindly reminded me in my previous entry, we are at the tenth anniversary of the publication of Paddy Ladd’s seminal Deafhood publication. [1] Understanding the notion of Deafhood has been slow to take off in the UK, but it remains a powerful concept that has had a big impact in the USA, while the book has sold in numerous countries and several languages. At the March 19th event Paddy repeated what he had raised in that publication, that Deaf communities were collective in nature, but government’s individualist ethos did not take account of their needs. But what has been missing from discussion on recognition of Deaf communities collective rights is the detail of how they can be enacted, aside from seeking recognition from UNESCO[2].  An appeal to UNESCO is something I support, but at the present time the WFD are heavily focused on the UNCRPD.  I seek to address the issue of how group rights might work in practice, from a national level.

When considering group rights

There are three important considerations to bear in mind when looking at minority group rights:

1. It is important to distinguish between the right (of individuals) to form into and belong to a group, and the rights of peoples (collective) who belong to a group. There are hundreds of thousands of different groups set up that only totalitarian governments would deny: from political organizations to common interest groups (sports, social, and so on).  The British Deaf Association is one such example of a group that members belong to. An example of a cultural group right would be those of who, say, follow a religion which has established traditions: they may, for example, feel strongly about abstaining from working on a Sunday; engage in prayer five times a day; or eat kosher food.  These may be practiced by individuals but they are essentially about cultural group practices that these groups peoples’ undertake.

2. How could group rights be enacted in practice? There is no denying that this would not be an easy accomplishment given that in the West individual rights trump collective rights in almost all cases, but it is not impossible. To give two examples of how this happens in Europe and the USA. In Romania, because they have so many language minority and cultural groups, their democracy is constructed so that parliamentary seats are allocated proportionate to the size of each group. In the USA, after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some states approved ‘minority-majority’ voting districts, to ensure that voters had the chance to elect African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latin@** people to the Senate.

Outside of Europe, group rights are more acceptable: in South America, for example, indigenous groups in Bolivia and Colombia are allocated seats in their respective parliaments. In India, the tiny Farsi religion has its cultural rights protected. Africa, however, is one of the foremost examples: the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights fully recognizes group rights – but has only recently done so, which is an indication that the African nations could no longer deny their countries are made up of multiple cultural groups that are in need of protection and recognition.

3. So what forms of group rights are there? Now of course, context is critical and an important aspect of minority group rights is that it is quite broad and can be flexible. The theorist I draw on here is Will Kymlicka, who incidentally has pondered whether Deaf communities should be given group rights (he said no, but only on the basis that it could lead to a multiplicity of claims from wider disabled groups [and what is wrong with allowing disabled people to have group rights, since they are also under threat from genetic developments?]).  In Kymlicka’s view, group rights is not incompatible with liberalism, and that is a contentious point. According to Kymlicka there are, broadly, three types of minority rights:

i) self-government rights

ii) polyethnic rights

iii) special group representation rights

With self-government rights: this is where a minority either seeks to secede from the State, or have some kind of control within it. This will have a familiar feel to UKers right now because of the example of Scotland, where there is to be a referendum on independence from the UK in 2014.  Quebec is another example: French speakers have long been campaigning for a separate State, as have the people of the Basque region, who want independence from Spain. There are many other examples, including in India where there are several State demands to secede from the Indian State.

In the mid 19th century consideration was given to the notion of setting up a separate Deaf ‘Commonwealth’.  This didn’t gain credibility amongst Deaf people at that time.  Most recently, in 2004, some people tried to set up a ‘Deaf town’ called Laurent, it failed to gain planning permission and eventually collapsed.  However, by and large we don’t see Deaf communities demanding a separate homeland – they want to access mainstream society. Spit the dummy testifies to that aspiration.

Self-government rights, therefore, generally relate to enabling a minority some form of control regarding the protection and preservation of a peoples language, cultural and national practices. In the UK the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland assemblies are examples.

Polyethnic rights are, generally, those of cultural groups who come to a nation state voluntarily, or are forced out of their state through persecution or war; for example, immigrants and refugees. They are expected to integrate into society by, for example, speaking the language of the nation, respecting its laws and customs. However, even so, these groups still require rights to protect their cultural practices; in the UK we are familiar with multiple minorities being provided with Interpreters, for example; but they bring their culture with them too, and the State is benign as long as the individual’s rights are not violated…for example, arranged marriages are ok when they are consensual, forced marriages aren’t. Exemptions are often granted to respect cultural practices: for example, Sikh’s are exempt from wearing motorcycle helmets, others include the right to wear the veil, and time off to take part in religious festivities.

Finally, special group representation rights are probably the type of rights that Liberal governments find easier to grant. A bolder form of such rights would be to reserve spaces in the Houses of Parliament for Deaf representatives. In South Africa this idea has been discussed, mainly because there is already a form of group representation rights in the South African parliament. It is suggested that seats be reserved for Deaf and disabled community representatives. But these could just as well apply to any level of government – e.g. within government departments such as education, within local councils, etc.

Internal restrictions or external protections?

There is one important issue: do those who demand such rights want them for ‘external protection’ or ‘internal restriction’? We can say with confidence in the case of Deaf communities that they are the former – protection of the language and culture; protection from harmful medical practices, and so on.  In this case they are more likely to be granted, since internal restrictions are considered to be ‘illiberal’. Some might suggest that there are internal restrictions in the form of suppressing speech, but the practice of sign bilingualism does not entail restricting or stopping speech, contrary to what many in the medical profession fear. Far more alarming are the developments taking place around genetics, which pose real threats to the community, and reinforces the urgent need for protection.

Putting group rights into practice: some thoughts and suggestions

Having given a brief outline, what might group rights be able to bring to the debate in the case of a BSL Act? I offer no clear cut blueprint, but I do offer some suggestions as to where discussion might start:

i) The Act is not only about enabling the language to thrive, it is to protect it.  In order to protect it, however, it requires putting into place elements essential to the group (and not only the individual). In a research project I undertook, what these group rights entailed was not easy to define, so, far more work involving the community is required. But as a starting suggestion, some or all of the following would flow naturally when there is a focus on what cultural practices are important for the group. The main focus was on protecting deaf children, which is understandable because they are the future community. The spit the dummy campaign incorporates a wide range of sphere’s where inequality and second class citizenship is rife, but here’s a starting summary[3]:

Sign language requires deaf children to be educated together. Deaf teachers and assistants are essential as role models. Time and space is needed to ensure the group has space to develop its cultural mores: Deafhood development, poetry, drama, story-telling, Deaf space in the form of  local Deaf centres, television channels, a Deaf studies curriculum, expression of minority groups within the Deaf community (such as Black deaf culture, Asian Deaf culture, issues affecting Deaf disabled people, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Deaf people). Finally, and certainly not lastly: Sign language development is critically vital, and that requires language planning.  In all of these factors, deaf children are not the only individuals being protected, such protection and development requires a more concerted input from adult Deaf people: as teachers, elders, producers of culture, role models, sign language tutors, and so on. It would require a long process of community repair.

ii) These could be enacted as part of a process of natural justice, as opposed to, say, freedom of choice.  That is really critical: Deaf communities, and that includes some of the most radical activists, tend to pursue an agenda for ‘informed choice’.  A language Act that misses out the group nature of the Deaf community, one which tries to insist purely on individual rights, and which pushes for informed parental choice, is ridden with contradictions. If there is free choice, then hearing parents who wish to pursue a path of oralism have every right as those who wish to pursue sign language. And this is precisely what Deaf communities argue is unjust…and yet there is a continued pushing for individual rights: that needs to be reviewed. Free choice is damaging and suits those who see deaf children and adults as having a medical condition.

The medical profession intervenes in the life of individual deaf children; it is a culturally embedded practice within the health system; and it is therefore a political force. The methods these professions pursue are not ones of free choice. They thrive partly because they have become historically embedded, but also because they possess far more cultural and social capital with which to pursue a normalizing agenda. My reference for this argument is the excellent research undertaken my Laura Mauldin [4], who spent an extensive period of time interviewing professionals and parents in the process of cochlear implantation.  At the risk of generalizing, the entire system is structured around medical practices, from the day of the birth of the deaf child, and they actively seek to persuade parents to try out normalizing procedures.

Deaf activists can therefore justly suggest that what a BSL Act requires is a kind of intervention, one that will not reject the need for an audiological input, but which is centred around ensuring the child has access to their natural visual environment, and they are able to develop and express themselves through this visual language. That would be their cultural group right.

My suggestion is that the very reason why Acts around the world have so far been ineffective is precisely because they do not have a strong cultural underpinning. It is supremely critical to get this right, as it can be a basis from which to build support amongst the wider population, such as parents, other minority groups, the trade union movement, community groups, hearing allies, and so on.

What group rights might a BSL Act incorporate?

So, what form of group rights might a BSL Act try to incorporate? The case of Deaf people is interesting because it may require bits of several to work effectively. It also allows leeway for compromise.

1. There could be a request for exemptions. For example, while ‘integration’ is a sought after policy for disabled children, deaf children could be made exempt from this within disability legislation. That, however, would only be a start, for where does that entail children being educated?  That is where sign bilingualism comes into force, since not only does it focus on a child’s individual ability, it requires them spending time together collectively. [As an aside, it doesn’t exclude hearing children, especially those whose parents want them to be bilingual in signing and spoken language.]  But the whole point of this exemption is what it leads to: a preservation, protection and development of the language and culture.

2. Special group representation rights have already been addressed, but these rights do not only refer to having seats in parliament: they may work at a local or departmental level.  Education is again a good example, or within local councils.

3. However, the most crucial form of minority group right would surely be a form of self-government.  I will now spend some time on this part.

Paddy Ladd made the point that Deaf communities need effective and appropriate representation when negotiating with government. This is a case that Grumpy Old Deafies also addresses, where the author cautions that precisely because so many organizations were involved in the BSL recognition process, it harmed the movement the last time round. Different NGO’s and other groups strengthen the case for a BSL Act when they criticize governments for not doing enough to protect sign language, but one would hope that they will not become embroiled in the negotiation process for an Act.  In a sense, therefore, what I write here is an appeal for organizations to step back from being engaged in the nuts and bolts of putting an Act into force.

Organizations: the pitfalls, organizational power, and responsibility

There are two points to be made here about organizations’ involvement in the creation of a BSL Act.  Firstly, many have and will suggest that different Deaf/deaf organizations unite to push and persuade governments to put into effect a BSL Act. There are some attractions to doing so, that is not being denied. Governments, by and large, will find it hard to ignore a strong lobbying group.  Bringing all of these groups together, united over a common cause, strengthens their position. Indeed, Scotland could be held up as an example, where a united group of different organizations, the Cross Party Group on Deafness, have built up a very effective lobbying group, and have successfully managed to persuade Scottish MP’s to bring a BSL Act before the Scottish Parliament.

When I first saw the Act on paper, it seemed pretty strong in many respects, except for the lack of mention of Deaf culture: however, at the time it was disseminated (2010) the wording wasn’t the problem, it was who was pursuing it that was the major contention. As  Maartje Meulder explained at the DCAL/BDA meeting, that Act was already being watered down.  Therefore the same old mistakes are being repeated all over again, and the risk is that it will be largely symbolic and piecemeal in practice, and grassroots activists will, like in 2003, feel betrayed.

The process is highly likely to be repeated if the same process of ‘let’s get all the organizations on board’ is pursued in the UK. There are more powerful charitable organizations when you put the UK together, and a particularly strong parliamentary group through which UKCod is the leading link. Because these organizations have such diverse policies and also represent several different interests, they can have conflicting agendas. To have these organizations involved in negotiations over a BSL Act is therefore dangerous, because those with more cultural capital, and effective networking with politicians, are far more likely to hold the power in the case of putting through a BSL Act. They are also far more willing to allow any Act to be watered down and lacking in a cultural aspect.  [The Scottish Act, incidentally, has zero reference to culture.] And these groups are not all strong supporters of BSL. For example, sign bilingualism, is not universally pursued by the two main organizations that have good access to politicians: the NDCS and AoHL. One group, Deafness Research UK, is committed to eradicating deafness altogether and the myriad conflicting policies of UKCod needs no introduction.[5]

Secondly, comes the question of responsibility. This is directly related to the question: if Deaf organizations are not the ones who should be representatives for a BSL Act, who should? Language minorities such as the Gaelic Board in Scotland, have a group that takes responsibility for putting into practice language and cultural planning. Why not make contact with this group and seek to learn from them?

I will suggest that in the case of the Deaf community this entails establishing a completely new group, what I will term a ‘Sign Language Board’ (SLB), for want of a better term, that is free of party politics, and completely committed to a core set of principles about what a BSL Act would entail. It could have one of two options. The first, most ambitious, would be to aim to take power for itself. The second, would be to bring a diverse range of people together to draw up an Act, and decide which people to recommend to be on any Board to put this into action.

A ‘gentle’ form of power, and being inclusive from inception

I want to be clear here that I do not refer to an oppressive form of ‘power’.  The process of devising or developing the Board should be built on enlightened and democratic principles, one that is not controlling or oppressive, but which is fully inclusive.  Paddy Ladd made the point that there needs to be a vision. Hence it can include input, representation and involvement of hearing parents of deaf children, hearing allies with a positive attitude towards sign language. It should most definitely ensure all sections of the community are included in constructing such a body: Black deaf people, disabled Deaf people, Deaf people with usher, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender groups, and ensure there is equal representation of women. This should not be tokenism, but built in from the start, because Deaf communities are not immune from bias.

It could be a ‘gentle’ kind of power, one that is very firm about the centrality of sign language and Deaf culture but also open to learning from one another as it seeks to develop. Such a group can begin planning who they think that Board should consist of now. There is nothing stopping it.  The UK government, just as it funds Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, could fund a Sign Language Board, and free up funding for what is necessary to begin a process of community repair and reconstruction.  Deaf people pay their taxes, so this could be a just entitlement.

The biggest obstacles are likely to be (a) securing funding; (b) risk of backlash from other groups who may seek to demand similar rights; (c) the very real risk of a opposition from the powerful, influential and wealthy medical profession; and (d) current organizations working in deaf communities seeking to gatecrash onto the Board via its government networking. [For what it’s worth, I think (a) and (c) and (d) can be rebuffed by strong concerted action from the new group members, while for (b) it may be worth considering a broad based alliance to bring about group rights for different minority groups.]

If the D/deaf organizations are really serious about supporting a BSL Act they will happily and willingly refrain from engagement and allow this development to take place, and positively and openly urge the government (lobby them in fact), to support this Board and the campaign for a BSL Act led by Deaf people and their elected hearing allies. The 2003 recognition campaign showed that NGO’s were happy to put throw themselves into negotiating positions by, for example, attending parliamentary events and putting themselves forward as ‘representatives’; the current generation can learn from the past by putting forward an action plan for self-government.


Therefore in summary: first, in discussing the practical ways an Act could be developed, collective minority group rights could be a very fruitful part of that discussion. Second, what is being suggested here is not a blueprint, but a basis for discussion of how group rights might be enacted in practice. Third, in considering the politics of this new movement, it should be emphasized that the current set up may not be dismantled overnight, but it should be pointed out that what the Act requires is an intervention – and that what the BSL Act is looking for is a very different kind of intervention, one that is based on natural justice, not ‘free choice’. It consists of a strong confident Board that is not afraid of power and responsibility, but eagerly seeks it.

So there you have it: a reasoning of how a BSL Act could begin to include discussions on a form of collective, cultural group rights. I have suggested a strong form of self-government is key: in fact it has already begun, and takes the form of spit the dummy.

Finally, if the current system cannot, or will not, enable some form of minority cultural group rights, then one has to question whether the system is the problem: after all it is not benign, for it is already propping up an institution that has a normalizing agenda, and is not protecting the community from genetic experimentation.  These interest groups are committed to eradicating deafness [and by implication Deaf people] for good. That cannot be allowed to happen.

*This blog entry is based on research I carried out from October 2008 to October 2010, and is yet unpublished. A draft has been written, but is currently in the process of being re-drafted.

**Originally I used the term ‘Hispanic’ but as members of one of my classes pointed out, the correct term is Latin@

[1] Ladd, P. (2003) Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, Multilingual Matters: Cleveland.

[2] Click here for the powerpoint presentation Dr Paddy Ladd gave at the WFD Conference in Madrid 2007 [given by kind permission of Paddy]

[3] Thanks are due to the 12 Deaf people who took part in the research project focused on collective group rights (2008-2010); this paragraph is an outline summary of what collective rights might be held in common by Deaf communities.

[4] Mauldin, L. (2011) ‘Parents of deaf children with cochlear implants: a study of technology and community’, in Sociology of Health & Illness Vol XX No. X 2011 ISSN 0141-9889, pp. 1-5

[5] With thanks for Maartje Meulder for information contained here [but do note: I take responsibility for views expressed]

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.

a personal perspective on paddy’s deafhood class on genetics

Before heading to the SIGN4 conference in India I took part in Paddy Ladd’s Deafhood class, where the topic was on genetics.  The key of the lecture was to explore the discourses around genetics and Deaf people with the events over the HFE Bill still quite recent.

The discussion ranged from how the discourse of genetics is generated and formulated by the media and the ways in which agencies and politicians percieve and construct Deaf people in relation to genetics issues.  The influences of past discourse is also evident, for example in the case of the couple in the USA who sought a Deaf donor to improve their chances of conceiving a deaf baby. Their impact on lay people was also explored. Critically, any discourse that challenges or contradicts the dominant was sought and found. Such discourse is a minority view, but nevertheless these represent critical evidence of how the hegemonic view is challenged. Where does that arise from, or how does it come about? There is particular interest in the way it happens and how it is communicated and to what audience.

Discussion moved on to the genetics campaign itself – specifically stop eugenics – the people involved, their political campaign, the approach they took and whether it had any impact or success. The impact was massive: the media coverage by radio, newspapers, journals, television, is probably the most widepsread coverage of any ‘Deaf issue’ in the UK.

In respect of the sense it obtained such coverage, success is probably not the correct word because it didn’t lead the scrapping of the clause although the explanatory clause was changed to remove references to deaf donors, but impact would appear a more appropriate one. It momentarily entered the consciousness of a wide range of laypeople who, had they read or heard the debates on radio, considered their own emotions and beliefs as well as those of Deaf people.

One of the most important debates from my point of view was the political nature of the campaign itself.  Stop Eugenics was meant to be non-hieracrhical; although a small group of people took the initiative in starting up the website, the media and political campaign, there was no formal committee as such, the activists did not seek to create a committee or organisation, but was very much a ‘do it yourself’ group.  People were constantly encouraged to become involved in ways that catered for what they could contribute to such a campaign: creative video’s, posters, taking part in media interviews. A separate group set up a march. Stop Eugenics wasn’t a formal organisation, but it was set up to campaign for the scrapping of Clause 14/4/9.

Yes, it could have become a formal organisation, but did not crystalise into one for a various number of reasons: that is a shame, but the ‘do it yourself’ nature of the organisation didn’t, nevertheless, stop identified individuals becoming identified with the campaign as it’s spokespeople. 

In single issues campaigns such as that of Stop Eugenics where a small number of people are active, a momentum is created, and if they use intense energy and effort to sustain they will eventually burn out. Some did suggest it became an organisational type of movement so it could have become, for example, a kind of FDP; however, there were some very positive things that did come from it, such as the national and international attention and cyber-gathering.

Here is where Deafhood could explore wider political activist movements, since it will find that all radical political movements that react and are formed largely in defence are ultimately limited: i.e. it isn’t unique to Deaf activism. All active campaigns rely on small cadres to keep the momentum going.

If you have a much larger number of active people (I mean thousands, not scores as in, for example, the FDP) what you will get is not reform, but revolution.  People are freed up to be active on a wide range of front’s that will test the established order to breaking point. You can see the parallels with so many different movements.

It was an extremely interesting class, and the debate continues. In a small way, I thought the Stop Eugenics movement brought to life Deafhood in very real sense: i.e. that Deaf people are not going to be guinea pigs in any legislation that wishes to bring small steps to their eradication. Politicians and the media may well have assumed they had quite a straightforward argument, but Deaf people who became involved indicated that isn’t quite the case. There are a large group of Deaf citizens who are happy to be Deaf and not dead.

The message made was that it is positive to be Deaf; Deaf people have much to offer and contribute to humanity; and the future of the Deaf world through sign language and Deaf culture has positive benefits to bring to humankind.

More Deafhood classes please! 🙂