Last night I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Dr. Dirksen Bauman in San Diego on Deaf Gain. My sister Rez and Bob Arnold, two heavyweights in their own rights, interjected our thoughts from time to time throughout the powerpoint presentation. In a well-constructed, seamless series of historical, analytic and evidential arguments, Dr. Bauman demonstrated how deafness as hearing loss is actually a remnant of normalcy, and is nearing its end as a valid notion. I made similar exhortations in the past, and was pleased to see such a powerful curb-stomp of a relic of modernism from an accomplished giant of academia.
Dr. Bauman began with a simple, yet slightly disturbing question: why are there deaf people? This question is being asked by the scientific community and the legal system. He took a 90 degrees turn and focused on the definition of “normal,” which is a recent invention, and first emerged in the middle of the 19th century, and gained steam with the rise of the field of statistics. This notion became entrenched with the philosophy of eugenics in the early 20th century, which was actually an American concept, as opposed to everybody’s favorite villain, the Nazi German party. Although eugenics became discredited after World War two, normalcy stayed entrenched throughout the 20th century as the forces of globalization continued to flatten the world.
However, normalcy has a dark side – it reduces biodiversity. Dr. Bauman pointed out how the Irish potato famine took place – after years of planting the same type of potato that produced the maximum yield of crops, that degrade the soil quality, and once the virulent disease spread throughout the country, half of the crops were wiped out and since they couldn’t plant different crops, thousands went hungry. Not only that, this also led to a culture genocide in which the Irish abandoned their cherished language. Moreover, the forces of globalization has pressured the Irish to close down their pubs and learn how to follow the EU model, and stay at home.
Dr. Bauman didn’t stop here. He went on to list depressing facts of the general decline of the population of the deaf: genetics screening, in vitro fertility, and decreasing institutions for the deaf. However, despite overwhelming odds that promise the yawning abyss of pessimism, not all is lost.
There are new studies that demonstrate what the deaf have to contribute to the world. They are actually skilled in visual, spatial, and kinesthetic ways of knowledge. They can contribute to the rich diversity of the world, rather than be shoehorned into the pre-set cookie cutter mentality that result in little more than mediocre lives. The most fascinating study mentioned was a focus on gestures and speech. When children are taught about something through a single format of speech, they retain 30 percent of what was said in a week. Now, the same children are taught with gestures, and they actually retain 80 percent of what was demonstrated in the next week. Whether the complexity of the contents of speech and gestures are truly equal, remain to be seen though.
Research in neuroscience demonstrate that the human brain itself is neurodiverse: inherently adaptive. I.e., the brain is not hard-wired to a single modality. Our neurons are waiting for input – whether it is a spoken word or a visual sign. To be human was assumed to be able to speak, to engage in a community with language. Therefore, to sign is to be human.
In listing three traits of the new normalcy, plasticity, diversity, and x Dr. Bauman subverts the monological assumption of modernism that there is only a single formula to the right type of life, that there is a single norm for learning and communicating.
In fact, this presentation is a paean to post-modernism that has been exploding in the arts since the second half of the 20th century, and in academia since the 80’s. We are on the crest of a nascent paradigm shift that repudiates the stubborn inertia of modernism, and are ready to face new challenges, dangers and possibilities. Modernity has its safe and secure foundations of habit and established ideas, but by abandoning such classic traditions, we have taken an adventure to new areas of ideas and experiences.