Deaf People: A Disability Group or a Language Minority?


Are deaf people a disability group? Probably most people would automatically say "yes" without giving the question much thought.

But some people would say that deaf people should not be considered a disability group but rather a language minority. They say that the problems deaf people face are not the same problems as those of blind people or people using wheelchairs or amputees. People with physical disabilities often face problems of mobility and with accommodations. But those are not the problems that deaf people have.

Rather deaf people have the same problems as language minorities. They don't have a common language with the society around them. This makes it difficult to communicate, to get an education, to make their needs known, to be part of society. Deaf people in Cambodia might say their problems are more like the problems of the minority people in Cambodia. Or maybe they are like tourists from Greece who do not speak Khmer. They don't use the same language as the local people.

Deaf people who think of themselves as a language minority would say there is nothing wrong with their bodies or their minds. They are just as physically and mentally able as people without disabilities. But they are limited or handicapped by language and communications problems and by the attitude of society.

That is the reason why every four years the world deaf community has their own deaf olympics. They don't participate in the regular Olympics because of communications problems. And they don't participate in the Para Olympics or Special Olympics because there is nothing wrong with their bodies or their minds. Instead they organize the Deaflympics where they can participate in sports without communications barriers. This year the Deaflympics will be held in Taiwan in September.

The question about whether deaf people are a disability group or a language minority is not a simple question, however. There are many things to consider. For example, because deafness is usually defined as a disability, deaf people can benefit from laws that give them better access to education and special services they may need. They are also better protected from discrimination and are able to receive disability payments from the government. The real question is not what is the best label but how can deaf people be seen in a way that puts the least restrictions on them and enables them to use their abilities in the best way.

by Charles Dittmeier
19 March 2009


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