First Person: I can so talk!
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It was an exciting sequence of firsts. The first deaf contestant on TV's "The Amazing Race" came in first place on the recent season 14 premiere. But when host Phil Keoghan asked Luke Adams why he was there, he said through his interpreter that he wanted to disprove people's perceptions and show that, "Deaf can do it, they can do exactly what hearing people can do, but not talk."
His response elicited another first: A deaf person -- me -- yelling at the television screen, "He did not just say that!" OK, maybe that wasn't a first. But there was a lot of irony in my outburst.
I was born profoundly deaf and was raised to lip-read and speak. And I'm not the only one. There are many of us speaking deaf out there.
Gallaudet Research Institute's 2006-2007 Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth revealed that 87 percent of students who are deaf use speech in the classroom to some degree, and 52 percent use only speech. That is only children -- the percentage of adults is a lot higher.
We might not be as visible as Mr. Adams because we don't have to communicate with our hands, but that doesn't mean we don't exist. By denying that we do, Mr. Adams does a gross disservice.
Not only does he denigrate all the hard work that goes with being able to speak and function independently in society, but he's also sending the wrong message to current and future parents of deaf children. They will incorrectly believe that their children won't be able to talk.
In a summary of research compiled by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, children who are educated using a spoken-language approach are proficient in spoken language and have high levels of intelligibility. They also possess reading abilities that are approximately double the national average for children with hearing loss.
Technology is making even more things possible. More than 59,000 adults and children have cochlear implants, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, and I'm one of them. So is Mr. Adams, but he chooses not to wear his.
A cochlear implant is a device that is surgically implanted to simulate hearing. According to the Gallaudet Research Institute, cochlear implants are common, with one in eight students who are deaf wearing one.
Mr. Adams' abandonment of his implant is unusual. Only 7 percent of students with implants elect not to use theirs. Maybe he has a good reason for not taking advantage of a device that could help him win a race and $1 million, but he has a different mindset than I do.
In fact, Mr. Adams referred to himself in a recent article as "big-D Deaf." This means he is an adherent of what is known as "Deaf Culture."
There's a chasm between this group and deaf people like me, who are called oral or speaking deaf. Some of the big-D Deaf look down on me for not knowing much sign language, or even for wearing a cochlear implant. They think I'm "trying to pass as hearing" and say I'm denying my deafness, my true identity. For many in that crowd, being deaf is their whole being. To me, it's just another characteristic, like being female or a writer.
Mr. Adams may have been tired but he knew what he was saying when making that inflammatory comment. He had a platform and was taking advantage of it. Because he has admitted to being a part of deaf culture, he is well-versed in its philosophies. As a big fan, he knows "The Amazing Race" is a popular, Emmy-award-winning show. He was exposed to deaf people who talk -- imagine that! -- at the university he attended, but still he denied their existence.
I can only hope that viewers will recognize his lack of independence as his teammate -- his mother and link to the hearing world -- interprets everything for him.
I was worried that Mr. Adams' participation in the show would perpetuate the myth that all deaf people sign, but it ended up being worse. There have now been four episodes of the show, and he continues to do well. Adding to the irony, he has been shown talking to his mother. When this happens, the show subtitles him, because most people probably can't understand him. Those who are used to hearing deaf speech, like my husband, have no trouble.
I wanted to root for Mr. Adams, as I did for Christy Smith, a deaf contestant on "Survivor" whose ability to speak and lip-read allowed her to compete on her own. But now I hope one of the other couples wins the million instead. Someone who dashes the hopes of millions is no winner in my book.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Mar. 18, 2009) One in eight deaf students wear cochlear implants, which simulate sound. This First Person column as originally published Mar. 14, 2009 provided an incorrect figure.
First Published March 14, 2009 12:00 am