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October 15, 2002

Column: Deaf culture falls on deaf ears in hearing community

Oct. 15, 2002

Tuesday, October 15, 2002
By Sharon Emery

To understand what Lee Larsen wants for her kids, you have to wrap your mind around the idea that being deaf is a good thing.

A Kent County judge recently ruled that Larsen's deaf sons, aged 3 and 4, could not be forced against their mother's wishes to have cochlear implants that might give them some hearing. Circuit Judge Kathleen Feeney said Michigan law is unambiguous that such a decision, when not a medical emergency, rests with parents, not the state.

But while the judge clearly understands the letter of the law, she obviously does not understand the spirit of the law, which holds that particular parents know what is best for their particular children.

Apparently wishing to reassure prosecutors and others that she personally sided with them, even though she had to follow the law, the judge noted that, "The court has no doubt it would be in (the children's) best interest to have implants," the Grand Rapids Press reported.

Yet their mother clearly believes it is not in their best interest. Larsen herself is deaf and does not have implants, so she knows the life her children will lead.

The authorities can only speculate from their hearing-world perspective on what that life would be. Their bias against the nonhearing is obvious.

Earlier in the case, assistant prosecutor Kevin Bramble asked Larsen how the children would negotiate a hearing world without implants.

"Look at me," Larsen, 30, replied. "I am deaf. I am in the hearing world and the deaf world."

Hel-lo, Mr. Bramble, how do you think anyone manages who does not have the traits considered "normal"?

Some deaf people actually like being deaf. Imagine that.

Catherine Downs, who gives workshops on Deaf culture across the country and is a genetic counselor at the University of Michigan's Kellogg Eye Center, compares deaf identity with racial identify. She uses the example of a theoretical pill that could make black skin white, which would certainly make things easier for black people in this racist society.

"If you could take a pill and wake up the next day and be white, wouldn't you want that?" she asks rhetorically.

Of course not, she told me, which is exactly how a deaf person feels when asked if he or she wouldn't rather be hearing.

Larsen's children came to the court's attention after Larsen went to Ohio for a week, leaving them with a friend. But she didn't say how she could be reached if there were problems. When the friend realized she couldn't care for the children, they were put into foster care, which is when authorities got the idea that they needed implants.

Whether Larsen was negligent in caring for her children will be decided in December, and is ultimately a separate issue from the appropriateness of implants and the value of deafness.

Larsen testified before the judge, "...I want them to grow up with a strong self-esteem, not trying to be something they are not. I want them part of the Deaf culture."

Much like immigrant cultures, the Deaf culture has its own language (American Sign Language) and traditions. The culture provides an identity for members, who see implants as a denial of a positive aspect of their lives -- deafness. They relate to the world visually, and that's the way they like it.

Not all deaf people buy that perspective, mind you. Many seek cochlear implants and would pursue everything possible to hear and participate in the speaking culture.

For the hearing, the concept of choosing deafness is just plain hard to fathom.

Last year a Maryland couple used in vitro fertilization to have a child. While hundreds of infertile couples do this every year, what was different about this case was that the couple, two deaf women, specifically wanted to increase their chances of having a deaf child. They sought out a deaf sperm donor, who also fathered their first child, who is deaf.

Sharon Duchesneau gave birth last Thanksgiving Day to a boy with substantial hearing loss in both ears. While any child would have been a blessing, Duchesneau told the Washington Post that the deaf baby was "a special blessing."

The case raises all kinds of ethical questions. Was the couple setting limits on their child's potential? Or were they offering him access to a stimulating culture they could share with him?

Which brings us back to that brain teaser of an idea that deafness may simply be an identity, not a medical affliction.

For those who see deafness as a medical problem, deaf people are not "normal" because they cannot hear. Being deaf is something that needs to be "fixed."

For those who consider deafness an identify, it is an alternate way of being in and experiencing the world. It is not a deficit, it is a difference.

As medical and genetic advances enable us to choose which people get born, deciding how we view conditions such as deafness becomes increasingly important. Ultimately it will determine the future of the world.

What do you think? Lodge your opinion with

Sharon Emery is assistant news editor for Booth News Service. You can contact her at (517) 487-8888 or e-mail her at

© 2002 Booth Newspapers. Used with permission
© 2002 All Rights Reserved.