The television series, Switched at Birth which is produced for ABC Family, is the first mainstream television series to have multiple deaf and hard-of-hearing series regulars and scenes shot entirely in American Sign Language (ASL) and is focused on two teenagers who were switched at birth and grew up in very different environments.
Marlee Matlin discusses the concept of hearing loss compared to Deaf gain in one of the episodes (go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5W604uSkrk to view the two-minute clip on this discussion). The scene opens in a classroom setting where Marlee Matlin is signing to a classroom of Deaf students: “I want to talk about language today. When a Deaf child is born, what is the first thing the parents hear in the hospital?” A student raises his hand and answers “Your child failed a hearing test”. Marlee Matlin then replies “Right. A baby is five hours old and he’s failed something already. What about the term ‘hearing loss’? What does the word evoke?”
Another student raises her hand and replies “Hearing as the norm. Deaf is less than. Lacking”. The question is then posed back to the class “Are we less than?” This is what needs to be looked at here. Whilst the world is geared in such a way that the ability to hear is paramount. But what would happen if we flipped that notion on its head and posed a different question: Does someone have to ‘hear’ with their ears? Could a person not ‘hear’ with their eyes. Is this not the case with Sign language? Do the Deaf not simply ‘hear’ differently?
The term “Deaf-gain” was coined in 2005 by Aaron Williamson, a British performing artist who was visiting Gallaudet and whilst he was not born Deaf, found that each and every time he interacted with doctors and healthcare professionals, they repeated the phrase “hearing loss.” This experience, familiar to many people who go Deaf, compelled him to suggest flipping the phrase, why should it be hearing loss and not gaining Deafness? This was the start of a perception changing journey for the global Deaf community. Asking this question spoke to a fundamental issue facing the Deaf. Becoming Deaf is not, as many think and believe, simply a dramatic loss of hearing. Instead, Deafness opens a door to a new world, a new way of seeing things. Deaf culture, Deaf way of life, its own unique language, and so much more. Many things change in a person’s life when they become Deaf, the loss of the ability to hear is just one of many.
Several research projects have found that individuals who communicate via a visual language (which is the case with sign language) have better and more developed peripheral vision, a greater ability to form quick mental images, and better facial recognition skills than those who communicate via an orally spoken language. Further studies show that signed languages, have been able to provide linguists a glimpse at the origins of language in a way that spoken language never has been able to.
The question is then asked again “Are we (the Deaf) less than?” And is there really such a thing as ‘hearing loss’ because the way we look at it, by flipping the perceived norm on its head, that there really only is Deaf gain. The gaining of a new identity, a new language, a new culture and a new outlook on life.