Disability Perspectives: Sound and Fury

I wrote this paper for one of my Masters Degree courses on special education for students with disabilities.  It analyzes the perspectives on disability expressed by the Artinian Family and featured in the documentary films Sound and Fury (2000) and Sound and Fury: 6 Years later.  You can find both films in their entirety on Youtube. 

At the beginning of the original Sound of Fury film, Peter expresses this fear that upon receiving the implant, Heather will exist in a separate realm of existence, severed from both the deaf world and the hearing world.  I find this sentiment to be a largely incoherent and dishonest rationalization for the impending decision not to allow his daughter to undergo the surgery.  This point of the film represents the justification stage for both parents.  Before Peter and Nita can justify their decision to Heather, they have to justify it to themselves.  At one point, Peter even likens people with cochlear implants to an army of robots implying that the surgery will somehow cause his daughter’s humanity to be diluted or tainted.  This is the only point of the film in which Peter and Nita express any concern about the health and well-being of their daughter vis-à-vis the cochlear implant.  Throughout the rest of the movie and in their heated confrontations with the hearing members of the family, their primary fear of the implant is that it will cause Heather to disengage from the deaf world and deaf culture thereby alienating them from her life.  In other words, their misgivings are born out of a crisis of identity, a fear for themselves and the social cohesion of their family, not a fear for their daughter.  To be certain, I do hear contradictory messages being broadcast by both Nita and Peter at this stage.  For example, Peter does say that he just wants Heather to be happy and if she is happy then he is happy.  But I quickly learn that it is his version of happiness which he seeks to impose on his daughter that fuels his decision-making process.  Heather has no say in the matter.  In fact, I feel as if Nita and Peter have tricked Heather into saying she prefers not to have the surgery.  Upon learning about the surgery and how it could potentially change her life, Heather initially expresses a strong desire to communicate with the hearing world while still maintaining ties to the deaf culture.  She understands that the cochlear implant will serve to broaden her experience, while still allowing her to embrace her deaf identity.  I view this as an extremely sophisticated and nuanced position for such a young child to take.  In fact, I am extremely surprised to hear Peter express understanding of his daughter’s position.  Unfortunately, that understanding does not carry through to the eventual decision to forgo the surgery.  At one point, even Nita expresses the desire to receive the implant and begins researching the procedure.  Peter’s response to his wife’s initiative is indicative of how he views the deaf culture vis-à-vis hearing culture, “I thought you were proud to be deaf.”  I don’t believe that being deaf is something to be proud of anymore then being a hearing person is something to be proud of.  It is a mere aspect of human existence that some people are deaf and most people are hearing.  Certainly, Peter can and should be proud of his struggle to overcome oppression and alienation in the face of the dominant hearing culture, but that is not the same as expressing pride in being deaf.  In fact, I would argue that an overwhelming sense of pride is the key ingredient in forming an oppressive and discriminatory culture in which one sector of society is regarded as being inferior to the rest of the population on account of some difference.  The pride should rest in the struggle and the culture that emerges from that struggle, not in the actual difference.  In order to understand this fact, all Peter has to do is engage in a simple thought exercise.  Suppose deaf culture was the dominant culture, and Peter was a hearing person in this hypothetical world.  He would then be obliged to overcome the same oppressive and discriminatory forces which he was forced to overcome as a deaf person within a dominant hearing culture.  The oppression does not stem from anything intrinsic to the difference but rather humanity’s inclination to highlight difference as a justification for enforcing unequal power relations between and among various sectors of the population.  Deaf culture is similar to any other minority, oppressed culture in that it is constantly engaged in a struggle for power against the majority, dominant culture.  Now in the context of this struggle, the oppressed, unfortunately, sometimes assume certain unsavory characteristics of the oppressor.  Indeed this phenomenon becomes problematic once the revolutionary oppressed manage to overthrow their oppressors and institute a new organizational paradigm.  Often the former oppressed will assume an unsentimental governing posture by engaging in the same practices which caused them to rebel against their oppressors in the first place.  As a result, different groups now occupy both roles leaving the oppressor/oppressed relationship intact, a development which signals the ultimate failure of the revolution.  Peter, albeit on a vastly small scale, engages in this same sort of role reversal.  He takes such great pride in the deaf identify, valuing it to such a great degree, that he is willing to deny his daughter the chance to become more fully human.  Again, I stress that the value that would come with Heather gaining access to the hearing world is not intrinsic to the ability to hear itself, but rather the potential it offers for bridging the power gap between the deaf and hearing worlds.  I consider a deaf person gaining the ability to hear via cochlear implant surgery to be on par with a hearing person gaining the ability to communicate with a deaf person by learning sign language.  The former does not imply the loss of deaf culture or deaf identity just as the latter does not imply the loss of hearing culture or hearing identity.  The goal is to maximize human freedom and potential by eliminating the power differential thereby eliminating the oppressor/oppressed relationship.  The sociopolitical model of disability takes the viewpoint that disability does not define the person and by defining an individual by his or her disability, society denies that individual his or her freedom and autonomy.  My contention is that the minority culture can and does fall into this same trap.  Yes, Heather is a child who is deaf and that is certainly one aspect of her identity but it is only one aspect of a whole and complex individual.  Peter and Nita, by refusing to allow their daughter to receive the cochlear implant surgery, choose to define their daughter solely by her deafness and by doing so they deny her basic humanity.  I view this situation as just one example of how the parent/child relationship can devolve into that oppressor/oppressed paradigm.  Peter and Nita’s fear for Heather’s rejection of the deaf culture as a result of cochlear implant surgery also stems from their visits to the houses and schools of deaf children who had undergone the surgery.  What they see is that these children do not know sign language and have no deaf identity.  However, what they fail to realize is that these children have hearing parents and therefore have never been immersed in deaf culture from the beginning.  Consequently one cannot trace their lack of familiarity with the deaf identity to the cochlear implant.  Since Peter and Nita are of course deaf and their daughter already knows sign language, the fear remains irrational, not grounded in any semblance of objectivity.  Peter’s mother is correct in saying that the real fear among deaf people is that the hearing world is trying to make them hearing via the cochlear implant surgery.  When I take into account the discrimination that deaf people have faced from the dominant hearing culture, I can understand this sentiment.  Nonetheless, that does not mean I embrace its implications and conclusions.  Nonetheless, I still disagree with Peter’s father that deafness is a handicap.  Deaf people have their own language and their own culture.  If the dominant culture was deaf, hearing would be viewed as a handicap.  Deafness as a handicap is a perception and it becomes a reality only once that perception is embraced by the dominant culture.  It is a human construct born out of the fact that most people are not deaf.  Nevertheless, I still believe that the Artinian family can embrace the cochlear implant surgery for Heather without compromising their sociopolitical outlook on disability as well as Heather’s deaf identity, and, indeed, by the time Heather reaches nine years of age they have converted to that line of reasoning.

Peter’s parents are relentless in their push to convert their son and his wife, and three years after moving back to NY, Peter and Nita change their outlook and Heather receives the surgery.  I agree with Peter’s decision and his ultimate reasoning that it was his responsibility to maximize the opportunity for his child to be happy and free to practice two cultures that when integrated are not opposed to each other.  Her speech improves and she is enrolled in a hearing school.  The school furnishes her with an interpreter.  Heather’s teacher speaks very highly of her desire to learn and her ability to function well in class despite her speech difficulties.  Heather’s principal highlights the fact that she has no difficulty in making friends.  Her classmates appreciate her for her lively and enthusiastic personality.  In summation, all the people that have an effect on Heather’s self-concept, view her as an individual with a disability as opposed to a disabled individual.  Now both the hearing and the deaf world have embraced the sociopolitical model of disability.  This includes her parents who are thankful that their misgivings did not come to pass.  Heather’s connection to the deaf world and deaf culture is just as strong as it ever was.  The only difference is now she can enjoy the best of both worlds.  Surprisingly Nita also decides to receive the implant despite the doctor’s low expectations of speech development as a result of her being deaf her entire life.  Upon seeing her daughter’s enormous success, her desire to hear is rekindled.  Bridges have been built.  Fears have been confronted and dealt with.  In the end, the cochlear implant has been a blessing for the cohesion of this family.  It permits understanding and inclusion without sacrificing the deaf culture which was so important to Nita and Peter from the beginning.  This film was instructive in the idea that in order for two cultures to coexist in harmony, both must apply the sociopolitical perspective in the process of confronting discrimination and exclusion.  It was not healthy for Nita and Peter to isolate the family by moving to Maryland just as it is not healthy for society when individuals with disabilities are discriminated against by the dominant culture.  Although they did not explicitly express it in the 2000 film, the true source of Nita and Peter’s anxiety regarding the cochlear implant was their feeling that it was just another way for the hearing world to express its dominance, to discriminate against them.  Now they realize that this was not true.  As exemplified in this follow-up film, the cochlear implant has functioned to eliminate that power gap not by doing away with the deaf culture but by improving the ability to communicate across cultures.  Indeed, in this sense, I believe that to embrace the cochlear implant is to embrace the sociopolitical model of disability.

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