[Editor's Note: DeafEcho.com is including this note at the start of this article/letter rather than at its conclusion as we normally do because of an important update. The American Heritage Dictionary is discussing a revision to the definition of "audism." Please go to the comments section under this excellent letter at John Lee Clark's website, where it was originally posted. We are reprinting the letter here for our readers who may not have seen it yet.]
When I learned that you had added an entry for the word “audism” in your esteemed dictionary, I was thrilled. I had been wondering when the word would ever appear in dictionaries. It was coined in 1975 by Tom L. Humphries to name the prevalent attitude and assumption that hearing people are superior to deaf people. The word became a wellspring of dialogue about the discrimination against deaf cultures and languages. Since the publication in 1992 of Harlan Lane’s extended discussion on institutional audism in a book called “The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community,” there has been a steady stream of writing, artwork, and film on the subject.
And here, at long last, was validation from a powerful source of authority!
Then I read the definition.
“Discrimination or prejudice against people based on the fact that their ability to hear is impaired or absent.”
The first half-”Discrimination or prejudice against people”-is fine. But the second half has so many problems that it cancels and defeats the meaning. Never have so few words set off so many explosions in my head. Allow me to take you through it step by step:
“the fact”: This hints at a justification for audism, as it brings up the notion of there being something objective, something which cannot be helped. Discrimination is distasteful, yes, but there is the FACT that . . . what? That there’s something wrong with those people.
“their ability”: By this, you are establishing a framework within which your readers are to understand victims of audism, in terms of their ability or disability. This is exactly what deaf people, for centuries now, have been fighting against. As the Deaf writer and activist Ryan Commerson puts it, “disability” implies that there are some people who are “able” in every way. Since no such persons exist, the notion of “normal” ability is an invention, and a dangerous one.
“to hear”: This focuses the definition on the proverbial box around the ear–that is, the deaf ear. The broken one, the one at fault, the one that needs to be fixed. The medical establishment likes to separate deafness from deaf people, because it sounds good to say “We’re trying to cure deafness” and it sounds bad to say “We’re trying to eradicate deaf people and their cultures.”
“is impaired”: The term “hearing-impaired” is a favorite of hearing journalists and bureaucrats who mistakenly believe they are being politically correct when they use it instead of “deaf.” Deaf organizations the world over have denounced the usage. Even non-culturally deaf and hard of hearing people are opposed to it, making “impaired” an absolute no-no.
“or absent”: The whole history of audist literature and philosophy about deaf people and deafness is contained in this single word, “absent.” The most relentless and harmful statement is that the absence of hearing or speech equals the absence of intelligence. Hearing people and societies have often seen, and continue to see, deaf people as non-beings on whom they can project their fears and desires. Deafness is a state of nothingness, of silence. It is death. That “absent,” with its long history of destruction, should be used here to describe deaf people is truly appalling.
So that’s what you have given us: An audist definition of audism. Do you realize that it is like defining racism as “discrimination against people whose skin is defective or discolored”?
The signing community has used various definitions, and I strongly suggest that you draw up a new definition based on them. “Audism is the belief in the supremacy of hearing and speech.” “Audism is an audiocentric orientation, a system of advantages and privileges that favors hearing.” I like a close rephrase of a definition the National Association of the Deaf proposed to Merriam-Webster (which hasn’t added the word): “Prejudice, stereotype, or discrimination based on hearing, typically against deaf people.”
None of these definitions are tied to deaf people’s ears, referring only to hearing in general. All of these definitions include those who are not deaf but who are still victims of audism, such as a hearing child of a deaf adult who is forced by a doctor to interpret because the clinic won’t provide a professional interpreter or hearing parents of deaf children who have to fight against school district administrators to get access and appropriate services for their children.
Audism is serious. It is in your dictionary. I ask that you make it right-by defining it without practicing it.
Hoping that you will take action soon, I am
John Lee Clark