Drawing distinctions within the deaf community

by Liz Abernathey | 11/16/06 6:00am

To the Editor:

I was struck by two phrases Allison Ruderman uses in her review of "Babel" ("Interweaving plotlines fail to keep 'Babel' together," Nov. 15). She writes about the character Chieko, whom she calls a "deaf-mute." Although many media reviewers have been referring to Rinko Kikuchi's character as a "deaf-mute," I wanted to take a moment and pose my concerns in this locally accessible forum.

The deaf community uses "deaf-mute" to describe individuals who have chosen consciously not to use their voices, which they believe may impede the continuity and beauty of sign language. Though the phrase "deaf-mute" isn't necessarily being used in a derogatory manner here (as it has been in the past), it is important for people to understand that there is a tendency among the hearing community to assume that the "deaf-mute" have nothing to "say."

In not clarifying that Chieko uses sign language, the author perhaps unconsciously reinforces the stereotype that to be "deaf-mute" means to be without a mode of communication.

Moreover, I was struck by the author's phrase, "the silence heard by the deaf teenager." In fact, those who are deaf do not "hear" silence in the same way that those who are blind do not "see" darkness. This is a minor point, but it does suggest that the hearing community still grapples with how to conceptualize the experience of being deaf.

To those who will attend "Babel," I offer some words for thought: Even though Rinko Kikuchi spent some time with deaf individuals and uses sign language in the film, she is still representing only one small facet of deafness. The deaf community has long struggled with the fact that those few who play deaf characters on the screen can hardly encapsulate the awesomely diverse experience of being deaf in all its varied ways.

Ultimately, I write not to complain or to accuse the author of insensitivity, but as a deaf person seeking to raise consciousness about hearing loss and to correct common misperceptions people may hold about this condition.

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