Audism: The notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or behave in the manner of one
Audism and Deaf Culture
by Robert Silva
April 1st 2005
While researching the deaf culture in the United States, the word audism kept coming up time and time again. When
researching this term further I realized that even in the deaf culture prejudice is alive and well. The definition provided by
Jamie Berke, "Your Guide to Deafness/Hard of Hearing", states as follows: A negative or oppressive attitude towards deaf
people by either deaf or hearing people and organizations. So Audists in general tend to shun the deaf culture by not learning
ASL and consider themselves better than others that depend on ASL to communicate. In fact Harlan Lane in his book, The Mask of
Benevolence, uses a phrase from 1853 made by a resident physician of the Paris school of the deaf that states, " The deaf
believe that they are our equals in all respects. We should be generous and not destroy that illusion. But whatever they
believe, deafness is an infirmity and we should repair it whether the person who has it is disturbed by it or not. So as you
can see, audism/prejudice has been around for a long time.
But when digging deeper, I find that the deaf community sees themselves as a linguistic minority, not disabled. They view
themselves as visual people that have their own language, social organizations, history, and culture in general. In fact,
there seems to be a prejudice by non-audists that think that hearing people can never fully be a member of the deaf community.
In fact, deaf people see themselves much like any other minority and feel like cultural outsiders that are misunderstood or
stereotyped by society in general. The deaf in general tend to highly value their deaf identity and see people that try to
invade the identity as intruders. Deaf people who adopt hearing values are looked down upon and are considered traitors.
This attitude of audism has also been portrayed not only in written form, but in the form of a play called Audism Monologues (Lightkitchen
productions) in which true stories are told by deaf people experiencing prejudice. Deaf film festivals have showcased films
that have tackled audism/prejudice from Brazil, Britain, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Norway and the USA. As
I found out, the issue of prejudice in the deaf community is globally universal and has been portrayed in various mediums. In
fact, the birthplace of ASL, the Gallaudet University, had a editorial written titled, " Audism Exists on Campus?" (Buff &
Blue student magazine, November 11, 2002 issue). This student examined the subtle prejudice that existed on campus between the
audists and the Deaf culture on campus. His web essay titled, "Autism, Anchovies, and Audism", discusses examples of audism
and also complains about the communication system at the university.
In conclusion, as I have stated earlier, the deaf community views itself as a linguistic minority whereas the hearing
community want to label them impaired. To make matters worse, even within the deaf/hard of hearing community there is
prejudice (audism) that pits one deaf person against the other. Until there is a common ground of understanding between the
two groups, society in general will look upon the hearing culture as defective instead of equals within our society.
Lane, Harlan (1992). The mask of benevolence: disabling the deaf community. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Berke, Jamie (1998). Your guide to Deafness/Hard of Hearing. Internet web site. University Alliance 2005
Humphries, Tom (1977). Communicating across cultures (deaf/hearing) and language learning. Doctoral dissertation. Cincinnati,
OH: Union Graduate School.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
No, that is not a typo.
During my first semester taking ASL courses at California State University, Sacramento, and as a means of satisfying my nearly
perverse need for information, I began browsing/reading/frequenting a few online message boards that centered around deaf
people and Deaf culture. If you were to do the same you would probably begin to recognize a lot of recurring topics and
arguments (Cochlear implants, deafness as a disability/politically correct terminology, mainstreaming vs schools for the deaf,
interpreters as money-grubbing jerks, and the list goes on). In these online endeavors, you might notice that seeing typos,
spelling and grammar mistakes comes with enough frequency that you’ll eventually just shrug it off. These typos, spelling, and
grammar mistakes are understandable as most of the people participating in conversation on these boards are essentially using
a second language.
The first time I came across a variation of the word Audism (it appeared as Audistic) I assumed it was a typo and was meant to
mean Autistic (as does Microsoft Word with its red underlining). After seeing it again and again, I began to think that I was
missing something. So I decided that I would see what Dictionary.com had to say... Nope, same affection for calling it a typo
or a misspelling… Google, how say you? Oh Google, is there anything you don’t know?
So here it is, in all of its glory, the definition of audism from Tom Humphries--the man who coined the term:
Audism (o diz m) n. the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or behave in the manner of one who hears.
He explained the word is to deaf people what “racism” is to black people and he also coined the term Audist which would be the
deaf equivalent to a racist (personally, I find it odd that the definition is a bit hearie-centric for lack of an actual
word). [Source: http://gradschool.gallaudet.edu/clc2002/Readings/audism.PDF]
Sounds simple enough, right?
Unfortunately, the word audist has transmuted into more of a derogatory term than a descriptive one. Just as unfortunate is
that the word is thrown around with ill-regard, probably due to misunderstandings stemming from the overuse of the word in the
first place. Support Cochlear implants? You’re an audist. Choose a mainstream education for your children? You’re an audist
too. Learn English AND ASL? Audist, audist, audist. It seems as though the term has become a way to say “I disagree with your
viewpoint on this matter and I intend to insult you in an arbitrary fashion.” Should you decide to start
browsing/reading/frequenting online message boards as well, expect to see this term come up in basically any conversation
centered on controversial deaf issues.
Now that you have a general idea about what audism is, I want to examine something I said earlier:
“In these online endeavors, you might notice that seeing typos, spelling and grammar mistakes comes with enough frequency that
you’ll eventually just shrug it off. These typos, spelling, and grammar mistakes are understandable as most of the people
participating in conversation on these boards are essentially using a second language.”
The Wikipedia entry on Audism defines this sort of thinking as Audistic thinking and lists it right next to the example of
”Signing in public makes deaf people look like animals” and another definition of audism as: “The belief that life without
hearing is futile and miserable, that hearing loss is a tragedy and "the scourge of mankind," and that deaf people should
struggle to be as much like hearing people as possible.” It seems to me that this is a bit extreme. Let’s switch the situation
around a bit. As I said before, I’m currently learning ASL at CSUS. English being my native language, it makes sense that I’m
being taught ASL through the use of a combination of ASL and English. If I were to sign something like “Last week I went
shopping” and attached an –ing suffix to the sign for shop, would you consider it deaf-centric, or terribly elitist, for a
deaf person to shrug it off as understandable because ASL isn’t my native language?
This doesn’t just apply to people learning a language either. I have an acquaintance from Serbia, who moved to the US at least
a decade ago. The conjugation of verbs in that language is different than that of English, but when/if he uses the infinitive
instead of the present participle or some such variant I don’t consequently think “OH YE OF INFERIOR INTELLIGENCE, thou hast
trespassed upon my native tongue, and henceforth you shall be scorned accordingly for I am far superior to you as is evident
by my mastery of the English language!!” nor do I think him incapable of learning “proper” English.
I’m of the mind that communication in any language is/should be used as a tool for the transport of ideas, not to be a
show-off or an elitist. Which isn’t to say that one shouldn’t strive to be as true to the language as possible, but the
spelling and grammatical errors shouldn’t serve as a way to feel superior or to make others feel inferior. My original comment
certainly wasn’t meant in that vein as I imagine others who’ve shared the same type of comment or thought didn’t mean for it
to be in that vein either.
With all that being said, don’t be surprised like I was if/when you encounter this word in your internet travels. If you want
my (unsolicited) advice, I think you should form your own opinion about what constitutes audism and what doesn’t, don’t take
my word for it *cue Reading Rainbow music*