ASL University

Music and the Deaf Community: 

Music and the Deaf Community

Chad Watkins




Music and the Deaf Community


Music today continues to enhance our daily life experiences. With the invention of the transistor radio in the 60's that allowed us to travel with a handheld radio to the Walkman in the mid 80's which freed us from commercial radio and allowed us to record our own songs, we continue to create new ways to fill our world with sound. Currently the rage is to use our smart phones to play videos and use apps such as Music-Maker Pro to mix our own creations. Marketers have long known that background music can influence buying decisions. So why wouldn't the Deaf be better off in a hearing world? Why shouldn't the hearing world fix what they see as a disability? On the other hand, what if it is misguided influence that has caused the hearing world to perceive deafness as a disability instead of a culture? Can the hearing world learn something from the Deaf community?


Since the late 1800's the most popular approach to integrate the Deaf into mainstream society has been the technique known as oralism. Oralism is a "listening and spoken language" based approach that teaches oral speech, lip reading, and mimicking mouth shapes. It does not include sign language and in fact discourages manualism, the term for teaching sign language such as American Sign Language (ASL).  The goals of oralism may not sound controversial to most hearing people, but its implementation has probably wrought many bad byproducts of good intentions. 


Before Alexander Graham Bell became famous in 1876 for inventing the telephone, he was a prominent educator in the field of elocution and speech, having followed in his prominent father's footsteps. One of his famous students was Helen Keller, who spoke highly of his teachings. Bell, influenced by his father, his deaf mother, and his deaf wife, believed that it was inherently better to be able to speak and hear and made a commitment to "wiping out hereditary deafness".  He used his influence to demand that schools stop the usage of ASL and remove Deaf faculty teachers from schools.


Bell embraced the 1880 resolution of the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf banning sign language in schools. Today this "Congress" would most likely be called into question since it really was a one-sided representation of those that promoted oralism. Held in Milan, Italy and conceived by oralist, the French and Italian oralist comprised 74% of the vote and had the supported of the Catholic Church. Europe long considered those that spoke superior to those that couldn't. The conference presented and passed a resolution that banned sign language in schools in order to encourage spoken language skills and help "restore the deaf-mute to society." Passages in the resolution urge the hearing to "consider the incontestable superiority of speech over signs," and argue that teaching deaf people to speak English will "give them a more perfect knowledge of language."(Ringo, 2013) After its passage, schools in Europe and the United States ceased all use of sign language sometimes to the detriment of those that found it hard to break the habit of signing. It was acceptable to tie a student's hands behind a chair so that they would not communicate by signing. In reality, stopping the use of ASL was kin to a conquering country forcing the conquered to use a new official language.  


In 1890 Bell established the American Association to Promote Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, later renamed Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Known today as AGB, its stated mission is to "help families, health care providers and education professionals understand childhood hearing loss and the importance of early diagnosis and intervention." Sounds laudable but their preferred methods for doing so emphasize spoken language, and de-emphasize the use of ASL; sometimes excluding ASL all together. In practice, this translated to teaching oralism only and encouraging the use of hearing aids and now cochlear implant technology. A cochlear implant is a device that provides direct electrical stimulation to the auditory nerve in the inner ear. The cochlear implant does not result in "restored" or "cured" hearing. It does, however, allow for the perception of the sensation of sound.

By the 1980's schools started recognizing that using a combination of oralism and manualism was desirable and started once again teaching ASL. Oralism by itself had destroyed family bonds and made some feel like an outcast in their Deaf community. It is easier for the hearing to understand this problem if they relate it to being at a family reunion where everyone speaks Greek except them; or ordering something at a fast-food restaurant in one language and the whole staff starts to talk in a different language. Being different to the outside world is one thing, but being different in your own world is unnecessarily frustrating.    


AGB holds an annual Listening and Spoken Language Symposium. Allegra Ringo went to the 2013 symposium in Los Angeles where a protest was occurring. To understand the controversy she interviewed both sides. In her interview AGB's Director of Communications and Marketing, Susan Boswell, said that AGB "supports the development of spoken language through evidence-based practices focusing on the use of audition and appropriate technologies." Ruthie Jordan, a Deaf activist who runs Audism Free America and helped organize the protest said AGB is "miseducating the parents of Deaf children...[AGB is] earning their millions by perpetuating misinformation. AGB takes advantage of the fact that hearing parents may not understand how a Deaf child can lead a functional, fulfilling life. A hearing parent in this situation may be easily convinced that a cochlear implant and an oral-based approach is the only legitimate option." (Ringo, 2013)


While both groups have valid points, it appears that they may be fighting their battles in the wrong court of opinion. AGB does list their partners, exhibitors, and sponsors who provide a service that people are apparently searching for. If people did not want the service money would not be flowing in that direction. Ms. Jordan is right in trying to promote the Deaf, but probably to the wrong group. The group better suited to educate would be those in primary and secondary education.    


Hearing students not exposed to ASL as a second language in high school and college may ask "So why doesn't Ruthie Jordan give in and get a hearing aid or conchlear implants?" How sad for them to not know that there is a Deaf culture that have developed a keener awarness of their other senses. One would think that at a time when the government seems to classify everything as a disability it would be easy to remember that deafness is not.


Austin Chapman became a blog celebrity in 2012 when he posted a request on Reddit for songs he could listen to. Mr. Chapman, born profoundly deaf, had just received new hearing aids and started blogging about his experience. He never cared for music until 2012 when at age 23 he opted for a hearing aid with advance technology instead of cochlear implants because the latter involved surgery. He wrote in his blog "My whole life I've seen hearing people make a fool of themselves singing their favorite song or gyrating on the dance floor. I've also seen hearing people moved to tears by a single song. That was the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around…the first thing I heard was my shoe scraping across the carpet; it startled me. I have never heard that before and out of ignorance, I assumed it was too quiet for anyone to hear. I sat in the doctor's office frozen as a cacophony of sounds attacked me. The whir of the computer, the hum of the AC, the clacking of the keyboard, and when my best friend walked in I couldn't believe that he had a slight rasp to his voice. He joked that it was time to cut back on the cigarettes." (Chapman, 2012)


In an interview with Dylan Stableford, Mr. Chapman said that he wasn't expecting a difference between his four-year-old aids that he rarely wore and the new ones, but hearing music in clarity was life changing. Silence though was still his favorite sound as it is great for clearing his head. He says that when he turns off his hearing aids his vision becomes sharper, rock climbing is better, food tastes better, and even his golf game gets better. He uses his hearing aids only for conversation and music. Mr. Chapman said, "I actually feel bad for hearing people; I wish more people could experience the power and peace of utter silence." (Stableford, 2012). World famous percussionist Evelyn Glennie would probably agree with that statement.


Ms. Glennie went completely deaf at age 12. She grew up loving music and she was able to learn to play percussion by feeling the vibrations given off and refining her sense of touch to distinguish the differences. She refuses to wear hearing aids or Cochlear Implants and prefers to communicate in person, via email, or a video chat. Her "opening the eyes of the hearing" began with the Royal Academy of Music in London. She tells of the conversation where they denied her admittance: "Well, no, we won't accept you, because we haven't a clue, you know, of the future of a so-called 'deaf' musician." And I just couldn't quite accept that. And so therefore, I said to them, "Well, look, if you refuse - if you refuse me through those reasons, as opposed to the ability to perform and to understand and love the art of creating sound - then we have to think very, very hard about the people you do actually accept." And as a result…they accepted me… it changed the whole role of the music institutions throughout the United Kingdom. (TED 2003)


During a lecture at a Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference in 2003 Ms. Glennie gave the argument that for one to truly listen, they must be able to recognize that listening with ones ears is not the only way. One must be able to realize that they can feel the music and the emotions produced in so many different ways. According to her, hearing is just another form of touch. "So feeling these vibrations on our skin and through our bodies should enable us to hear music. The only problem with this is that we are so used to hearing with our ears that it is difficult for us to hear with our bodies." (TED, 2003)


Both Austin Chapman and Evelyn Glennie got noticed in the hearing world because they had a human interest story that not only challenged the idea of deafness being a disability but offered an opportunity to the hearing world that is valuable -- the opportunity to learn that one can develop their senses and learn a fascinating second language. It is continued stories like this that can open people's eyes to the possibilities available. In many instances ASL can be just as effective when used by the hearing as it is by the deaf. Promoting ASL as a second language in high schools and colleges may erase the feud between oralism and manualism for each on its own may not be able to fulfill a person's needs but together the two may help create an acceptable balance between two cultures. Promoting ASL as a second language and not a crutch help both the hearing and the deaf embrace the idea that not everything is classified as a disability. Finally, encouraging research into techniques that sharpen ones senses can help all to discover more about themselves.







Chapman, Austin. Being able to hear music for the first time ever. N.p.: Art of the Story, 2012. N. pag. Web. 5 June 2015. <>.


Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies. The Milan Conference. N.p.: Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, n.d. N. pag. Web. 6 June 2015. <>.


Ringo, Allegra. Understanding Deafness: Not Everyone Wants to be "Fixed". N.p.: The Atlantic, 2013. N. pag. Web. 5 June 2015. <>.


Stableford, Dylan. An interview with Austin Chapman, a deaf man who heard music for the first time two weeks ago. N.p.: Yahoo News, 2012. N. pag. Web. 5 June 2015. <>.


TED. Evelyn Glennie: How to Truly Listen. N.p.: TED, 2003. N. pag. Web. 5 June 2015. <>.


Wikipedia. Alexander Graham Bell. N.p.: Wikipedia, 2015. N. pag. Web. 6 June 2015. <>.


Williams, Sally. Why not all deaf people want to be cured. N.p.: The Telegraph, 2012. N. pag. Web. 5 June 2015. <>.






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