Paul Stemman

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Social history

 

“Ancient Roman law classified deaf people as 'mentecatti furiosi' - which may be translated roughly as raving maniacs - and claimed them uneducable.”

(Quoted in What the Rabbis Heard: Deafness in the Mishnah, Bonnie L. Gracer, "Disability Studies Quarterly", Spring 2003)

 

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato said that the state should “leave the unhealthy to die, and those whose psychological constitution is incurably corrupt it will put to death.”

 

There is no doubt that, even well into the twentieth century, Deafness – and the inability of hearing people to communicate with Deaf people – led to wrongful diagnoses of many Deaf people’s “psychological constitution”. If not put to death, they were often sentenced to a living death in a psychiatric institution.

 

It is only in the past 50 years that the growing recognition of Sign Languages as languages in their own right has enabled mainstream society to identify one of the root causes of mental health problems and misdiagnoses for Deaf people.

 

Sign Language and Deaf culture

Most people tend to think of Deafness as a disability. This view is often shared by those who become deaf through illness or injury. However, Deaf people who communicate through Sign Language see themselves as part of a distinct community, with a common language and cultural heritage.

 

Sign Language is not a universal language. Every country has its own Sign Language. The language of the Deaf community in the UK is British Sign Language (BSL), which was recognised by the Government as a language in its own right in 2003.

 

BSL is not a variation on spoken English, still less a degraded version of it.  Each Sign Language is a fully formed language in its own right. Deaf people have created poetry, drama, comedy and other forms of cultural expression in Sign Language.

 

For many, English - including written English - is at best a second language. Research has shown that, because of problems in education, the average Deaf school leaver has a reading age of only nine. So attempting to deal with complex mental health issues with Deaf people through writing is rarely the answer.