On 11 April 2019 I gave a lecture at the Groningen Centre for Health and Humanities, presenting my new research project, which I started developing as Visiting Research Fellow at Institute for the Study of Culture (ICOG).
Dealing with Deafness: Health and Disability in Enlightenment Europe
One of today’s urgent questions is how to build inclusive societies in which people with disabilities can equally participate. We see this in recent debates on inclusive education; the ratification of Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and activists campaigning for the recognition of Dutch Sign Language as an official language. Scholars of deaf and disability studies have established society’s long-term audism: the indiscriminate but oppressive supposition of hearing norms and values (hearing should be the norm). This is what deaf people encounter on a daily basis. Since the 19th-century, modern medicine has been exemplifying this normalising intent. Audiologists seek to develop new technology to help those struggling with hearing loss, for example the cochlear implant.
However, scholars who view disability as a social construct have argued that profoundly deaf people require no audiological diagnoses. Instead they benefit from sign-inclusive education and equal access to services and businesses. Research, they claim, should focus on the deaf as a cultural minority, not medically as a group with disabilities. How can we overcome this binary?
In my new research project Deafness in Transition I aim to contribute to solving this problem with the help of history. Like no other discipline, history can re-contextualise a problem by providing a long-term perspective on the issue. It can show how perceptions of a disability like deafness have changed – sometimes dramatically – throughout the centuries. For example: in medieval times, those who were deaf could be seen as having been punished by God, struck by an unfortunate fate. This often left deaf people isolated from society. But from the 17th century onwards, deafness started to be studied in the context of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Physicians and instructors developed forms of sign language, speech therapies, hearing aids, and founded the first schools for the deaf. Thanks to all this work, also the perception of those with a hearing difference radically changed. By showing these historical developments, I think it will help us reflect and reconsider the way we look at deafness today.