It is a sophomoric question, but I will ask it anyway. Is it better to be blind, deaf, or crippled? Of course, the answer is it is better not to have any of these disabilities.
Crippled means that you will have ambulatory limitations. However, if you have lost a leg there are prosthetic legs that can allow you to walk and even to run. Or wheelchairs can restore a degree of mobility. Blindness is also an ambulatory disability. You are to an extent limited in your mobility. You are not likely to own or drive a car, but even this is being made obsolete by modern technologies that are demonstrating self-driving cars. If you are blind you may not become an artist, but even that is marginal.
In a sense deafness is the hidden disability. Unless a neighbor stops to talk with you, you appear as just another person in the neighborhood. You drive a car, you play catch baseball with friends, and you dance with your girl friend on the patio after eating the steak cooked on the outdoor barbecue set. For all practical purposes you do not appear any different than the average neighbor.
But you are! You did not learn the English language from your mother’s knee. Whether you use American Sign Language or speech read, your language is visual. It requires an ample light source. As a deaf person you cannot easily multitask, that is, carry on a conversation while washing your car because you must see and concentrate on the speaker. Visual-based communication has different parameters than auditory-based language. As a deaf communicator, there must be enough light and you must concentrate on the speaker.
As a hearing person I can multitask. I can talk and listen to you while I paint your portrait. As a hearing person I can carry on a conversation with you while I brush my shoes or I can listen to the radio in the dark. Since sounds surround me globally I can carry on a conversation in many different environments. If I am deaf I must have light and I must look at the sender I am communicating with whatever system I use ASL, finger spelling or speech reading. Even captioned TV requires my full attention whereas a hearing person can multitask and still get the meaning of what is on TV. I can iron my shirt and follow the latest news on TV.
Deaf people, blind people, deaf blind people and orthopedically disabled people all can and do achieve remarkable things in life. Deafness is a linguistic disability that may limit some deaf people in deep engagements within the larger communities.
While deafness has some spoken language limitations many deaf people excel in written language and artistic visual communication skills. Deaf people can and do dance to the beat of good music. There is a deaf woman who is an accomplished drummer. Yes! You read it right! She is a percussionist who happens to be deaf. Her name is Stephanie Ellison. She plays drum sets professionally .
Some young deaf people are active members of Facebook. I see an improvement in the heavy user’s language skills. The impact of Facebook on deaf language users is an interesting question. When deaf people first used captioned telephones we had a similar issue. I asked the question, Would teenaged deaf captioned phone users increase their language skills? We never conducted a formal research study on this issue, but intuitively I feel it did.
Dr. Malcolm Norwood did his doctoral study on receptive communications and found his subjects understood captioned films with a higher degree of accuracy than either ASL or speech reading.
Disabled people have made significant contributions to society. From Thomas Edison to Stephen Hawking to Helen Keller, to Ray Charles, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to my father Frank B. Withrow Sr. who had only one leg, to my deaf brother Thomas, and to my deaf blind great nephew Orion — each has made this a better world.
“As I walked down life’s pathway I complained because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet. We walked awhile together and I was better for having shared our lives together.”