Thursday, November 02, 2006

Differences or Defects?

Recently Gallaudet University, a distinguished college for the deaf in Maryland, revoked the contract of its prospective president partly because she learned American Sign Language in adulthood instead of early childhood. Many leaders in the deaf community regard deafness as a unifying characteristic of a subculture, rather than a disability. If I understand their position correctly, as a matter of ideological principle they object to the privileging of lip reading over sign language and the automatic assumption that all deaf children should, if possible, undergo surgery to enable them to hear. (I'm not sure whether this principle applies only to people born deaf or also those who lose their hearing at an early age.)

I'm reminded of H. G. Wells' classic story "The Country of the Blind," a riff on the proverb, "In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Just the opposite proves true for the sighted protagonist from the outside world stranded in an isolated community of people whose eyes atrophied generations ago. Since they are active at night, when it's cool, and sleep in the heat of the day, the hero loses whatever advantage his sight would have given him. Instead, the blind people think he is deranged when he talks about "seeing." They decide the strange lumps ("eyes") under his brows cause delusions by pressure on his brain. In this environment sight, not blindness, is a disability.

The Gallaudet case, like Wells' story, highlights the problem of distinguishing between a disability and a value-neutral difference. Left-handedness used to be viewed as a defect; left-handed children were retrained in school to use their right hands. If dogs had human intelligence, they would consider us profoundly disabled because our noses are so feeble compared to theirs. If dolphins could talk, they might express pity for our near-deafness in being unable to hear ultrasonics.

Suppose a race of aliens settled on Earth, beings similar to our species but communicating through telepathy? They would consider us defective or disabled for our lack of telepathy. If a device or surgical procedure existed to make human beings telepathic, people who rejected this gift might be regarded as foolish and pitiable. Yet some people might refuse telepathy on principle as undermining their uniquely human culture.

More immediately plausible, what will happen when advanced genetic engineering becomes commonplace? As many SF authors have speculated, those who choose not to have themselves or their offspring "improved" might be treated as inferior, even subjected to social and financial penalties (e.g., inability to buy health insurance). A recent story in the MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION envisions a future when an immortality drug is readily available. Those who refuse the treatment are viewed as outcasts. Furthermore, if they choose to bear children (the immortality drug causes sterility), they become criminals, because of course a world of immortals has no space for additional people, and therefore reproducing is illegal.

Normality, difference, disability—where do we draw the distinctions?

1 comment:

  1. Margaret,

    You always seem to find the most interesting books to read! And programs to watch on TV, of course.

    I'm a slow reader, and am still pushing slowly through my research pile about swordsmen.

    I always enjoy your thoughtful posts, though I don't always say so.

    Best wishes,
    Rowena Cherry