Rachel Kolb: I Hear You, I See What You Mean - Linguistic Precision and Implicit Ableism

Sometimes, I sit down to write emails to friends with a smirk. “Hello!” I write. “Great to hear from you!” Or, “I’m looking forward to hearing from you.” Or, “I can’t wait to hear about your trip.”

The irony here is that I cannot hear – at least not in the same way that typically hearing people do. I am deaf. I am a predominantly visual person. And, along with that, I think often of how thankful I feel to be born in this day and age, in which technology facilitates communication in ways that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. We have email! We have texting and other digital modes of communication. Although there is still much room for improvement, many spaces that were previously closed to people like me are closed no longer.

Even if the mediums we use for expressing our thoughts have changed, however, we must still work with the quirks of the English language to express them. English, like other languages, has peculiar ways of grounding abstract concepts in physical metaphors, which can often become spaces into which ableist phrases can creep. Ableism is a type of prejudice or discrimination against individuals who experience disability, largely popularized by disability rights movements. Ableism privileges the experiences of “able-bodied” individuals.

Do I get offended when a friend writes to me, “Good to hear from you,” or “sounds good”? No, I don’t, since I take this phraseology as idiomatic – and also because I have more pressing things to worry about. But I still wonder about its logic. I have “heard” nothing as a consequence of our written exchange, and neither has my fellow correspondent. In our emails, the concept of hearing has become emblematic of knowing, of connecting with other people, and of other ideas that are just as accessible for deaf people as they are for anyone else.

Here is another example of how odd our language can be. Say I sit down and have an engrossing conversation over lunch with a friend. In the moment before we part ways, I say, “It was great to see you today.” Hold on. Certainly I have spent the last hour taking in this person with my eyes – perhaps more than most people do, since I communicate by lipreading. But what I really mean to tell my friend has nothing to do with sight. What I really mean to say is, “It was great to be in your presence. It was great to converse and exchange ideas.” Getting at these more precise ideas, of course, could feel far more revealing, even vulnerable. But seeing my friend is beside the point – so why does our language fall back on “sight” to express these things?

Small, relatively harmless phrases like these function like heuristics, little linguistic shortcuts that we can take to express larger ideas. Getting around them can feel awkward, tedious, and less than idiomatic. But, during my time at Oxford, I have found that paying attention to the language I use forces me to confront larger cultural assumptions about ability and embodiment. As someone who is deaf and cares about the effects language and narrative can have on our understanding of the world, I have tried to consider and discuss these issues more, at Oxford and beyond.

Consider these more overtly ableist phrases: “turn a deaf ear to,” “blind rage,” “lame,” “crippled,” “dumb.” If an outsider were to measure the value our culture assigns to disability, based only on these words, wouldn’t the logical conclusion be that deafness, blindness, physical and intellectual disabilities, and so forth, are all markers of inferiority, rather than unique human experiences in and of themselves? Racial and homophobic slurs have become frowned upon, and many feminists have called attention to how the language we use constructs women as deviations from the male norm. But I still marvel at the degree to which ableist language persists. For example, when conducting a recent online search for the words “blind” and “deaf” in the New York Times archive, I found far more results referring to political blunders or acts of ineptitude than I did to actual deafness- or blindness-related issues.

The feminist academic community, as well-meaning as it may be, is far from immune to these tendencies. Recently, I went to a lecture at Oxford, given by a leading scholar in her field. During this otherwise excellent talk, which I accessed with an American Sign Language interpreter, this academic discussed the importance of intersectionality within feminist scholarship, but she failed to mention disability among the usual factors of race, class, gender, and sexuality. The phrase “blind faith”, whose ableist assumptions made me shift in my seat, also surfaced throughout the talk. I am sure that this academic did not think about her omission or the implicit attitudes beneath her word choice. But that’s the thing: too often, we take our language for granted. Even the most educated among us don’t always stop to consider the historical attitudes that continue to shape what we write or say every day.

Conversations with my Oxford peers, about a range of different social and political topics, have further convinced me of this: language matters. It matters, not because of being “politically correct” or paying lip service to identity politics, but for reasons of being as thoughtful as we can be. Being careful about language enables us to be more sensitive to others, and also to think more critically about what we are really trying to say. Many Oxford friends have told me that, through the different approaches to communication that our friendship requires, they have learned how to communicate more clearly, carefully, and effectively – not just with me, but with everyone. A world in which we all became more conscious of the words we use and the ideas they imply would truly be a more diverse, engaging, intersectional world, and we would all be better for it.

Rachel Kolb (New Mexico & St. John’s 2013) is currently completing the MSc in Higher Education at Oxford, researching experiences of inclusion and social integration among d/Deaf and hard of hearing students at American universities. Next year she will start the PhD in English at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, focusing on representations of disability in literature.