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Audism is a term typically used to describe discrimination against deaf or hard of hearing people, although it could also be expanded to include anyone with a difference in hearing ability. This discrimination can occur in a number of forms in a range that includes both physical, cultural, and linguistic variants. Further complicating the issue is the existence of intra-group discrimination, which can either mimic the pathways of inter-group discrimination or take entirely new forms. The term was popularly originated by author Tom Humphries in 1975[1]; at the time the definition focused on the attitude that people who hear and speak, or hear and speak better, or have excellent English skills, are superior to others. The definition has since expanded to include more variations.

Types of Audism[]

One common form of physical audism occurs when a given person with hearing loss is judged as incapable of a given behavior, occupation, skill, ability, or achievement due solely to that hearing loss, whether or not there is evidence of that incapability, and usually without the person who engages in such discrimination entertaining the possibility of change on the part of the victim. This form of audism is a reflection of a widely-held naturalistic belief by people who can hear in their own superiority. While it is technically correct to say that some forms of employment or activity utilize sound, alternatives can usually be found and are sometimes preferable to their auditory counterparts, as the prevalence of text messaging despite the existence of telephones would seem to demonstrate. While opponents of such discrimination argue that deaf people can do anything that hearing people can do except hear, they recognize that there are limitations for certain kinds of employment in which deafness could plausibly carry an increased safety risk such as service in the army or employment as a commercial pilot (although technology already exists and is used which depends on text for communication, and armies have used signs for communication and continue to do so til this day.) Aside from such examples, deaf people and their proponents are capable of excelling in a wide range of settings and deserve equal opportunity. This is true amongst political conservatives as well as progressives and liberals; noted conservative George Herbert Walker Bush, for example, was instrumental in the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which attempts to provide for the alterations which makes such employment possible. This form of audism can also include exclusion of Deaf people or the disparagement of their ideas. A famous historical example is a criticism of the socialist ideals of Helen Keller by the Brooklyn Eagle, which implied that her ideas were of less value and should be taken less seriously than those of someone who could hear. (Note that Keller did not identify as culturally Deaf.)

A less common form of audism, but one which is felt deeply by the American culturally Deaf community, is discrimination against those who use signed languages such as American Sign Language or British Sign Language. This can occur by banning use of these languages (several schools engaged in such prohibition in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and some continue to do so.) It can also occur by criticism and disparagement of the languages, or persistent denials that they are languages at all, despite ample scientific proof. From the eighteenth century, and some say before, great controversy has raged over the inclusion of such languages in education.

A third form of audism is practiced against the Deaf person as a cultural entity. This can occur, for example, by criticism of aspects of Deaf peoples' cultures or by criticism against the right of Deaf people to have a culture as a whole. More subtle examples include the exclusion of Deaf people from representation in history, or their minimization and erasure as primal or secondary causes in history, movements, and other important aspects of national identity. Since being deaf is essentially to have an invisible difference, this is sometimes inadvertent rather than intentional.

Yet another form of audism is scientific- or medically-based and propagates a set of stereotypes to an entire class of people. Similar forms of discrimination have been experienced by racial groups, for example, who often ascribe demeaning physical characteristics to each other, depending on who is in the majority. Popular examples include that of the forced sterilization of deaf and hard of hearing adults by the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930's and 1940's; similar eugenics-driven movements have been seen in other countries around the world.

Additionally, Deaf people can practice forms of discrimination against members of their own community, based on what they believe is "right" behavior, use of language, or social association. Dr. Genie Gertz explored examples of such audism in American society in her published dissertation.[2]

Bitterness associated with decades of discrimination (both passive and active) has in some cases resulted in some people who are Deaf or hard of hearing developing discriminatory feelings toward people who can hear, whereby those in the Deaf community no longer wish to associate with people who can hear, or, in a tiny minority, believe they are superior to those who can hear. Audism can also occur between groups of deaf people, with some who choose not to use a sign language and not to identify with Deaf culture considering themselves to be 'better' than those who do, or vice versa.

All these variations of audism, and many which have gone unmentioned, have their echoes in gender, racial, religious, cultural, social, and sexual discrimination.

Audism and Audists[]

Audism, in the examples above, can be practiced either actively or passively. Those who engage in audism are termed audists.[3] While those who actively engage in audism are few, the number of passive audists are many. A passive audist is an individual who has not given much thought to their actions concerning Deaf people, hearing people, or signed languages. Such a person, often, is only behaving in such a fashion because they are not informed of the differences between Deaf and hearing people. Such people are generally not malicious, and only act from ignorance. Their actions, however, can prevent the employment and education of deaf people despite their benign nature.

The active audist is one who, despite being informed, continues to engage in audist behavior. Their motivations often stem from audist perceptions; since they believe that it is better to, for example, use spoken rather than signed languages, they must maintain that belief. They occasionally deny that the Deaf Culture even exists. The writer Harlan Lane in his book "The Mask of Benevolence" quite aptly describes the goal of the active audist: "dominating, restructuring and exercising authority over the deaf community." Active audists are far fewer than passive, but they tend to be much more adamant in their views than a passive audist. They seek to pursue the goals stated by Lane in various ways; they maintain orally-focused education should be the main method of education of the Deaf; they work to limit the usage of American Sign Language within Deaf residential schools; they support laws that hinder the Deaf person's ability to freely interact with the world around them, the latter in very extreme cases. A famous historical example of an active audist is the scientist Alexander Graham Bell.

While passive audism can be contravened through knowledge and experience, active audism persists against knowledge and the shared experiences of deaf people.


As an ideology, audism has existed for many centuries no matter which definition is being used, although the more recent recognition of the Deaf community as a discrete language-using culture has afforded many more such examples. Audism is often seen either as a subset of racism or eugenics, and has been tied to cultural colonialism by Dr. Paddy Ladd. [4] Over time, however, audism has been seen as reflecting the attitudes cutlures maintain about Deaf people, and examples are thus seen as existing primarily within a medical paradigm, cultural paradigm, and edu/linguistic paradigm, and much of the discourse about audism focuses on these three areas. In recent decades, with the proliferation of easily accessible communication technology, the discourse has expanded to focus on any area which involves deaf or Deaf people. Harlan Lane to some extent examines the development of Deaf-based educational principles in his history of Franco-American Deaf relations and educational philosophy.[5]

Ethnic Conflicts[]

Much conflict exists around the concepts defined by the term audism, most often stemming from lack of clarity in use of the term - as in many other cultural or sociological debates. The term is sometimes used to describe typically xenophobic behaviors, for example. One of the earliest forms of audist ethnic conflict is found in the classics and in early Judeo-Christian writings. Plato, for example, mentions users of a signed language, but he and Aristotle were in near-perfect agreement: without the ability to speak, Deaf people could be little more than barbarians. Similarly, writers such as St. Augustine propounded the notion that deafness, much as white supremacist conceptions of the nature of black skin, was a hereditary "curse" from God. Such thinking probably lay behind most early laws preventing Deaf people from owning property; Deaf people were considered either unintelligent or cursed, despite evidence to the contrary. It also contributed to conditions persisting until the early 1400's providing for the Church to prevent Deaf people joining, on the grounds that their inability to speak was both earned and a sign that they could not be saved. Such ideas additionally also provided for acceptable use of and mistreatment of Deaf peoples throughout the Middle Ages. Startling parallels exist in Church and state views of Black people and Native Americans at the time (several prominent writers argued that such people had no souls. It is debatable whether the justification permits the treatement or whether the treatment required the justification.)

Such conceptions were not uniquely European. Many African cultures saw the deaf individual as cursed and were against the use of signed languages. Some insisted on the death of such individuals. (In contrast, many native American cultures integrated the use of signed languages with their societies, and others had specific roles for Deaf or disabled peoples within their society.)

Repeatedly, writers such as Ponce De Leon and Girolamo Cardano used personal experiences with Deaf individuals to demonstrate the injustice of such ideas. Throughout history those with personal experience with deaf individuals have fought against such systematic, ingrained misperceptions. It is to be noted, however, that industry exists which requires such misperceptions.

See also[]


  1. Capital D Magazine, Vol. 1, Iss. 1
  2. Dysconscious Audism: A Theoretical Proposal in Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking
  3. Nashville Deaf Expo Tennessee Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf 2006
  4. Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood 2008
  5. When The Mind Hears. Lane, 1980

External links[]

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