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The Mask of Benevolence — Disabling the Deaf Community, Harlan Lane: A Critical Review

Dale Mellor, March 2008.

A book written by a hearing person to point out to uninitiated hearing parents of Deaf children the various mistakes oralists (audists) make in administering Deaf children, presumably to try to persuade them to not allow their kids to have cochlear implants and to send them to Deaf schools. It is centred around Deaf American children of white English speaking parents, with references to the British and other overseas situations when they are convenient.

While the back cover text describes it as a “piercing look at the gulf that separates the Deaf minority from the hearing world, this passionate classic...,” the book in fact very gently ebbs and flows between the two worlds, illuminating in fact the subtlety of the differences and effectively spanning the void between the worlds; a hearing reader might well consider it passionate, but I don’t, and I doubt a Deaf reader would either.

The book in fact meanders quite a lot. It is organized into seven parts covering different aspects of audist interference in Deaf lives, but within each part the text, despite being partitioned into chapters, forms a continuous monologue generally skipping between hearing, Deaf, medical and administrative points of view, though as the book progresses the discourse errs down a gentle gradient towards a Deaf perspective bias.

The first part of the book explores the medical versus social models of deafness, or infirmity versus cultural models as Harlan is apt to call them. It starts out unpromising with a graphic description of the cochlear implant procedure. I think all non-medical lay-people will find the description of a surgical procedure uncomfortable, and will likely regard this as I did as a cheap trick to shock. Fortunately, Harlan does not labour the point and quickly gets down to business.

The book goes on to argue the case that hearing people try to understand Deaf by an extrapolation of their experience in the hearing world, but this extrapolation simply does not take them into a land where sound is simply non-existent. He then introduces the cultural point of view by pointing out that ASL is as expressive and as efficient a means of communication as spoken English is, hence is a fully valid language (Harlan is a linguist by profession), and then makes the case that it is the language which defines the community and binds Deaf people together. Then, in the typically meandering fashion Harlan brings the discussion back to the medical world and explains how hearing professionals cope with deaf people first by quantifying their condition and then proceeding to take ‘remedial’ action without ever consulting the Deaf community itself.

The book flows along very nicely, being easy to read and constantly rejuvenating, but in doing so comes across somewhat as a deluge of ideas and thoughts.

There are some very sharp insights: Pointing out that in the 19th century Deaf were left to live in their own community, Harlan explains that, “There were no audiologists, or rehabilitation counselors, or school psychologists.” Being myself a graduate of the hard sciences, I find my own irritations about ‘soft’ scientists, and in particular under-qualified people calling themselves experts in a ‘soft’ field, particularly agitated.

The second part, still under the general banner of Representations of Deaf People, starts off with some wonderful first-hand insight that Harlan provides from his excursions to Burundi. He explains how Belgian colonialism has many parallels with the hearing suppression of the Deaf world, and also explains how native Burundians consider Deaf people to be inherently stupid. He then explores deeper the quantification of the Deaf condition by way of psychometric testing of infants to determine the course of their academic careers. This I find rather removed, as it seems to be a trait of the American system (sometimes I feel glad to be English!) Harlan points out that psychometric tests applied to hearing people are not appropriate to Deaf people in the first place, and that the results need to be considered with the fact that the child is Deaf, and not daft, in the first place. I was particularly alarmed by the former school psychologist who said that when he retired he realized just how much power he had had over peoples’ lives. I expect there are one or two such people in Britain, but for the most part we seem to have a more compassionate system, allowing more parental preference and providing more mixed-ability education establishments.

In fact, being British hard of hearing I find myself often feeling a million miles from what this book is about (Deaf Americans), but I know from personal experience that a lot of it is relevant to my situation; audists have treated us just as badly as the congenitally Deaf. But I think many people who might benefit from reading this will be put off by the apparent distance and not make the connection with the life their own child has ahead of them.

The third part is the last part of the book which addresses itself to the representation of Deaf people and deals primarily with the relationships between hearing and deaf in professional situations, pointing out that the Deaf person is almost always in the dependent position. He explains how, despite all perceived good intentions bestowed by hearing people, they are delivered in such a way as to maintain the elite position, mostly to keep themselves in work, this being ‘The Mask of Benevolence’.

Part four specifically explores the issues around ASL, in particular the way it has been heavily suppressed. Parallels (and contrasts) are drawn with other minority languages spoken in Northern America, such as Spanish, and the conclusion is that all kids do better when they are taught primarily in their mother-tongue, or natural language, at least in the early stages.

Harlan goes to some lengths to point out that ASL is better than English for expressing thoughts, and so in general conversation is just as good as English. But I think that the argument could be made much more direct and succinctly than he manages (I think he is weighed somewhat by his own expertise here). The fact is that any language is defined by its usage. By definition then, it will be as expressive as needed to convey the thoughts and emotions of those who use it, and will be capable of conveying as much sophistication as the users can muster. On the contrary, Harlan’s own arguments about sign language being much more spatial and therefore more natural for the expression of the majority of thought processes can be easily countered with the obvious fact that the voice is able to impart stress and tonality into words just as effectively as ASL can impart stress into the dynamics of sign. Thus I find Harlan’s case here unconvincing. It is, in fact, a very shallow observation that sign language is a spatial one, compared to spoken English’s aural expression.

Part five addresses itself to the mainstreaming of Deaf children in education, pointing out both the ridiculousness of Deaf children being taught by teachers without special training, even unable to use signed languages, and Harlan also explores the implications and consequences of isolating Deaf children from their peers.

Again, I find the gap between British and American mindsets often swells in this deep consideration of the American system, and sometimes find myself simply dumbstruck by such culturally self-important remarks as, “Many Americans can recall their initial shock when they realized fully for the first time that other people were conducting their lives in an entirely different language.”

Part six picks up where part five leaves off, having argued against isolated education in hearing schools, arguing now the case for bilingual education, again with reference to Hispanic and other language minorities. He then gives a personal account of the uprisings at Gallaudet University which he witnessed first-hand, and which led to the first instatement of a Deaf president. He follows this up by noting that the real message of the protests was missed by government, who subsequently passed laws in effect giving greater recognition of Deaf people as invalids.

While for most of the discourse Harlan argues that Deaf children be taught entirely in a Deaf environment, there is a short section where he argues almost contrarily that Deaf children should be taught by hearing teachers trained to sign, and that there is a role for Deaf parents in this environment where they can interact with the teacher, and with hearing parents of Deaf children, to the mutual benefit of everyone. This fits very solidly with my own ideas that Deaf children should be taught in specialist Deaf education centres which are immersed in a hearing school. This way, Deaf children can have the benefit of a mainstream education if it suits them, but they are not isolated from each other and have all the support of Deaf teachers, peers and mentors to help redress the disadvantages they have over hearing children.

By this point the book has turned from its initial gently meandering, caressing tones to something more akin to a rant. It still doesn’t have the ragged edge that a Deaf person would have written, but it no longer argues the case against audism’s abuse of Deaf on a level surface, rather, tending to put only the Deaf view.

Finally, part seven addresses cochlear implants in infants. Harlan frames this as “Oralism’s Ultimate Recourse,” and starts by drawing all the conclusions of the book so far together into an argument that hearing professionals have never assessed the Deaf situation fairly, and continue not to do so in prescribing cochlear implants to children. He then provides some case studies, but one rather gets the impression that he is being selective in the statistics he draws from the scientific literature, choosing those which favour the arguments against implantation.

This being the second edition of the book, the last chapter of the last part is a new addition bolted on to the end of the work intended to bring the study up to date (the original is dated 1992, the second edition 1999). This is an adaptation of an academic paper, but it is not adapted to the extent that it feels properly like a part of the book; the language is less fluid and the argumentative tone will be less appealing to Harlan’s skeptics. Harlan acknowledges the contribution of others, explaining why a different voice is heard—one that is more convoluted with choice words than the main text and less discussive in the friendly way that is the book’s hallmark. I find this a little disappointing, if not cheap; Harlan could have made some effort to improve the parsimony of the new chapter with the rest of the book, and I think would have benefitted from recovering the more conciliatory tone that the book starts out with.

The final argument is that CI use will deplete Deaf culture. I doubt this will really wear with hearing readers.

About 15% of the book is composed as notes and cross-references shoved to the back, linked to the text by occasional anonymous asterisks and ‘significant words’. This does have the effect of providing a fluid narrative while at the same time providing backup for readers skeptical of questionable points, but I doubt very many people will take the trouble to flip back and forth between the main text and the notes to take it all in. I didn’t.

While he has fairly balanced and well argued views about the education of Deaf children, the arguments about ASL as a language betray the author’s specialism in the subject being very specific and not really hitting the general point; the arguments about cochlear implants are distinctly more partial, and do leave the impression that only the convenient evidence is being presented; sometimes the arguments are shallow enough to appear as those of a lay person.

In the final analysis, I would say that the initial shock of graphically-described surgery, followed by the gentle to-and-fro exposition of the arguments between Deaf and hearing people, gradually becoming a pro-Deaf rant terminating in some hard academic statistics to nail the case makes the whole book a well-engineered design, and I can’t imagine a stronger incitement for a hearing person to acquire Deaf empathy.

I would have liked it if the book had a slightly wider appeal by pointing out how the issues also relate to hard of hearing people, but Harlan makes a conscious decision to concentrate on the Deaf situation, and I feel compelled to respect that.

In fact, despite being fully hearing Harlan is never inaccurate in any of his assertions about the Deaf situation, and this in itself will endear him to them. It is just that he doesn’t convey those assertions with the conviction that someone who has lived the Deaf way all their life are apt to do. He argues the case softly and progressively. Thus I consider this a book written strictly for hearing people. That having been said, any Deaf person will recognize this instantly, and thus it is useful for Deaf to read as, perversely, it gives them insight into thoughts from the hearing world, and in particular the source of so much difficulty, without imparting the total revulsion which Deaf people often feel at the ill-conceived ideas of most hearing people. It is indeed a very delicate balancing act which Harlan manages to successfully pull off.


Copyright © Dale Mellor 2008

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