♦ Greek Mental Health and Deafness Day Conference
European Society for Mental Health and Deafness,
School of Polytechnics, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki,

Everyday, when we get up, we see a fairly common sight that we call the rising of the sun. We also take for granted, from experience, that the sun will reach its peak at noon and set in the evening. And yet, it has been four centuries, since Copernicus, that we know things are not so. That the sun neither rises nor sets, and that it is the earth that revolves around the sun and not the other way around. Galileo, the first to provide a proof for Copernicus’ theory, paid a heavy price for expressing his convictions. And we also know, as Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers have shown, why the Catholic church reacted so strongly to this theory, seen at the time as absolutely scandalous… Indeed, we know that heliocentrism ran contrary to the holy Scriptures because it undermined prevalent social and mental representations, according to which God was the center of the universe, the King was a monarch by Divine Right, and therefore the center of society, and that monarchy was not only the natural, but the only conceivable system.

In our day, the revolving of the earth around the sun is part of elementary scientific knowledge; democratic regimes have gradually replaced monarchies; and social systems carry no connotations of what is deemed natural or innate. We all know this, and yet, with the assurance of those who know what they’re talking about, on the eve of the year 2000, we still say that the sun rises, crosses the sky, and sets.

Perhaps you are all wondering what these preliminary remarks have to do with the subject at hand… Well, in response to that, I would ask you to consider the example of parents who have just been told by a doctor that their child is deaf, and that he or she will probably be so for the rest of his or her life. The parents are of course deeply hurt and disillusioned. Sooner or later, they will encounter a crowd of well-intentioned professionals, who will give them some hope, who will say that, thanks to special speech education and appropriate care, to hearing aids or implants, their child will be able to live more or less as fulfilled a life as other children, and later, as other hearing adult contemporaries; that he or she will lead a life where the effects of deafness will have been erased. Indeed, what could be more natural, more obvious, more comforting than such an affirmation coming from a sensitive, compassionate human being ? And yet… All you have to do is look back at the last two centuries, and the observation everywhere would be the same. The history of Deaf people teaches us that in the name of the grand ideal of so-called integration, the worst, most obscurantist policies have been enacted, the worst suffering inflicted on Deaf children and adults, the greatest gaps created between Deaf and hearing people, and all this not only to the detriment of Deaf people, but of hearing people as well.

So, are oral education and medical care mere illusions ? Of course not, and I say so without hesitation : the teaching of an oral language, and medical efforts to mitigate the curable causes of deafness are perfectly honorable. But if one takes care to analyze all the results of these practices and these medical and educational ideologies, the picture that emerges is a very different one. The shortest path, the one that goes straight to the initially very desirable goal of giving Deaf people access to speech and reducing their deafness, ignores large chunks of the issue. For instance, how do Deaf people confront their situation ? What are their demands ? What do they see as the social change that would allow them to improve their well-being ? The appearance of new social practices, such as those promoted by the ESMHD since 1986, show that deafness is not only the mark of a lack, not just an issue of pure negativity, but that, on the contrary, deafness uncovers the extraordinary potential of resources that human beings have at their disposal to communicate with each other, to create a veritable life for themselves, and to confront, through their culture, the insoluble questions of life, love and death. Deaf people Sign language and culture show us an order of existence that seems very different from what our good sense might ‘naturally’ suppose, in seeing Deaf people as disabled people who need to be ‘repaired’ in some way. Allow me, then, to present a few ideas that might guide our discussions today and that are important to the members of the European Society for Mental Health and Deafness.

1) Deafness is a Relationship

We can understand nothing about deafness if we only see it as the physical defect of an individual, although it is this of course, undeniably. But deafness also has an unavoidable impact on human exchange. As soon as there is deafness, there is a relationship, and there is sharing, because the hearing individual is just as handicapped in the relationship as the deaf individual. And if we admit that there is sharing, this means that deafness is not only, no longer only, a problem for Deaf people. Whether we the hearing like it or not, each time we approach deafness, whether in a simple conversation with a deaf person, or in the positions we adopt with regard to the Deaf community or Sign language, we cannot reduce the problem to being merely a problem of and for Deaf people, since it is also a problem for hearing people. The European Society for Mental Health and Deafness is a group of mental health professionals who believe it is their duty to go towards Deaf people because they have the right like all human beings to be cared for in the language of their choice and to have their cultural choices respected.

2) Recognizing difference is often a long, painful process and not an immediate given.

For a hearing person, meeting a deaf person can often be a painful, even intolerable experience. The efforts he or she has to make in understanding the gestures of the deaf person and to be understood in return, quickly give rise to a feeling of strangeness and fear in his or her mind. This in turn, leads Deaf people to protect themselves the only way they know how at that particular moment : by fleeing the encounter. There are also other ingredients that come into play : the surprise effect of the encounter, misconceptions regarding the implications of deafness, and therefore a lack of preparedness to deal with the event. Indeed, the fear is even stronger when the hearing person finds it impossible to extricate him or herself from this relationship. Such fear reaches its peak in parents who are told that their child is deaf. While the relationship of intimacy between parents and children requires the greatest closeness and abandon between them, parents of deaf children often distance what they see as intolerable in their child and, thus, reject the reality of their child’s life-experiences in an effort to protect themselves.

This reaction of fear is the manifestation of an intense emotional reaction to what is seen as frighteningly strange. It is born out of a confrontation with human forms that are out of the ordinary. Our confrontation with diversity and difference always causes anxiety as long as there is no fluid link between the unknown and the familiar, and as long as we feel the need, to protect ourselves, to deny our own part of strangeness, abnormality or madness.

Fear is therefore the emotion against which the only defense is the most radical form of denial, in a way of saying : no, what I see does not exist and does not have the right to exist. This denial of reality is that much more marked where social and human environments make little room for the acknowledgement of difference. When in 1880, at the Congress of Milan, the hearing pedagogues and ministers presented united their voices in banning sign language from education, in expelling Deaf teachers and imposing oral speech, they plunged Deaf people into a state of misery that lasted almost a whole century (as you might be aware, in France this measure was lifted only in 1976). When in 1883, in the United States of America, Graham Bell, from a Eugenics point of view, proposed to the National Academy of Sciences, that Sign language be banned, that schools for Deaf people be eliminated, that associations for Deaf people be closed, that basically, Deaf people be prevented from forming a variety of the human race, he was laying the ideological foundations for a policy that found its apogee in Hitler’s regime and the extermination of Deaf people in his camps.

3) In the social arena, the key to the acknowledgement of deafness is accessibility; in other words, to transform hearing society.

In 1999, the time is no longer one for the massive condemnation and practical negation of Sign language, in all good conscience, as an obvious manifestation of an ideology of progress. It is now recognized in a number of countries in Europe that parents have the right to choose between an oral-language education or a bilingual education, involving oral and sign language. But has the situation changed fundamentally?

Our duty as citizens is to enable access for Deaf people to all those places from where they are excluded. It is to do everything possible to set up bridges and exchanges between Deaf and hearing people. This requires amending laws, adapting public services, and setting up an environment where the collective presence of Deaf people would be so common that it would be obvious and part of everyday life. It would require that we acknowledge the immense advantage offered by Sign language interpreters to both Deaf and hearing people, in enabling access to public places, teaching institutions, audiovisual environments, health care centers, etc. There would no longer be cause to fear contacts among Deaf people, in classrooms, places of leisure or in the workplace; there would be no need to see a danger in their getting married, or getting an education, and not in isolated environments but in classes annexed to schools for hearing people. Indeed, we would have to acknowledge at last, that this collective dimension of Deaf people social life is crucial to their integration into the society of hearing people, and not a factor of their so-called isolation in ‘ghettos’. It would also mean that we recognize the indispensability of visual, gesture-based communication for Deaf people; that Sign Language, which they should feel free not to learn, can help them in innumerable ways and create greater well-being in their social relationships. Finally, it would mean recognizing all Sign languages in the world as inalienable parts of human heritage, languages that hearing people would also benefit from learning, not just to satisfy their desire for philanthropy, but to enhance their knowledge and pleasure.

4) The access of Deaf people to health-care requires a profound change in how hearing and Deaf people relate to each other.

If the experience of deafness creates a reaction of fear in the hearing person, this fear should be acknowledged, analyzed and understood in order to be transcended, so that we can all move toward positive action. One of today’s objectives is to show you that confronting deafness is not limited to an encounter with horror, and that there is a level beyond anxiety. Deaf people have often criticized hearing people for their catastrophic vision of deafness; they have emphasized that deafness is also a life-style, a way of being in the world, a language, with its humor, its verve and its slang. Perhaps we are not very far from a time where Sign language will be taught not only to Deaf people, not only to future hearing professionals who will come in aid to Deaf people, but also to hearing children, for the sheer beauty of the language, for its intellectual and social benefits, and because it belongs to our universal cultural heritage.

Deaf people’s health, as will be demonstrated throughout today, is an issue of public health which concerns hundreds of thousands of people in Europe. We have had to wait for the 1960’s for it to be recognized and criticized that in Europe, psychiatric care provided to Deaf people was totally inappropriate. Studies made at the time showed that hospitalization periods for Deaf patients were far longer than for hearing ones. The hearing health care staff interviewed often admitted to being troubled by their inability to enter into any real communication with Deaf patients and to understand their disorders. Out of these studies came the first experiments, the first projects for providing specific care, led by pioneers with a profound knowledge of Deaf people’s life and who worked in conjunction with them. In fact, the situation of Deaf patients is not fundamentally different from that of poorly understood psychiatric patients, abandoned in asylums and maltreated just because they are different.

This is why we believe that the accessibility of psychiatric care centers for Deaf users requires adequate training of hearing professionals as well as the hiring of Deaf professionals. But again, the working collaboration between hearing and Deaf professionals within a single health care team is not easy. Its application always involves conflicts that generate anxiety and guilt. And if this is the case, it means the difficulty in finding a common language goes well beyond the learning of oral or Sign language. To get along, to hear each other, in the deepest sense of the term, presupposes an adhesion to common goals and values. It presupposes an agreement in non-verbal communication that goes beyond mere linguistic performances. Indeed, a frequent criticism made by Deaf people against hearing people who learn Sign language is that the second ones move their arms and hands clumsily, without volume or flexibility, betraying an inhibition with regard to movement and gesture, that through lack of habit or cultural tradition or embarrassment, they restrain their gestures. Similarly, their faces remain immobile and inexpressive, whereas in Sign language, facial expression is an essential component of the language, without which no message can be correctly understood by a Deaf person. Therefore Deaf people frequently encourage hearing students to mobilize their facial muscles, to give volume and assurance to their gestures, to remove the inhibition that limits their ability to express. In other words, Deaf people call upon us to change the way we involve our bodies in the way we relate to the world. For a physician, for whom the healing process necessitates a symbiotic relationship with the patient, this encouragement to free up one’s own powers of gesture is tremendously helpful in creating greater psychological intimacy.

We professionals, whether hearing or Deaf, have therefore to learn to admit the uncertainties of our own identities, to let our anxieties express themselves, not so that they paralyze us, but so that they open up new areas of discovery. From a disturbing obstacle, this kind of phobia of Deaf people, and more generally, a fear of strangeness, can become a powerful tool in ensuring communication. Collaborative work between Deaf and hearing people is thus a great opportunity, because it can help us clear up misunderstandings and clarify our ideas. It can also provide us with the opportunity of meeting that ‘strange’ other, who, we find, is no less human than us and that we sometimes, in the best of cases, discover in ourselves.

Today, one world order is being replaced by another, and new practices are seeing the light of day. The old curtain of certainty has been lifted and even though we see the same phenomenon of the rising and setting of the sun, we know it has nothing to do with the explanations of the past. We also know that the way toward social integration and well-being for Deaf people involves new explanations and practices, and that we must struggle to see these implemented. We are pleased today that mental health professionals from the rest of Europe are meeting with their colleagues in Greece, and that they are joining forces with the dynamic forces within the Deaf community in Greece to work together and build a better future for us all.