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Responding to Deafness

deaf-500x152A colleague came to me yesterday with a question about a student paper on hearing loss. Should the student, he wanted to know, have capitalized the word deaf?

Simply by writing the word as lowercase, above, I have apparently made a political choice. We have reached agreement, albeit with complications, on the upper- or lowercasing of purely ideological or political terms. AP Style, for instance, supplies helpful sentences like ”The conservative Republican senator and his Conservative Party colleague said they believe democracy and socialism are incompatible” and ”The Communist said he is basically a socialist who has reservations about Marxism.” But neither these examples nor terms like Asian-American or Jewish, which derive from labels long considered proper, address the question of capitalization for deaf.

Neither, it occurred to me as I started delving deeper, do we have clear markers for other terms that both describe a person’s innate identity and describe their membership (conscious or not) in a group promoting or defending that identity. Some college offices, like Pennsylvania State University’s Commission on Racial/Ethnic Diversity, provide guidelines that follow advocacy groups’ recommendations for the terms black and native when referring to African-Americans or American Indians, which are to capitalize them. (I am lowercasing everything here, simply to create an even playing field for words as words.) But Merrill Perlman at the Columbia Journalism Review observed trenchantly, following the Charleston massacre last June, that while black is often capitalized and white is generally capitalized only in white-supremacy screeds, “’Black’ and ‘white’ are equally broad descriptions of skin color, not ethnicity or origin.” So the jury remains out on color capitalization, except to say that customs have changed over time; a 1910 style guide recommends, under Race Designations, “Capitalize ‘Creole,’ referring to French and Spanish Creoles in Louisiana. Lowercase colored (applied to African race), gipsy, mulatto, negro, quadroon, etc.”

I could find no instances where a style guide recommended capitalizing the terms blind or mute. According to the Seattle Lighthouse, “Deaf-Blind refers to a to a cultural identity. … An obvious example of a specifically Deaf-Blind cultural element is the use of American Sign Language (ASL) as a shared form of communication. … On the other hand, when we refer to the medical condition of not being able to see or to hear we write ‘blind’ or ‘deaf.’” This outlook accords with the guidelines issued by the National Council on Disability and Journalism, which suggests, “Lowercase when referring to a hearing-loss condition or to a deaf person who prefers lowercase. Capitalize for those who identify as members of the Deaf community or when they capitalize Deaf when describing themselves.” But the Deaf Counseling Center, with affiliates across the country, begs to differ:

Far from viewing “Deaf” as a way of excluding people, we see the term as an inclusive one. To us, “Deaf” refers to any people who happen to be Deaf. It has nothing to do with having Deaf or hearing parents, or using ASL, SEE, spoken English, cued speech, or any other communication modality. Neither does it matter if one was mainstreamed, educated at a Deaf school, or homeschooled. Degree of hearing loss, being Deaf from birth or being late-Deafened, using a hearing aid or a cochlear implant — none of these, in our minds, precludes anyone from being Deaf.

Now, their reasoning is faulty. They compare the term deaf with Jewish, African, Hispanic, and Caucasian, all of which derive from proper names; they steer away from comparisons with black, white, or socialist. But that point strikes me as irrelevant to the debate at hand, which is whether students should be encouraged to capitalize “self-defined references for specific groups,” as Penn State’s office puts it, in order to convey respect—or whether such capitalization implies advocacy and is inappropriate in an analytical paper. The Chicago Manual of Style leaves the question open as to Deaf/deaf. (It does not even tackle the issue of Black/black or White/white.)

So weigh in, Lingua Francophiles. Where do you come down on uppercase?

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