Disability of the Senses: Should Science Intervene?

Sometimes it so happens that a quiet afternoon chilling session ends on a thought-provoking note. So was the case with me. After a long day at college all I wanted was a cold can of flavored milk and a romantic flick to sweep me off my feet. The synopsis window read “Sweet Nothing in My Ear”. Perfect! But soon, what I thought would be a mushy romance turned out to be serious drama revolving around disability.

The perfect life of a married couple is upset when their only son begins to lose his hearing at the age of four. Initially the couple reconciles to the tragedy and accepts the change as the wife herself is deaf. But problems arise when the husband and distraught father wants to explore the possibility of improvement in his son’s hearing by means of hearing implants. This leads to an emotional rift between the husband and wife rooted in the wife’s fear that by attempting to cure the son, her husband is unwilling to accept him as he is. She also translates this attitude of her husband into him rejecting her. With the entry of the wife’s deaf parents, the plot thickens into a broth of deaf pride and deaf rights. The wife’s father who is a deaf pride advocate asserts that he does not consider deafness a disability and looks at deaf people as a form of minority who have the full right to live as equals without being subjected to any efforts to alter them. In true minority pride style, he declares that deaf people do not aspire to be like their hearing-enabled contemporaries and they should be left alone to blossom in their natural state.

At this point, my sleepy brain records some activity and puts my grey matter to work. Is it fair to treat a disability like a minority issue? Is comparing disability with something like racism justified? Disability is something which is present congenitally or induced due to accident or circumstances in a person. By this definition, a hearing disability should be treated at par with one occurring due to an amputation. But why is that while we may be all for prosthetics to counterbalance amputation we look at treating disabilities of the sense (hearing, vision etc) as intangible and like a tag attached to the distinctiveness of a person?

Trying to offset a disability of the senses cannot be seen in the same light as trying to be accepted into the category of the “superior” races by altering natural features. People should not be discriminated against on the basis of what they were born like but clubbing disability in the same league as racism is ignorant. The latter is a colonial legacy which leads to unfair discrimination and segregation between creatures of the same species that are the same under the skin; whereas disability often begins under the skin. A hearing disabled person is no doubt as equal as his hearing enabled peer but it cannot be denied as a fact that he lacks in one of the most important senses – the sense of hearing. Treating him like a minority and pretending that he is at par with his hearing-enabled counterparts at all levels is like jeopardising his own existence. They require assistance to tide through the simple tasks that comprise the day, to help them cross the road safely, to live secured in their own homes without the basic aid of hearing as a burglar alert mechanism etc. Imagine a day where one’s ears are plugged by a vacuum sheath cutting out the world of sound. The travails and trials one would have to face will be enormous. If everything were to be left the natural way, there would be no attempts to separate conjoint twins or correct cleft palates.

Disability is not a disgrace. The disabled are unique. Other than the disability, they could be perfectly normal. And here is where science steps in. A little help from science, if it could bring a ray of hope to their lives may be all they need to lead a more independent life. Denying them scientific implements which would help them make their lives simpler is denying them the luxury of science in their lives. That is what I call discrimination. Giving a deaf person an implant to help him hear is as normal as giving a short-sighted person glasses to correct blurred vision. Science at what it does best – making our lives simpler.

Giving the deaf the notion of ‘deaf pride’ and attaching to them a minority status, like portrayed in the movie, will only keep them in the dark about technologies which hold the key to give them back or induce in them the sensual ability that they do not possess. It is true that it is not necessary to have power over every facility to be able to enjoy life and make it meaningful. But the abilities mentioned here are the very basic ones which God furnishes upon us as bequests.

It does not make anyone any less to be differently-abled. But denying someone medical help and aids to correct a disability is unreasonable. Being able to correct or even partially lessen the severity of a sensual disability makes the person in question enabled to handle situations that the disability may be impeding them from. It makes the person more confident in himself/herself and mitigates the trauma of seeking help from guardians. AND it is sure to bring smiles to the lips of well-wishers who would like nothing better that to see the person independent. It is just as natural as a reproductively challenged couple seeking IVF for the bliss of a baby. It should not be viewed as a devious design to strip people of their uniqueness. The event of absence of medical science to correct a disability or a person’s body’s unresponsiveness to it is regrettable. But it cannot be equated with a situation where medical science is just overlooked as an option.

‘Disablity’ should not be considered a derogatory word. It is just a literary device to describe a condition and NOT the person. Sensitivity about one word will trickle down to all its substitutes as they all are meant to describe the same context at the end of the day. The disabled may not themselves disapprove of the term. It is made out to be something they should find offensive by the sensitive world stressing on false political correctness. To see a word like ‘disability’ in the same grouping as abusive or racially motivated words would not find favour with a reasonable audience. It just adds up being another form of wastage of time which should otherwise be invested in finding the right kind of science to enable these people.

It would make more sense to say that keeping a person away from the plethora of scientific inventions and denying him the chance to experience the colourful lights and sounds of the world is like racial profiling and keeping ‘blacklisted’ races from their natural rights like traveling in the same bus or disallowing them to use the same public water fountain as the ‘superior’ races. The disabled have the right to experience nature and day-to-day life as well as any normal person is entitled to.

If it is not made into a matter of political correctness, the cloud might lift and we might be able to see the desire and longing, lurking behind the bold facades of the disabled, to overcome or at least diminish the disability.

The above commentary does not peer into disability through the lenses of a disease. Science, at this stage, may not be advanced enough to provide a solution for all forms and degrees of disability. Those not in the domains of help by science are truly survivors and have the right and duty to live life to the fullest and push the boundaries of their limitations. When the frontiers of science are expanded enough to beckon these limitations, they should explore it with full hope and consent.

Assuming that a person has adjusted to life with a disability and that he/she is in perfect harmony with their condition does not hold as the person might never have seen life as it would be without the disability. He cannot be asked to judge the better of two when one he has left untouched. Those afflicted by progressive sensual disability would agree that the least level of severity of the disability was definitely the less uncomfortable than the current one. Here lies the art of science – to keep discomforts to the minimal level. An amputee is not likely to disagree to having a prosthetic limb once he is made aware of the benefits of one, the independence and freedom it would bring in his/her life. The same holds true for a blind/deaf person.

If an implement is otherwise found to be compatible with and non-toxic to the patient, it should be allowed the chance to mitigate his disability. With the guidance of psychologists, the patients would be able to adapt to their transition.

The movie eventually veers away to explaining that somewhere, it was the fear on the part of the mother about losing her connectedness with her son if he got his hearing back, that held her back from getting him implants. The grandfather’s staunch stand on deaf rights was a mirror of his own humiliation and trials as a deaf child. He was an outcast in his peer group back then. His denial of his disability came from the frustration of his own father not accepting him as he was. He began to see disability as a legacy when in fact it was a cursed genetic inheritance.

The decision of the couple on their child’s condition is left to the imagination of the viewers, with the movie cutting to credits strongly stressing on the importance of family, love and togetherness. That is the true message that needs to be spread in the world. Isolating the differently-abled as a minority would only serve to create a mental and emotional barrier between them and the rest.

Shruthi Venukumar

[Image courtesy: http://www.disabilityindia.com/images/together.jpg]