Audism [aw-diz-uhm] is the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears, or that life without hearing is futile and miserable, or an attitude based on pathological thinking which results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear. Tom L. Humphries coined the term in his doctoral dissertation in 1977, but it did not start to catch on until Harlan Lane used it in his own writings. Humphries originally applied audism to individual attitudes and practices; whereas Lane broadened the term to include oppression of deaf people.

Audism has been called a form of ‘ableism,’ discrimination on the basis of disability. Like racism or sexism, audism assigns labels, judges and limits individuals based on whether they can hear or speak. People who practice audism are called ‘audists.’ Although it stems predominantly from hearing people, audism can manifest itself in anyone, intentionally or unintentionally.

‘Linguistic audism’ can occur by banning use of commonly used sign languages such as Indian Sign Language, American Sign Language, and British Sign Language. Several schools have engaged in such prohibition in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and some continue to do so. Audism may also be found in deaf education and in other corporate institutions and groups that deal with deafness. In these cases, it is believed that the educators, administrators, and professionals within these organizations behave in a way that is meant to dominate or marginalize the deaf community.

‘Dysconscious audism’ favors what is normal for the hearing community. This type of audism limits deaf culture and pride. This is done by creating an environment in which deaf people must conform to the ways of hearing society. It greatly impacts deaf education in terms of shunning American sign language in favor of communication that is based on the English language and more acceptable to people who are able to hear.

Additionally, deaf people can practice forms of discrimination against members of their own community, based on what they believe is acceptable behavior, use of language, or social association. Dr. Genie Gertz explored examples of such audism in American society in her published dissertation. 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 superior to those who do, or vice versa.

According to Northeastern University psychology professor Harlan Lane, audism has existed for many centuries, although the recognition of the deaf community as a discrete language-using culture in the 20th century has afforded many more such examples. Audism has been seen as reflecting the attitudes cultures maintain about deaf people, and examples are seen as existing primarily within a medical paradigm, cultural paradigm, and education/linguistic paradigm. Lane has examined the development of deaf-based educational principles in his history of Franco-American deaf relations and educational philosophy.

‘Phonocentrism,’ the belief that speech and sounds are inherently superior to written language, has been described as being the root of audism. Phonocentrism has resulted in ‘oralism,’ a belief that deaf children should be educated using speech and lip-reading, as opposed to sign language.


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