Campus, News

BU Prof. looks into definiton of deaf ethnicity

People who use sign language constitute a distinct ethnic group, complete with its own history and culture, a Boston University professor said in a new book.

Richard Pillard, a professor of psychiatry at the BU School of Medicine, makes the claim in his book, “The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry.”

Pillard’s book explores the 300-year ancestry of the deaf in America and asserts that those who use sign language to communicate constitute members of an ethnic group, according to a Feb. 14 press release.

“We use Deaf with a capital ‘D’ to refer to those whose native language is sign, most of whom were born Deaf and regard themselves as members of what they call the Deaf-World,” Pillard said in an email.

In collaboration with Harlan Lane, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, and Ulf Hedberg, director of the library collection archives at Gallaudet University, Pillard illustrates the language, history and culture of the more than 10 million people who communicate primarily through sign language in the United States.

Members of the Deaf-World do not consider themselves to be disabled because of their cultural traditions that unite them, Pillard said. Their unique ancestry and background is comparable to other ethnic groups and provides them with a shared sense of identity.

“Characterizing the Deaf-World as an ethnic group is challenging because it argues that Deaf individuals who use American Sign Language to communicate are not disabled; instead, like many ethnic groups, they have a physical difference that goes with their ethnicity,” Pillard said in the press release.

“Members of the Deaf-World generally do not see themselves as disabled though many doctors would disagree.”

Pillard said he and Lane have been working on this book for more than 12 years, tracing and compiling more than 200 lineages of deaf families.

“Professor Lane and I have been friends for many years,” Pillard said. “His interest is psycholinguistics, that is, the psychology of language and particularly the sign language used by the Deaf.”

Pillard said his contribution to the book was related to his genetic research.

“I have always been interested in the ways that genes influence behaviors,” Pillard said. “Most sign language users are born Deaf for genetic reasons.”

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