Do you have the privilege of being unaware of your Hearing Privilege?

Hearing Privilege

Do you have the privilege of being unaware of your Hearing Privilege?

My friend, Danielle Ferndale, has been doing her PhD about hearing privilege in the health care sector. I found her paper absolutely fascinating to read, and afterwards, I found that many of her words stayed with me. She put into words some concepts and ideas that I had sensed but hadn’t been able to articulate. I asked Danielle if she would be interested in writing a blog post for my readers, about her research, which explains what she found in everyday language. She very kindly obliged, and it’s gone live on my blog today. Read on if you would like to know more about hearing privilege.

Enter Danielle:

Hearingness as Privileged

My Background

In June 2016 I was awarded my PhD. My PhD research focused on how deafness is talked about and understood in society. I am a young hearing woman and I was introduced to the world of deafness in 2008 when I became friends a colleague who was Deaf, and started to learn Auslan in 2011.

My PhD Research

Through learning Auslan and doing my PhD, I began to understand the disadvantages that people who are deaf experience when accessing health services and information in Australia. When I started my PhD, I wanted to know why these barriers exist, even for people who used hearing technology. To answer this question I completed two studies. First, I created an online forum for people with deafness to discuss their experiences. Second, I interviewed health professionals. The experiences that people described on the forum and discussed in the interviews, were examples of how d/Deaf people are disadvantaged in society, and how people who are hearing are advantaged. You might know the term audism (Humprhies, 1975). Audism is when a hearing person believes they are superior to people who are d/Deaf. This includes believing that being able to hear means that a person is more intelligent, successful and happy. The opposite of audism is being privileged because of the ability to hear. I decided to call this ‘hearingness as privileged’.

Hearingness is a word I use to describe the opposite of deafness. I like to use the word hearingness to try and normalise the experience of living with a hearing loss or deafness, as people are living with hearingness.

‘Privilege’ is the opposite of ‘oppression’. There are other examples of privilege and oppression. Privileged categories include white, male, straight and able-bodied. Oppressed categories include indigenous, female, same-sex-attracted and disabled.  In this post I explain the concepts of oppression and privilege and offer strategies for how you can challenge systems of privilege and oppression in your everyday life.

Privilege and Oppression

Every day we are exposed to stories and images of people being discriminated against, bullied and oppressed because of the social category they belong to – their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or physical appearance and ability. Privilege and oppression is complicated because people belong to multiple categories. A person can belong to privileged categories and oppressed categories at the same time, for example an able-bodied, white, same-sex attracted woman. People who belong to oppressed categories can also oppress other categories, for example white same-sex attracted people can oppress indigenous same-sex attracted people.

When we talk about how to help people who are oppressed, we talk about what they should be doing to help themselves. People who belong to an oppressed social category need to change what they are doing and saying. It is the person’s responsibility to change their own situation. Stella Young talked about “inspiration porn”. This is when people are put up as role models (“if she can do it, so can you”), and when a person is congratulated for their efforts to overcome their disadvantage or barriers. This is most often people living a with disability. One of the purposes of inspiration porn is to inspire people who experience similar disadvantages or barriers to overcome their own situation. An implication of inspiration porn is that people living with a disability have impoverished, miserable lives and are less intelligent or capable than non-disabled people.


(image of a man with an amputee leg swimming with the quote “the only disability in life is a bad attitude”.) reference

People who are privileged can also use inspiration porn to maintain a belief that they do not contribute to the oppression people experience. People who are privileged do not have to examine the advantages they experience that are denied to people who are oppressed. They can continue to believe that people experience oppression because they haven’t been given the right inspiration to change their own situation.

When I was reading and researching about privilege and oppression, I found that most of the research focuses on people who experience oppression. There is very little research or discussion of privilege, and the role that privilege has in the problem of oppression.

To experience privilege means that things such as respect, membership, access or pay is systematically allowed for some people (privilege) and denied to others (oppression) because of the social categories they identify with. In Western society, people who identify with privileged social categories have the cultural authority to define what is considered normal and make judgements about others with minimal consequences.

Hearingness as Privileged

I was able to identify hearingness as privileged when I was analysing the interviews I conducted with health professionals. Many of the health professionals talked about the disadvantages of living with deafness. They described about how people who are d/Deaf are disadvantaged because of the way our society operates. I then realised that people who have hearingness are advantaged. Through no effort at all and simply because of my hearingness, I have access to information and services and no one questions my abilities or my intelligence because of my hearingness. These are advantages that I have not earnt. This started me on the track of reading about privilege. I found a book, ‘Privilege, Power and Difference’ by Alan Johnson. This book was very helpful, explaining how privilege is maintained in society, and the strategies for minimising privilege.

There are a few things I need clarify about privilege.

  1. There is a difference between privilege and earned advantage, oppression and disadvantage. Alison Bailey, the author of ‘Privilege: expanding on Marilyn Frye’s “oppression”, describes how privilege means a person is in a better position to earn more advantages. Advantages include quality education, well-paying job, political power, safety, career promotions. For example, a white, heterosexual, non-disabled male is able to believe he worked hard to earn his promotion. He may well have, but he is unable to see how his quality education, employability and ability to meet job selection criteria, ability to afford professional clothes was made easier because he belongs to privileged social categories. Where the same things would not come as easily to an indigenous, same-sex attracted, disabled woman.
  2. This is when a person is able to look or behave as though they belong to a privileged category. For example, acting heterosexual. People who are able to pass may benefit from the privilege that category experiences.
  3. It is important recognise that being in a privileged category (male, hearing, heterosexual) and behaving in an oppressive way are different. Being in a category is not the same as being an oppressive person who intentionally behaves in oppressive ways towards other people. However, continuing to participate in a system without questioning how they contribute to the oppression of particular groups could be described as behaving in an oppressive way.

Systems of Privilege

When I talk about systems, I am using Johnson’s definition, ‘something larger than ourselves that we participate in’. Systems can be individual workplaces, organisations, industries, families, schools, religious organisations or road rules. Very few people have explored how systems in our society contribute to experiences of oppression. For example, few hearing people have considered how hearing people (as a group), and systems in society, contribute to the oppression and disadvantage that d/Deaf people experience.

So how do systems in our society support privilege? You might think that minority groups, being smaller, are disadvantaged because they have to do what’s best for the larger number of people. But privilege is not related to the size of the group. Privilege occurs through our laws, public policy, informal expressions of speech, stereotypes, and the images and ideas presented our media. This makes it feel normal to behave in oppressive ways. Many of us are unaware that we are even doing so. This is called ‘civilised oppression’. Because it is so normal to behave in oppressive ways, we cannot see how we are privileged. This is called ‘the luxury of obliviousness’.

Privilege is able to continue because we do not challenge it. When we continue to participate in systems that privilege some categories over others, we are choosing to take a ‘path of least resistance’. Let’s take an everyday example: someone telling a joke at the expense of women. In this instances there are infinite paths we could take:

  1. laugh at the joke
  2. not laugh
  3. explain how that joke is hurtful
  4. physically harm the person telling the joke
  5. publically humiliate the person telling the joke
  6. encourage your peers not to laugh

Laughing at the joke is an example of taking the path of least resistance. If you laugh and go along with the joke, you are probably not going to experience any negative consequences. Choosing to not laugh at the joke is an example of taking a path of greater resistance. Choosing the path of greater resistance means that we might experience negative consequences. But we also contribute to revealing that joke as contributing to systems of privilege and oppression. The negative consequences a person can experience range from looks of disapproval, being laughed at ourselves, name called, to more serious consequences such as physical harm or being fired. An example of taking the path of greater resistance is the Freedom Riders who challenged laws and customs that enforced segregation in the United States.

When I was interviewing health professionals as part of my PhD research, I found that health professionals were operating in systems (workplaces, health system, education systems) that privileged hearingness. The professionals described how the health services in Australia are not good enough or accessible to people who are d/Deaf. They also talked about the different ways they are trying to do the best for their d/Deaf clients. They identified the barriers they experience in their workplace trying to improve their own skills and the accessibility of their service. However, many of the health professionals didn’t believe the problems their d/Deaf clients experience require large scale changes such as the introduction of mandatory d/Deaf awareness training in university and workplaces. This type of response to change is a typical response of people who identify with the privileged category. Changes to the system would highlight how one category is privileged over another.

The Australian Health System

The health systems in Australia privilege hearingness. Rather than blame health professionals as individuals for the oppression that d/Deaf people experience, we need to look at the systems they operate in. Health professionals are people balancing their own needs as people (with children, mortgages, bills) and as health professionals (meeting industry requirements, ethics) operating in a workplace (policies and procedures, funding). Although health professionals contribute to the oppression of people who are d/Deaf, changing the systems within which they operate will facilitate change at a system level.

Achieving Change

People who are d/Deaf and who experience oppression are probably already engaged in efforts to challenge the oppression they experience. We need people who are privileged because of their hearingness to recognise how their privilege and participation in systems is half of the problem. Every person has a responsibility to make society an accessible and safe place. Here are some examples of how hearing people can work to change systems (in consultation and collaboration with d/Deaf community).


People in positions of authority at tertiary education institutions should

  1. Mandate the incorporation of course content that recognises d/Deaf people as part of our community (Bachelor degrees of education, psychology, architecture etc.).
  2. Identify and implement strategies for making classrooms and content more accessible for people with diverse learning needs (interpreters, captions).
  3. Entice d/Deaf students into various industries that are otherwise perceived as, or are, inaccessible through scholarship programs


In the workplace, people in positions of power or authority need to

  1. Identify and implement ways of making their workplace more accessible to staff and consumers who are d/Deaf (e.g., captions, interpreting, skype facilitates, visual and tactile alarm systems).
  2. Consult and collaborate with people are d/Deaf with the view to revise workplace policies and procedures so that they incorporate the access and communication needs of people who are d/Deaf.
  3. Actively develop a workplace culture that recognises the value of deafness and what d/Deaf people can bring to the profession or workplace (beyond their deafness).

Hearing people in less empowered positions also have an important role. Identifying and suggesting to authoritative people where and how change is needed. Requesting ‘accommodations’ in the learning and workplace environment, enforcing your rights and the rights of others. Making official complaints about their own or other people’s experiences where they have been disadvantaged because of the social category they belong to. Equally important, is complimenting people and services where needs have been met or change has been effective.

Small actions such as not laughing at jokes told at the expensive of oppressed groups, educating people about privilege and oppression, not giving your business to businesses that do not meet the needs of oppressed groups, highlighting the ways in which projects, ideas and workplaces don’t meet the needs of people who are d/Deaf will contribute to achieving system level changes. We, as hearing people, need to be willing to risk the negative consequences associated with taking paths of greater resistance.

In order to address the problem of audism, we need to recognise and change how systems privilege hearingness.


More detailed information about my PhD research can be found in the following papers. If you would like a copy please contact me:

Ferndale, D., Watson, B., Munro, L. (in press). An exploration of how health care professionals understand experiences of deafness. Critical Public Health. Doi: 10.1080/09581596.2016.1258454.

Ferndale, D., Munro, L., & Watson, B. (2016). A discourse of ‘abnormality’: Exploring discussions of people living in Australia with a deafness or hearing loss, American Annals of the Deaf, 160 (5), 483-495.

Ferndale, D., Watson, B., & Munro, L. (2015).Creating deaf-Friendly Spaces for Research: Innovating Online Qualitative Enquiries, Qualitative Research in Psychology, 12 (3).

Ferndale, D., Watson, B., & Munro, L. (2014). Hearing loss as a public health matter  – Why doesn’t everyone want their deafness or hearing loss cured?, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 37 (6), 594-595.



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