Under Normal Circumstances

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By Morgan Leppla

March is Disability Awareness Month. In honor of this important awareness month, Hearing Health Foundation is raising awareness and celebrating all of our different abilities and doing our part to reduce the stigma of living with hearing loss and its associated disorders.

Whether we like it or not, people compare themselves to others. Maybe contemporary culture brings it out in us, or perhaps that impulse is rooted in Darwinism ideology of survival of the fittest, reminding us of competitive advantages. Who is taller, more intelligent, faster?

Possibly, it also has to do with how we conceptualize normalcy. In the mid-1800s, Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet introduced the idea of “l’homme moyen” (average man) when he realized that human traits are distributed over a bell curve. So the average man would have the mean of all human traits in a single abstract person.

“Normal” entered English vocabulary in 1840 and has since been used to describe bodies and behavior. However, before society focused on the “the norm” it concerned itself with “the ideal.” Take the most coveted parts of bodies and traits that exist and combine them, and that would be the ideal person.

So why is this distinction meaningful? Because every living person is non-ideal, since by definition it cannot exist in one person, whereas people (bodies and traits) can be “normal.” On the contrary, normalcy is attainable on an individual level. And society’s reactive effect to the creation of normal humans was the production of their dichotomous counterparts: the extremes or deviants at the tail ends of the bell curve, the abnormal.

However, a collision of the normal and the ideal occurred when English statistician Francis Galton decided to rank human traits, created quartiles on an intelligence bell curve, and ordered them one to four. One was lowest intelligence and least desirable while four was highest intelligence and most desirable. He reoriented the human ideal using the norm. And now, I would say, it is “normal” to want to be the smartest, most athletic, most attractive, etc.?

The latter half of the 19th century employed pseudo-empirical justifications for describing how bodies should be in fairly clear terms. And to focus on distribution of differences warps the way society approaches normalcy as a concept. It allows us to draw lines where perhaps they ought not exist.

Thus we arrive at the construction of disability. Anyone who does not physically look like others or does not act like others is perceived as deviant or abnormal because they are at the wrong end of the bell curve. Beyond the initial construction of the human normal, barriers that are literal, educational, communicational, and attitudinal further maintain “disability” since nonexistent or poor accommodations along with stigma exacerbate “disabling” differences.

Hearing Health Foundation is encouraging everyone to think about how “norms” have molded our preferences and attitudes and whether that translates to treating people differently. Life may be more arbitrary than you think, and more can be going on than what meets the eye.

HHF is committed to spreading awareness of hearing loss and its associated disorders as well as reducing the stigma attached to them. If you’d like to share your story and experiences with our community, please email us at info@hhf.org.

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