Various models of deafness are rooted in either the social or biological sciences. These are the medical (or infirmity) model, the social model, and the cultural model. The model used can affect how deaf persons are treated and their identity. In the medical model, deafness is viewed as an undesirable condition, to be so treated. Within the social model, the design of the deaf person's environment is viewed as the major disabling factor. In the cultural model, the Deaf belong to a culture in which they are neither infirm nor disabled.
Physicians and scientists are often labeled as adherents of the medical model by "Deaf" individuals, who contrast it with their own cultural model. However, many of those who are so labeled dispute its validity. The social model seeks to illuminate the difficulties that deaf individuals face in their social environment.
The medical model of deafness is viewed by advocates for the deaf as originating from medical, social welfare and majority cultural notions of the absence of the ability to hear as being an illness or a physical disability. It stems from a more comprehensive and far-reaching medical model of disability. People who experience hearing loss after acquiring a mastery of spoken language usually identify with this model. Also, people who describe themselves as hard-of-hearing or hearing impaired are likely to identify with it.
The medical model encompasses the idea that an individual affected by hearing impairment may be admired for their accommodation of the infirmity, or their courage in struggling with it, but the condition itself is generally seen as undesirable. Deafness is therefore conceptualized from a "personal tragedy" stance, with implicit questions naturally arising such as: "By what criteria and by whom is the impairment construed as an infirmity; how did the infirmity arise; what are the risks and benefits of the available treatment, if any; what can be done to minimize the disabling effects of the infirmity?"
Medical ethics and law dictate that it is up to the patient (or the patient's legal representative) to decide the treatments he or she wishes. For this very reason, the question as to whether deafness is physical impairment or personal tragedy to be overcome is secondary to medical doctors and health professions. Similarly, doctors and scientists who engage in research are doing so simply because there is demand for information and for techniques which can restore hearing.
The view that deafness is a disability has economic consequences in political environments concerned with social welfare. It is the basis on which the governments in many developed countries provide financial support for the cost of cochlear implants and other therapies. It is also the basis on which governments provide deaf people with financial support and educational services which aren't available for members of other cultural minority groups.
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