The Burrow: Deaf Education in the Potterverse
An original editorial by Pamela T.
There are deaf people on every continent, and of every race, every gender, every sexual orientation, every age, every economic status – that is, every characteristic that we use to distinguish people. So, do deaf wizards exist? What is deaf wizarding education like – how many deaf wizards are there? Where are they educated? How can the deaf possibly do magic? Is it possible to do magic without speaking? And who teaches these deaf students?
Question #1: Are there deaf wizards?
You bet your life! What reason do we have to suppose otherwise? After all, worldwide, approximately 0.1% of the population is deaf (the percentage varies per country) – and although the wizarding population is small, it is large enough for this percentage to be noteworthy.
It is possible that deaf children are identified and sent to a Healer who can cause cochlear hairs, nerves, bones, and whatever else in the inner ear to grow into the state they would be in a hearing person. But this seems unlikely. First, nearly half the time, the cause of deafness cant be determined. Secondly, even if we were to know the cause, it would still be extremely painful for a person to grow something from nothing, as we learn in Chamber of Secrets (“The Rogue Bludger”):
Madam Pomfrey was holding a large bottle of something labeled Skele-Gro. “You’re in for a rough night,” she said, pouring out a steaming beakerful and handing it to [Harry]. “Regrowing bones is a nasty business.”
And Harry was left alone, with nothing to distract him from the stabbing pains in his limp arm.
I also get the feeling that regrowing something inside your ear would have to be even worse, if the pains in my ear I get from mountain driving are any indication.
Beyond the physical difficulties are cultural difficulties – the deaf do not see themselves as “disabled,” thus they do not need or want to be “fixed.” This is reinforced by Deaf Culture (yes, such a thing exists). I get the feeling that, as most Muggles who grow up in Deaf Culture reject the idea of cochlear implants, most wizards wouldn’t want to be “fixed” by magic. [There is more cochlear implant information at Deaflinx if you don’t know much about them – cochlear implantation is basically a surgery that lets deaf people hear, although not in the way that hearing people hear.]
Besides, if there aren’t any deaf wizards, then there’s no point in me writing this treatise.
Question #2: How many deaf wizards are there in Great Britain? In the world?
Great Britain: The prevalence of profound prelingual deafness in Great Britain was estimated in 2004 to be between 0.08%-0.15% (from a very useful webpage on international prevalence rates, which implies that of the 1,000 or so students that attend Hogwarts, only one or two of them should be deaf at any point in time.
These deaf wizards could attend Hogwarts with interpreters in all their classes, although we’ve never seen or heard of them. If the deaf student(s) at Hogwarts are not in Gryffindor and are in years distant enough from Harry’s that he has little contact with them, it is quite possible we just never heard about any deaf students at Hogwarts.
However, this would be pretty boring for the deaf kids – no one else around to talk to, except for a student who is maybe four years apart from you in age, if you’re even lucky enough to have another deaf student at Hogwarts at all. It becomes even more difficult if the kids are in two different Houses. Academic problems are much more easily solved than the sort of social problems that this creates.
The World: It seems more likely to me that deaf kids from across the world are collected into an all-deaf wizarding school. So how many kids would there be in this school? Thankfully, Red Hen has already done much of the nasty math here:
…We can project a “high end” estimated worldwide wizarding population of 3,150,000. Which is probably a considerable overestimate of the actual number since I very much doubt that thinly populated areas produce as high a percentage of magical births as heavily populated ones, and much of the world is not that heavily populated.
0.1% of that “high-end” estimate would make for a worldwide deaf wizarding population of only 3,150 people – quite small, but enough for a few decent communities (likely located near to the school). 3,150 people each with a lifespan of 200 years translates to about 15 new deaf wizarding babies born worldwide each year. These might easily be recorded by a special quill like that used by Hogwarts, keeping records that could later be used to find these very special children.
A seven-year school, as Hogwarts is, would have about 110 deaf pupils. It seems more likely to me, however, that a deaf school would take children much younger than 11, perhaps taking pupils beginning at the age of 3 or so. Because 95% of deaf children are born into hearing families, most deaf children don’t have a language until they begin school; as a result, early schooling is extremely important. At the same time, because the school these kids are going to attend will be international, it is not likely that the sign languages of their home country and their school will be the same. The younger the students can start the school’s language, the more fluent they will be in it and the better they will learn in it.
So, based on those age considerations, let’s postulate a 14-year deaf wizarding school instead – it would likely have a bit over 200 deaf students, ranging in age from 3 to 17 years old. Perhaps the older ones would help care for the younger ones, or perhaps the younger ones would be cared for by members of the community. (As I said, I suspect that – as in residential deaf schools of the past – deaf people would tend to stick together after graduation, likely nearby their school.)
Question #3: Okay, so we’re going to need to group deaf wizards from vastly different regions together because there are so few of them. Which sign language do they use, and where is the school located?
There are basically two options here – in the first one, the deaf magical and the deaf Muggle communities split off so far in the past that the deaf wizards use a sign language unknown to the Muggle world. You can’t say much more about this option, so I won’t.
In the second, the deaf magical community has chosen a Muggle sign language and continues to interact with Muggle users often enough that the two groups’ languages stay in sync with each other and they dont become two different languages.
If I were going to suggest a language to be used by all the deaf wizards, I’d probably choose French Sign Language – it is connected to various African sign language (because of the French colonization of Africa), to American Sign Language (which is used across North America, not just in the USA), and to (obviously) mainland Europe. It would be a good basis from which to be able to talk with Muggles who learned their own country’s sign language – including Muggle family members. In combination with French Sign Language, I’d also have to suggest a location in France – although it is possible that the school could move from year to year so that the international students could alternately be near their families (perhaps taking up year-long residences in schools like Hogwarts, Durmstrang, and Beauxbatons).
Japanese Sign Language would also make a good choice, since it is related to various Eastern sign languages, and the word order of spoken Japanese and signed Japanese is more similar than, for instance, spoken English and British Sign Language (which is different again from American Sign Language, since British and American Sign Languages are unrelated). This similarity in word order to Japanese might help the students to learn their first spoken language – spoken languages would of course have to be part of the curriculum at this school, because they are necessary for communication with hearing wizards and with Muggles, as well as for writing down ideas.
Question #4: How can deaf people do magic? (Is it possible to do magic without speaking?)
Almost all of the spells we’ve seen require a) spoken incantations, and b) some sort of wand movement – both of which would likely be pretty difficult for the deaf community, which can neither hear itself speak, nor sign and hold a wand steady at the same time.
The incantations appear to be quite picky about what is an acceptable pronunciation – Ron has difficulty making his feather fly in Sorcerers Stone for exactly that reason, and he is at least able to hear the correct pronunciation (“Halloween”):
Ron, at the next table, wasn’t having much more luck. “Wingardium Leviosa!” he shouted, waving his long arms like a windmill.
“You’re saying it wrong,” Harry heard Hermione snap. “It’s Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, Make the ‘gar’ nice and long.”
For deaf people who cannot get input by hearing others speak and cannot monitor their own voices to adjust their pronunciations, speaking clearly enough to have a successful incantation must be almost impossible.
I believe that we haven’t seen any nonverbal spell-casting because during these first five years because there has been no reason to teach it to the students – they are all perfectly capable of reciting incantations, no matter what difficulties Ron might have two months into his first year. However, that is not to say that there is no possible way to cast spells nonverbally. There are four obvious ways to avoid speaking an incantation that the deaf could use:
- Fingerspelling. It might be possible for deaf wizards to spell their incantations using the manual alphabet – of course, they’d have to use a one-handed fingerspelling system (like the American system) and not a two-handed one (like the British), since deaf wizards must hold their wands. But fingerspelling is difficult to do both clearly and quickly, which renders it rather useless.
- One-Handed Signing. Deaf wizards might be able to do one-handed signs with their non-wand hands – but these signs would have to be complex to distinguish between hundreds of spells, and one-handed, non-dominant-hand signing is difficult as well (although it is easier than both quick and perfect fingerspelling). In my opinion, spells do not actually require any incantation. Speaking or signing an incantation just makes getting results easier, and there isn’t much call to make doing magic harder. Of course, the deaf have no choice but to use this more difficult approach.
- Wand Movements. It might be possible to do the entire spell with the wand – intricate wand motions (much more intricate than we’ve seen so far at Hogwarts) might make up for a lack of vocal cues.
- Skillful Intent. Is it possible to do spells without perceptibly making any sort of incantation? Animagi do this to transform (although this is arguably just a reinvocation of a previously-cast spell); Dumbledore, Bill, Charlie, and Professor McGonagall do it in conjuring; Lupin does it first to light the train and again to open the Boggart’s wardrobe; and Dumbledore does it when he sends his silvery dart-like messenger to Hagrid in Goblet of Fire after Krum’s incident with Barty Crouch, Sr.
It appears to me that the spells we’ve seen performed without words either a) are exceptionally easy to do – like conjuring and opening unlocked doors, or b) harder but well-practiced. Dumbledore’s silvery messenger, which appears to be an example of how the secretly-operating Order communicates, fits into the second category. This spell can be done silently because it has been practiced silently – a result of the necessity of concealing the Order. If the Order continues to carry out “covert operations” (which I believe it will for reasons utterly unrelated to deaf education), we may see more of this non-incantational spelling in the future.
Skillful intent seems to me the most likely option to be used by deaf wizards – it is the most practical. If it takes extra training to be able to use it, well, deaf wizards need to start school before they turn 11 – they certainly have enough time for the extra study if need be.
Question #5: Who teaches them? And what do other deaf people do after graduation?
Some graduates decide to stay and teach at their alma mater – which yields a new job in the wizarding world! The deaf wizards that don’t want to be teachers can take on other normal wizarding jobs, creating their own little doubly-special internal world surrounded by hearing Muggles.
There is an international fourteen-year-long deaf wizarding school, likely located in France or Japan, that has at most 250 students who are 3-17 years old. All 3,000 deaf wizards live near this school; they have formed their own relatively independent community(s) located far away from Hogwarts (which is why we don’t hear about them), and they govern, serve, and educate themselves. The key to their use of magic, and with implications beyond just the deaf wizarding community, is that it is possible with practice to do any spell without actually vocalizing its incantation.