Saturday, November 10, 2001

Alive & Well

Limbaugh's now a role model for deaf

        I'm no particular fan of Rush Limbaugh. Once, quite by accident, I remember hearing his program with dismay. It was shortly after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990, and his remarks were disparaging, unkind, uninformed about the people for and by whom that law was written. “Defectives” he called them. And it saddened me deeply.

        Last month, Mr. Limbaugh announced to his estimated listening audience of 22 million that he has become one of those “defectives” (my word now, not his) and I am equally saddened. By some quirk of fate, not unlike that which strikes millions of Americans, Mr. Limbaugh has joined the ranks of those with disabilities.

        On May 29, he realized that he was hearing nothing in his left ear. On October 8, he told listeners that he could now hear virtually nothing at all.

        For a person of such celebrity to become deaf so suddenly is big news, particularly to those for whom he once expressed disdain. Gregory J. Rummo, a New Jersey-based writer with a ten-year-old deaf son, was interested to hear what deaf people had to say on the subject, and the responses he gathered were both heartening and troubling.

        A few deaf advocates responded that Mr. Limbaugh had gotten what he deserved, and that perhaps his deafness would put an end to his terrible views being broadcast. “I am much delighted to see Rush Limbaugh suddenly become deaf. Good for him!” Washington, D.C., resident Robert L. Mason ranted.

        Most, however, responded with empathy and cheering support for the talk show host whose medium of choice depends on sound. Deaf individuals and professionals working with the deaf from around the country are thinking of the many ways in which he can continue to do his work. He can learn sign language, for example, and learn lip-reading. He can use real-time captioning to “hear” the comments of those who phone in to his program.

        People with disabilities, like all Americans, have found that strength lies not in division, but in unity. Rush Limbaugh will continue to do his program, with or without the restoration of his hearing, and I'd like to think that people with disabilities will be in the foreground of his cheering section.

        Mr. Limbaugh has said that he has no intention of becoming a role model for the deaf, but it's happening, whether he likes it or not. Indeed, his remarks regarding this personal tragedy might well be used as a universal summary of what it means to be deaf: “I have lost my ability to hear. I have not lost my ability to communicate,” he said.

        Similarly, his comment regarding the desire to continue his show might well be used as a slogan for people with disabilities anywhere pursuing anything: “As long as the passion exists to do it, then we'll find a way,” he told his listeners.

        Disability is an equal opportunity visitor: It knows no age, race, educational, socioeconomic, or gender barriers. Sometimes, it visits with a sense of irony that is beyond understanding — a painter losing his sight, a musician losing his hearing, an actor losing his ability to walk.

        Still, it is temporarily tragic that Rush Limbaugh has become deaf. Whether he likes it or not — and whether we like him or not — he will become one more symbol of the reality that ability, not disability, is what weighs in for the final count. He will become a role model for others because he has talent, intellect, a drive to succeed — and enough passion to figure out what the alternate routes are for getting where he wants to go.

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