Harry Potter turned 20-years-old this week, and fans are celebrating across the world. From social media to real-life parties, “Potterheads” are posting about their favorite books and movies while discussing characters, events, and spells. J.K. Rowling’s magical world also brings out the philosophical and political in us all, with real-world comparisons that remain valid even two decades later.
Minorities and the disenfranchised may relate to the experiences of Harry Potter and the wizarding world. Segregation, prejudice, and authoritarian governments are just a few of the relevant allegories. One group, however, seems to have discovered a direct relationship with Ms. Rowling’s fictional world and characters: the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (D/HH).
The allegory between Harry Potter goes back more than a decade, to an academic article published in 2005. “Understanding Harry Potter: Parallels to the Deaf World” was written by Todd A. Czubek and Janey Greenwald, both from the Scranton State School for the Deaf, as an exploration of literature through the Deaf perspective. The comparisons continued throughout the years, often on Deaf websites, but didn’t reach a larger audience until March 2017. Famous model and actor (and Deaf activist) Nyle DiMarco posted a video discussing the similarities as well and recognizing the importance of Harry Potter to D/HH individuals growing up in a Hearing world.
What are the parallels between Rowling’s vision and the Deaf experience? Why is this comparison so significant?
A World Unknown
Imagine an entire culture that exists within the majority, but is often ignored or even considered a non-culture. The wizards of Harry Potter live in such a world, where “muggles” are completely ignorant of the magic and sorcerers around them. No one notices the subtle gathering spaces or strange behaviors, and if they do, they choose to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit with their mundane perspective.
The Deaf world is much the same, concentrated to specific schools, communities, and organizations, where the Hearing are often unaware or uncaring. The Deaf world is only brought to attention when there’s a national or global incident, and even then, people dismiss the situation. Otherwise, the Hearing world remains blissfully ignorant of the history, experiences, and needs of D/HH people.
(Of course, in Harry Potter, wizards choose to maintain this segregation, for the safety of both sides. The Deaf world, in contrast, was driven there by communication barriers, unethical beliefs, and the privilege of the majority.)
Finding Your Place in that World
If a D/HH child starts in the Hearing world, they often face obstacles other kids don’t. They struggle to understand others (and be understood), experience exclusion, and often feel alone or the only one like themselves. Once they discover the Deaf world, everything changes: they can relate to others, learn about a culture and language previously unseen, and begin to find a place within the new community. Many D/HH people attend schools that focus on their specific needs and culture, where they can grow and learn with others like them.
All of this relates to Harry’s experiences, from growing up with the Dursleys to joining Wizarding Society. When he starts, he’s in a family that dismisses his needs and heritage, treated horribly because of those differences, and socially outcast. Once he joins wizard society, Harry discovers his differences are to be embraced and that there are others like him. He struggles at first, but eventually learns the culture and language, and finds his place in the community. He even attends Hogwarts, one of many schools that help young wizards and witches, providing them the education and social life they need.
The Role of Family and Division
Harry enters a society with others like him, but he soon learns there are social divides even there. The most notable are “pure-bloods” versus “mudbloods,” or those from a family of wizards compared to those raised by one or more muggles. Ron and Draco come from long lines of wizards, raised purely in the world of magic; Hermione is raised by mundane parents, albeit ones that support her, whereas Harry grew up with an anti-magic family that hid everything from him.
The Deaf community is no different in their focus on family and social groups, for both good or ill. Many Deaf families are proud of their heritage and culture for generations. Some D/HH children grow up in Hearing parents that are supportive, teaching them ASL and Deaf culture, while others are forced to read lips and “move past” their hearing differences. Similarly, in the Deaf world, these differences can create obstacles or even prejudice; those born and raised in the culture may look down on those who join later while others may welcome new D/HH members with open arms.
The Importance of Similar Experiences
We’ve seen how readers can easily compare the experiences of young wizards and Rowling’s magical society with D/HH people and the Deaf world. This similarity is important because, if you can’t have direct representation, you can at least find an indirect relation. D/HH readers discover parallels with Harry Potter and the wizarding world that can prove inspiring and reassuring despite their struggles. The concepts that others are out there who experience the same thing, that there is a culture and community unique to us, and that we’re not wrong (just different), all help build self-confidence and hope.
Harry Potter may have started two decades ago before the D/HH youth of today were even born, but they will remain a significant work for many in the Deaf community. We can only hope that Ms. Rowling’s works continue to educate and inspire the youth of tomorrow, especially those most in need.