A Quick Look at Everyday Disempowerment of Deaf People

A page from NADmag's Spring 2016 issue showing my articleThis article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of NADmag; download a PDF version of the article.

Video description Trudy, a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, is wearing a navy blue shirt with a red, white, light blue, tan, and navy blue striped scarf. She is seated in the corner with brown bookshelves on her right and a sea blue wall on her left.

Image description: The article as it appeared in NADmag is shown on a yellow page with the headline in yellow text, and the body text in black. Nancy Rourke’s painting of DEAF DISEMPOWERMENT is shown, in her trademark red, yellow, blue, white, and black colors; a woman resembling Trudy is shown in black with a huge hole in her chest.

The Deaf community certainly has come a long way over the decades, even if the pendulum constantly swings from one side to the other in terms of education, discrimination, access, and equality. It is so important that we all are aware of the rights we hold as humans who are Deaf. That itself is a given; nobody would argue otherwise with us. Yet, we allow ourselves to put up with everyday disempowerment, especially for small, seemingly innocent situations. In order to reduce this, we need to first understand what disempowerment is.

Everyday Acts of Disempowerment
The word disempowerment has quite a simple definition for such a powerful concept: to take away power. When we think of disempowerment, we usually think of things like not being provided interpreting services, watching films or TV without captions, being told not to sign, having our lives decided or even dictated by people with no knowledge of ASL or Deaf culture, or seeing hearing actors in roles portraying Deaf people. Yet there are smaller, everyday acts that hold just as much capacity, if not more, to disempower us.

How many times have you logged onto Facebook or Twitter only to find that your (hearing) friends, parents, relatives or even spouses have posted videos that aren’t captioned? Then when you ask them for a transcript, they say, “Oh, darn, I never thought about that,” yet they do it time after time. Another example is when hearing parents speak about their deaf children in front of the children, yet the children don’t realize the conversation is about them.

Countless examples of everyday disempowerment happen in the workplace, of course. Meetings that aren’t interpreted, water cooler conversations where the Deaf person can’t participate, the annoyance factor (when a boss rolls his eyes at a request for an interpreter), being underestimated because you’re Deaf, the office dialogue that takes place over cubicle walls as you’re sitting at your station working; the list goes on and on. Sure, there are accommodations, but it’s just not the same as direct communication access.

How about if you’re writing down something at a fast-food restaurant or even a store—perhaps your order or a question—and the employee, as you’re writing, starts working with another customer? This tells not just you, but also other people, that you’re not worth the wait. Maybe you’re talking with someone who knows that signing and speaking at the same time is combining two separate languages, making it difficult for you to easily access this information. Yet you know if you ask that person to turn off his/her voice or remove his/her speech privilege, that person might be offended. So you end up simply saying nothing as you struggle.

These are minor acts of disempowerment that we’ve become so accustomed to, and we usually don’t do much about them because it’s just not worth the battle. The cycle then continues, because by just accepting these incidents, we are in essence telling the other people that they can continue doing this, even though it’s really not okay.

Disempowerment Through ASL
Teaching ASL is another example of everyday disempowerment that many have come to accept as the status quo. There are thousands of ASL teachers in the nation. How many are deaf? No real statistics exist on this yet. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of certified Baby Sign Language instructors. How many are deaf? A very small percentage. Just go to the bookstore and take a look at all the baby signs books, or look up local baby sign language classes; the majority is taught by hearing people who aren’t necessarily fluent in ASL.

Are all the Deaf Studies and ASL programs in the nation run by Deaf people? No. How about agencies serving Deaf people, state commissions for Deaf people, and organizations focusing on things like baby signs? Are there more Deaf administrators than hearing in these positions? Probably not. How many deaf-run interpreting agencies can you name off the top of your head? What’s wrong with this picture?

A common response to why a deaf person isn’t at the helm of a program or agency working with deaf and hard of hearing people is, “We advertised the position and couldn’t find anyone qualified.” That certainly could be the case. Still, such situations have ripple effects: deaf people aren’t hired, and those outside of the deaf community, in turn, continue to have beliefs and perceptions shaped by hearing people. These hearing people then believe they can educate others about us, rather than bringing in appropriate Deaf community representatives.

If no qualified deaf person applies for a position, there needs to be a short-term and long-term remedy. One possible solution is to keep the position open for as long as possible until someone who is qualified and deaf is hired. Another potential solution is to have an interim director in place, hire someone who is definitely capable of doing the job, and train that person until she or he is ready to take the helm. Is that costly and cumbersome? Perhaps. Cost-beneficial and cost-effective in the long run? Absolutely.

Interpreters: An Imbalance
Interpreters have always been, and likely will always be, a great source of disempowerment. One challenge for many Deaf consumers is at medical appointments, when interpreters go into the hallway whenever the nurse or doctor leaves, instead of staying in the room with the Deaf patient. From an interpreter’s perspective, this is necessary given the many opportunities for ethical dilemmas. For instance, if the Deaf patient says something to the interpreter that is medically relevant, but doesn’t share this information with the doctor, is the interpreter bound to tell the doctor? Yet, is it really fair to keep the patient isolated in a room where there’s no visual access to all the sounds and conversations that a hearing patient could overhear? Many Deaf people say no.

Anita Buel, a Deaf community health worker (DCHW) in Minnesota, has an ongoing frustration. CHWs are certified, trained advocates who accompany patients in their own communities (in this case, the Deaf community) and provide advocacy, information, and clarification for patients who may feel overwhelmed by medical jargon, procedures, and the overall health system. DCHWs, however, are not certified deaf interpreters (CDI); they have as much of a need for interpreters as the Deaf patients. Buel says she gets frustrated when she knows interpreters are in the hallway waiting, and then they come into the room already deep in conversation with the doctor or nurse. This, to her, shows that if the patient already is at a disadvantage, because oftentimes interpreters build relationships with medical professionals and therefore aren’t always perceived as neutral parties. Interpreters, by doing this, also have a rapport established with the medical staff that patients often struggle to establish because of the three-way communication.

An Imbalance in Knowledge
Many people, both deaf and hearing, have appropriately lauded the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) for increasing its standards and professionalism among interpreters within the past few years. Yet there is one act of disempowerment throughout this progress that has been deeply, and easily, overlooked: the knowledge imbalance, which creates a major disadvantage for Deaf people.

The RID requires its interpreters to have bachelor’s degrees, among other criteria; this is a fantastic requirement because it ensures that interpreters are educated. Interpreters, to receive certification, must also have the necessary (even if minimal) training in all the aspects involved with interpreters. Yet, this creates a major imbalance in knowledge, and power. Think about it: do Deaf people have the same access to education as interpreters? No. Are Deaf individuals generally trained to work with interpreters, on advocating for interpreter quality, and on how the interpreting process ideally works? No, absolutely not. Deaf people have had to constantly educate each other on a grassroots level on how to deal with interpreting dilemmas.

Is there any training provided to Deaf people in elementary school through adulthood on how to work with interpreters in various settings, or on self-advocacy? Unfortunately, the answer is no once again. There is a deaf self-advocacy training curriculum available through the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers, but even this curriculum is limited in its contents and availability. On the flip side, sometimes Deaf people aren’t fully educated on the interpreter’s role. Those individuals might mistakenly claim interpreters are oppressive or not doing their jobs, when in reality they are doing exactly what their jobs require.

Keep in mind that most interpreters receive years of formal, professional training in everything from ASL to ethics to business practices. Interpreters are also tested on their knowledge and skills, and then maybe certified. Interpreters are given the knowledge that Deaf people so greatly need and deserve. When Deaf people do not receive this same knowledge, this has deep-seated repercussions.

Whether we like to admit it or not, interpreters have an incredible amount of jurisdiction over our access to people, interviews, medical appointments, education, phone calls, and pretty much everything else. This isn’t necessarily bad, as long as they use this power appropriately and without malice. But this so-called jurisdiction can create even further potential for conflict and division. On top of that, this power imbalance can become magnified in small towns where interpreters might, by default, rule the roost because everyone knows everyone. This has happened time after time, where Deaf people lose jobs, are rejected for jobs, are perceived as unintelligent, and so much more all because they had conflicts with interpreters.

Understand, Analyze, and Act
The NAD has fought for equality among Deaf people for more than a century, and has produced some of the most remarkable leaders in American history. Yet each and every leader within the NAD, both at the state and national level, is guaranteed to have at least three stories of disempowerment running the gamut of minor to major incidents.

In addition to educating ourselves, we need to learn how to come together to prevent or reduce disempowerment in any form or shape. It’s crucial that we recognize that disempowerment doesn’t always happen on purpose; it’s often by accident. Even so, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. As renowned vlogger and blogger Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey says, “It’s not about intent. It’s about impact.”

What can we do, as Deaf people, to help lessen disempowerment ranging from simple acts to in- depth, intentional acts? First, we must understand what disempowerment is, how it affects us, and why it affects us. Even the seemingly small acts of disempowerment that we’ve become so accustomed, almost immune to, have major impact on our everyday lives as Deaf people. It is crucial that we, as Deaf people, become fully educated on acts of disempowerment, the interpreting process, on our roles, on our legal rights, and on how to deal with conflict or oppression. This kind of education should start at the earliest stages of our lives as Deaf people, so that we go throughout life knowing what we’re supposed to do. This would help lessen so much of the disempowerment that takes place. It would also help reduce the ingrained frustration that often comes from encountering such disempowerment, because we would have the tools to take the next steps. We must also be careful to remember that if a deaf person expresses frustration, it doesn’t necessarily mean she or he is angry, divisive or separatist. Rather, take a look at the situation, and figure out how all parties have contributed to the situation.

By understanding the gravity of each situation, small or large, we can then come to analyze the steps leading up to that situation and what we can do next. By understanding all the parties involved and their perceptions, and by figuring out what resources we have, we can then determine steps of action. Finally, we can then act on the disempowerment through appropriate steps. We must always strive for access to the same education as our hearing allies (interpreters, parents, friends, and other supporters). By working to minimize disempowerment, we can then have access to equality, to communication, and most importantly, to being human.

The original disempowerment article can be found here.

Copyrighted material. This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the express written consent of the author.

Related posts:


  1. Brant Kido says:

    I’m so tired of reading theses artical that make deaf people seem like there always a victim. I find that very disempowerimg. Its like the blacks or the Japanese people that are labeled minorities ( like myself ) always playing the victim card and pointing the finger at the rest of the world about how miss treated they are. Yet I look around and I see minorities and deaf people succeeding all around me doing great things ! It’s not just a deaf issue it’s a human issue. Hearing people are just as susepitable to inequality and struggle with the same issues with doctors and social situations around water coolers. Its a fact of life. It is up.to the individual to rise above inequality no matter what your situation is. I have had to over come situations in my life that I see others use as an excuse to throw a pity party. I don’t look at deaf people any differently. If you rely on the out side world and outer situations to dictate yoir power then you will always be disempowered it doesn’t matter who you are. Be strong rise above it and tap into your iner strength. The only person that can be against me or disempower me is myself ! I love and communicate with my deaf sister better then my hearing sister should.my hearing sister feel disempowered as a family member ? Only if she chooses to.

  2. Oh, absolutely, every human goes through some kind of oppression or disempowerment. That’s why we all have to understand, analyze, and then act on specific instances in specific communities — so that we can all come together and become more united. So many people have no idea of how they’re being disempowered, or they know but don’t realize there’s a word for it. By understanding the challenges, they can then set out to equalize themselves and become more aware and therefore less disempowered.

    Unfortunately, as a hearing person, your response basically confirms what my article discusses. Even though you are a minority, you still have far greater access to everything around you than most deaf people do simply because you can hear and speak. While you certainly have every right to your opinion, I encourage you to consider this: as a white person myself, I would never dare to demean or dismiss your experiences as a minority; I would hope that you would not dismiss my experiences as a Deaf person who is a linguistic minority.

    I also encourage you to talk with your deaf sister about your perspective; I have.

  3. Muffy Cave says:

    Being strong and rising above it is thinking on a personal level. Patriarchal institutional bias, racism, and power systems are much larger than that. They also make it difficult to “rise above” it, how do you do that when you can’t find a job because of who you are? They set the tone for how the world views others (“different is wrong!!” when we know different is just that, different). Understanding our personal bias and privilege is important, yes– but understanding that we are a part of the system that is wreaking havoc in so many lives is critical. Only then can we figure out how to fight against it.

  4. Lisa Pershan says:

    Brant Kido: you speak like a true man of privilege. You do not see the disempowerment that others go through when you don’t HAVE TO go through it everyday. I am hearing, I am white and therefore I have a lot of privilege. I am also Jewish which, at times, limits my empowerment…but most people don’t know this fact about me unless I tell them (unlike deaf people or people of color as you mentioned in your comment). Yes, we all have our obstacles and we all need to get out of our own way. However, people who lack the privilege that is respect respected in this country there are others who purposefully get in their way out of fear, ignorance or lack of desire. Do not discount other people’s journey unless you have walked that journey yourself. If you are interested in being an advocate, let the leaders lead, and you can support them as THEY see fit. If you are sick of hearing about disempowerment, why not stand up and fight for every black man, deaf woman, fat child or Latino person you see being ignored, belittled, not given a job or dismissed as ‘less than.’ As Martin Niemöller found out too late, if we don’t stand up to support our brothers and sisters who are different from ourselves, nobody will be left to fight for us when it’s our turn.

  5. Does your sister understand what her co-workers are talking about? Does she understand what everybody is talking about at the family dinner? Does she understand what the captain is talking about over the airwaves when she flies? Does she know the words of the latest popular song? Does she respond when someone tries to get her attention from behind her back? Does all that make her a victim? NO. You are disempowering your Deaf sister by telling her she has to “choose” to overcome her linguistic disadvantages…she will never be Hearing for as long as she lives.

  6. Shane Dundas says:

    Any dominant majority have more power than the marginalized (I don’t use the word minority) mainly because it is deeply rooted within the system at all levels: government, education/schools, laws/policies, dominant culture, and many more. Being hearing is viewed as a default by the hearing people as the dominant majority. Trudy Suggs’ article is in no way a form of whining or used as a victim card. It is a clear reminder that hearing people are oppressing Deaf people. There is no way that any marginalized people would be able to oppress the dominant majority because, as I mentioned before, it’s deep rooted into the system. Now, the marginalized can discriminate but NOT able to oppress others. The dominant majority both oppress and discriminate others.

    Suggs’ article is an important one to read if you wish to be an ally for the Deaf community. Otherwise, denying or belittling her article is a manifestation of oppression by the dominant majority of hearing against the Deaf; definitely not an ally. Please read with an open mind and unpack your hearing privileges. The goal of her article is to raise awareness so that we can all work together towards equality.

  7. If you have a choice to ignore such things you are leveraging a privledge, in this case hearing privledge. This is an example of a majority member putting work back onto marginalized people. This is me calling it out. Shm

  8. Pearl Youth says:

    Everything u said I absolutely agree….I love u as my favorite model…despite of the fact that I am older than u…being few years older than ur mother who graduated with me from ISD. Smile. I admire what and how u presented ur thoughts deeply and logically in natural, comfortably ASL. Please continue lecturing about everything u feel important for us to know and to apply in our daily lives like u did in this vlog. U are one of few best educators I ever have. I want to continue watching ur lectures of valuable topics as essential parts of my daily life in soon future. Smile.

  9. Maria Nelson says:

    Brant, first of all, no one is throwing a pity party. The author does a great job in objectively explaining the ethics and responsibilities of interpreters and how this affects the lives of Deaf people. As someone training to become an interpreter I find this insight most valuable. I need to know what power imbalances are occurring, how and why, so that I don’t keep repeating the same mistakes. This is the only way that I can be the best interpreter I can be, and the only way my future Deaf clients will have access to information. This is not about pity. It’s about education. Educating the hearing population; educating you and me. Reading your comment asking Deaf people to stop ‘complaining’ because you’re tired of hearing them complain has left a bitter taste in my mouth. Do you not see the irony in this? The inequality and struggles that hearing people face compared to that of Deaf people are not comparable. A minority’s disempowerment should not be dismissed as victim mentality. Please take a moment, take a breath, put down the lens with which you view the world, and re-read this article.

  10. Brant Kido says:

    Thank you for all your responses. First Let Me Clear something up. I never said anything about the deaf Community throwing a pity party. I was speaking about the inequality and the abuse that I personally have gone through and the fact that I have seen others go through the same situations and throwing pity parties for themselves rather than Rising above it lIke i have. I will not share my story with you because you would throw a pity party for me. It is something that I will carry around with me for the rest of my life.
    Yes I am privileged to have my hearing but I’m speaking from a position of being personally connected to the deaf community. I also have a blind friend and he has chosen to Empower himself rather than letting it disempower him. The point that I’m trying to make is rather than focus on the things that are disempowering in your life focus on the things that Empower you. When I feel discriminated against or treated unfairly rather than taking it personally and letting it disempower me I turned it around and I feel sorry for that person that they could be so ignorant and unaware of the people and circumstances and the environment that’s around them. And I truly believe that. I love the deaf Community with all my heart and my post is coming from a place of love I don’t like to see anyone suffer unnecessarily including myself that is why I focus on the things that Empower me and make me strong and I encourage you to do the same.
    This was a great article and I don’t want to detract from the message. It was very well written very thoughtful thorough and to the point. And it’s true there is a lot of disempowering situations that I have seeing first-hand Through The Eyes of my sister. But I have seen her tap into her Inner Strength and Rise Above stupid hearing people. Love ya ASL forever !!!!!

Speak Your Mind