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.

#iamdeaf

12916137_10154204868153054_2034469502942179823_oIn response to the recent AGB letter controversy, Robin Horwitz has created an #iamdeaf page on Facebook, and I was among the people he asked to make a clip to include in the first #iamdeaf video.

Take a look at the video (also available on YouTube), along with so many others, here.

 

 

Deaf Women Supporting Deaf Women

This article originally appeared in Get a Z Life Magazine

deafwomenWhen you put a group of women together to work, what do you get? Ask anyone this question, and you’re likely to get stereotypical responses like, “Oooh, catfight!” or “A lot of drama and backstabbing.” Is this really accurate, especially in the Deaf community? Many don’t think so.

Stereotypes

Why do such negative stereotypes persist? “I think it’s because of the already-oppressive world that women live in,” says Deaf Women United (DWU) Chair Melissa Yingst Huber of Phoenix. “For a long time, women have faced oppression, and just recently more and more women are emerging as leaders. Women have had to work harder, and in a sense, ‘fight’ to earn respect as leaders, so that is already a negative connotation in us as women, that we have to fight hard to earn the respect we deserve as leaders. It may be hard for some women to celebrate other women leaders because they are already fighting for a place for themselves in society. So it may be their first instinct to view other women leaders as competition rather than recognizing them as equally accomplished female counterparts in the world.”

 Socorro Moore of Seattle, who serves on the Council de Manos board along with the DWU board, agrees. “To collaborate and work together can be challenging because we’re dealing with people different from ourselves, and our self-interests may conflict. Women might also have fears coming from a place of unawareness, [fears of] being judged and miscommunication, and being patronized simply because they are women.”

Another factor of negative stereotypes is the expectation of women to do it all. Huber says, “Many women who have children may be expected or feel that they need to put in more time with their children, and that takes away the free time that they may have to continue with leadership commitments, activities, and so on, especially if they are working women.”
“There’s so much domestic violence going on, a lot of women have self-esteem issues where they may need support from other women without judgment,” adds Sharon White, an active National Black Deaf Advocate participant from Frankfort, Ky. “We also have to remember different backgrounds, cultures and religions. Today, things are a lot different for women in employment, especially for single moms—the list goes on. It’s sometimes frustrating and hard to get everyone together. There are many bright women out there but they may be not available to be part of the advocacy network because they have small children, and they don’t have the time to give to support groups.”

Huber, however, sees an upside to this high expectation. “The idea that many women take on many different roles can enable them to be great multitaskers, juggle different commitments, and develop skills to make significant contributions to the community.”

Lack of Support and Role Models

Another challenge is the lack of support and role models, Huber says. “In the Deaf world, where the crab theory is already imminent, that’s a double negative for Deaf women. Deaf people are already trying to make their place in a hearing-dominated world, so it makes it doubly harder for Deaf women leaders to emerge and celebrate each other.”

“I think healthy models are lacking because many of us did not have other women to look up to while growing up,” Marilyn Jean Smith of Seattle says. Smith founded the acclaimed Abused Deaf Women Advocacy Services (ADWAS) organization and has served on numerous boards, including DWU and the National Association of the Deaf. She continues, “I personally had to unlearn a lot of things, move away from the hierarchal model and go with a consensus model, which I think respects everyone’s thoughts (or tries to). Our models have been traditional male ones, which is, for the most part, about power and control.”

Huber echoes this perspective. “It has often been said that women are too emotional and sensitive. However, I feel that very element makes women great leaders. Being emotionally in tune enables women to connect with others, be more in tune with others’ emotions, understand each other more, gauge interest and reactions from other people.”

She points out that the availability of Deaf women as role models in her upbringing helped her become the confident, happy woman she is today. “I’ve always loved being a Deaf woman. My pride of being a strong Deaf woman probably comes from the fact that I had a Deaf mother who was a strong woman, never afraid to share her thoughts, and that was instilled in me at a very young age. I also had wonderful Deaf female role models growing up. That sense of pride only got stronger as I grew older.”

The Deaf community is close-knit in nature, so when the crab theory is in full force, that can become difficult to address, Smith says. “I think we go quiet most of the time when we see someone sabotaging the efforts of another or don’t confront women who tell stories about others that may not be true. Our community is certainly small and in an effort to get along with everyone, however superficial it is, this can mean we sometimes keep quiet to not rock the boat.”

Sofia Seitchik, of Global Deaf Women, says, “This pulling-down of each other takes place because of people’s mindsets and their upbringings. Many don’t realize what their beliefs are as Deaf people, which are often developed from oppression.” She continues, “They need to reexamine themselves and ask themselves questions like, ‘Is there anything I can do to shift my mindset and beliefs as a Deaf woman, to believe that we are intelligent and as capable as any other person?’ This will help them open their hearts and this can be a very powerful self-mirror. Only then can they really support other women, such as Deaf business owners.”

Deaf Business Owners

Jasmine Garcia-Freeland, who owns All That Jazz and lives in Bozeman, Mont., sees this pulling-down often. “As a second-year business owner who is a Deaf woman, I think a lot of the negativity is based on mentality.” She cites a pattern among many Deaf women who refuse to support certain Deaf businesswomen simply because of personal conflicts, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the Deaf ecosystem. “To me, it doesn’t matter if I like that person or not. It’s important that we always support each other, encourage each other, and strive for a stronger Deaf business community so that our reach can extend to the hearing community, too.”

Seitchik is a successful business and life coach working with Deaf women entrepreneurs. “In the past few years we’ve seen some of the fastest-growing numbers of Deaf-owned and woman-owned businesses, but not many of them survive. This creates unique stressors, because so many eyes are on the owners, waiting to see if they fail. There exists a norm among the Deaf community that they will wait to see if a business makes it or not before they support.” As a result, Seitchik says, deaf businesswomen have to invest time and energy in educating the community on their businesses, rather than focusing on the businesses themselves.

Seitchik also receives the same questions repeatedly in her coaching: “I get asked over and over again, ‘Will I be successful in my business? Will Deaf people support me? Do you think I can do it?’ I see so much fear in their eyes, and this pains me because this is the mindset that has been in place for many years. Most deaf people prefer to invest in hearing businesses because they mistakenly believe that hearing people know more. This is even more true for deaf women business owners, and it’s tiring and demoralizing.”

Strategies for Support

Moore believes the solution to removal of negativity can be found in ourselves. “We each have to get out of our way to help others reach their goals. This goes beyond concern for yourself and your own advancement. Don’t panic when others are happy and improving—envy, jealousy, and bitterness are a waste of time, and it’s not a great place to feel insecurity.”

Smith agrees wholeheartedly. “I have my limits with negative people. There is only so much I can do and then I need to walk away or minimize our encounters. One thing I know for sure: always respond in a positive way to negativity. It is draining work but it has to happen or you risk getting sucked in.” She suggests writing about your experiences, and having dialogue by being vulnerable and being open. She often posts her thoughts on social media, saying, “I’m amazed at how many people validate some things I post on Facebook with responses like, ‘Whew, I’m not alone. I thought I was the only one.’ We need to praise other women not just to their faces but also to others. Cherish their gifts, as you want them to cherish yours. Be a role model.”

White says, “Trying to work together and trying to find a common ground is always important. It’s best to take a negative situation and try to see the positive of it and work with that.” She adds, “We need to start offering our experiences in exchange for helping out with peer groups for women to help become more independent as well as boosting their self-esteem.” Sharing experiences to bond with others is another way women can support each other, she believes. “Provide support for them. Let them know there are resources out there. Be honest and open-minded, and provide clear communication so that things can be understood rather than misunderstood. Basically, treat deaf women the way you wish to be treated as a human being, not because we are deaf.”

Celebrating each person’s accomplishments is another step, Huber says. “Each woman has a unique story and has so much to contribute, and it’s so important to celebrate and recognize what each woman can contribute, whether big or small. When women are recognized and celebrated, this inspires other women, creating a ripple effect.”

Although there are many who continue to believe in traditional roles and expectations for women, Huber has hope. “The optimist in me has already seen so much positive change in today’s society where people are becoming more accepting and aware of everyone’s differences, respecting everyone’s backgrounds. There are only more good things to come, which will include more acceptance, celebration, and respect for women. Not only the concept of womanhood, but also the full picture of each woman, all the different layers in each woman, and the different intersectionalities of each.”

Garcia-Freeland adds, “It’s so important to socialize with women from all walks of life, because this is the reality of the world. It’s diverse, and I want to work well with others. I can accomplish this because I value each person’s experiences and stories, regardless of whether we have mutual friends or not.”

“I am aware that we Deaf women may have to work harder and prove ourselves, but that’s okay with me, because I know that we Deaf women are fully capable of accomplishing many wonderful things. I would not change a thing, especially with the plethora of Deaf female organizations out there and all the opportunities for Deaf women out there,” Huber says. “There’s always magic when you put together a group of women, because they’re able to influence each other and inspire each other in positive ways.”

sComm: An Update

Read my original article and open letter (available in ASL and English) before reading the below.

Warning: This article includes graphic language.

In March, I wrote an article objecting to sComm’s practice of promoting the UbiDuo as a replacement for interpreters. I then wrote an open letter urging sComm to retract its statements and apologize to interpreters and the community. Several messages I sent to sComm went unanswered. Before continuing, it may help to know a bit about sComm.

About sComm
sComm is located in Raytown, Mo., just outside of Kansas City. sComm promotes itself as being deaf-owned, but in reality, it’s partially owned by Jason Curry, who is deaf. His parents, David and Emma Curry, both hearing, are the other owners. David, credited with devising the UbiDuo concept, is a well-known real estate mogul in Sedalia, Mo.; he does not sign. Emma was an educational interpreter (using Signed Exact English) at one time, but is now the vice president at sComm and is typically involved with day-to-day matters.

The start of sComm (the name stands for simultaneous communication) was discussed in an article in The ExaminersComm “applied for a National Institutes of Health grant. It took five years for the funding to come through. In 2005 the company received a $1.5 million grant.” Curry, now 46, was then working for the federal General Services Administration, and resigned to take the company forward in 2008.

Response to My Writings
After my article and open letter were released, the response was overwhelming. Message after message shared people’s heart-wrenching stories from of being forced or pushed to use the UbiDuo instead of having interpreters brought onsite, especially in hospital and government settings. Deaf Hearing Network also aired a segment featuring a woman who shared her negative experiences with the UbiDuo.

[Read more…]

An email from sComm

My hosting company sent me this earlier today.

Hi Trudy –

We were contacted by the below company with the stated concern. Can you address this right away? Thanks.

Posted today at 10:42
sComm Inc. are the exclusive owners of copyrights or distribution rights for our content, including but not limited to “Communiphobia.”

You are receiving this notice because a hosting account associated with your services was identified as having been recently used illegally to make and/or distribute copies of our intellectual property identified at the bottom of this letter. Such content theft is a serious offense that carries the risk of substantial monetary damages and, in some cases, criminal prosecution. We ask that you forward this notice to the subscriber who was assigned the applicable hosting account and to take appropriate steps to deter future infringement, including:

Require the subscriber to remove or delete all unauthorized copies of sComm property;
Ensure the account is no longer used to copy or distribute sComm Property in the future;
Require the subscriber to confirm the above steps have been taken; and
Take appropriate action against the subscriber under your Abuse Policy/Terms of Service.

The content exists of all images within the article located here:
http://www.trudysuggs.com/doingmoreharmthangood/

We appreciate your efforts to reduce copyright infringement on your networks. Please send us a prompt response indicating the actions you have taken to resolve this matter. Please reference the above noted Notice ID 2225001 in all correspondence, which should be directed to:

Email: jonathan@sComm.com

The undersigned has a good faith belief that use of sComm Property in the manner described herein is not authorized by sComm, its agents or the law. We hereby state that the information in this notification is accurate and, under penalty of perjury, that the undersigned is authorized to act on behalf of sComm with respect to this matter.

Please be advised that this letter is not and is not intended to be a complete statement of the facts or law as they may pertain to this matter or of sComm’s positions, rights or remedies, legal or equitable, all of which are expressly reserved.

Regards,

Copyright Officer for sComm

Open letter to Jason Curry, sComm CEO

(To learn more about this open letter, go here.)

March 30, 2015

Mr. Curry:

Thank you for the video you released on Friday, March 27, clarifying sComm’s position on having the UbiDuo replace interpreters specifically in child abuse cases.

My goal is to ensure that accurate information is shared with everyone, deaf or hearing, and that nobody has any communication options forced upon him or her. I would like to invite sComm to share in this goal.

However, many of the comments on the sComm Facebook page have been deleted, including several I posted, such as this one:IMG_6636 2

I would like to understand why they were deleted. A tough part of any business is dealing with customer feedback, positive or negative. Deleting messages can be counterproductive, and implies that sComm does not welcome feedback from the very community it serves.

Additionally, there seems to be quite a history of sComm’s position on “replacing” interpreters with the UbiDuo and the continued implication that deaf and hard of hearing people cannot function independently; this dates back to at least January 2012, as shown in this YouTube video at around the three-minute mark where you are shown typing “deaf and hard of hearing people have to go everywhere with an interpreter” to a reporter.

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 10.14.32 AM

I also have numerous other screenshots, submitted by people, showing similar messages made by sComm representatives and/or you.

While I won’t repeat the long list of issues and suggestions mentioned on my Facebook page or website, I would like to invite you to release an official statement stating sComm’s position on interpreters as a valuable communication tool (or even necessity). I would also like to invite you to share sComm’s updated marketing strategy and how the UbiDuo will be illustrated as one of many options, rather than the only option, available to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Please note I am not including deafblind people here, as many have told me that the UbiDuo is inaccessible to them. I also encourage sComm to add a statement to its website clearly stating that the UbiDuo should never be considered a replacement for those who prefer to work with interpreters.

Furthermore, I would like to know if sComm intends to take down the Communiphobia video and all other videos and posts that demean American Sign Language and interpreters indirectly or directly. Finally, I welcome an apology from sComm, and you personally, to the deaf and interpreting communities for the insurmountable harm and countless misconceptions that sComm has created, and sComm’s commitment to remedying this.

From a deaf business owner to another, I implore you to please remember that whether we like it or not, any message you share with your clients will have an indirect, and direct, effect on each and every member of the deaf community, including my four children and me. People like you and me are shaping their futures, and it’s crucial that we do this correctly and respectfully.

I look forward to positive changes.

Sincerely,

Trudy Suggs

Doing More Harm than Good

(See the bottom of this page for a link to sComm’s response to this and my follow-up response in both ASL and English. I have also posted updates at the end of this page.)

A friend texted and told me to look at the sComm Facebook page; sComm is the company that markets the UbiDuo device. Saying it enables “the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Hearing [sic] to Communicate without Barriers,” it touts the UbiDuo as “the world’s foremost communication solution for people who are deaf, hard of hearing or hearing.” It also states almost proudly, it seems, that there “is no need for an interpreter with the UbiDuo.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 1.58.55 PM

When the UbiDuo, produced by sComm, first came out, I was a bit skeptical because the device didn’t seem like anything special; it was like a makeshift set-up of two TTYs connected to each other. Even though some people I knew worked for sComm, I still wasn’t convinced of its value.

Based in Raytown, Mo., the company was founded by Jason Curry, who is deaf, and his hearing father David. The sComm website says, “The UbiDuo was born out of pure frustration.” The story is that the father and son duo “sat down for breakfast one morning and struggled to carry on an in-depth business conversation, free of misinterpretation and confusion.” David sketched his vision of a product, and, “Just like that, one family’s efforts to achieve meaningful and treasured personal connections through communication brought the same life-changing triumph to millions of other deaf and hard of hearing individuals across the world.”

People have the option of getting the UbiDuo 2 Wireless for $1,995 or the UbiDuo Wired for $2,195. Oh, and if you want enhanced security, that’s another $150, and then the carrying bag for the UbiDuo is yet another $50. The sComm website lists along its clients Walmart, Wells Fargo, the White House, Coca-Cola, the Canadian Hearing Society, Goodwill, Pride Toronto, Wegman’s, the U.S. Postal Service, NASA, several universities, and even the U.S. Army and Pentagon.

Within the past few years, sComm has begun aggressively marketing the UbiDuo as a way to replace interpreters rather than as a communication tool. When I lived in Minnesota, a local advocate who worked for sComm allegedly convinced the local hospital — which had been super in providing immediate access to interpreters — to use the UbiDuo for emergency room communications instead of interpreters. Knowing this advocate’s belief system, I didn’t buy that he would actually push for this.

When my husband had to go to the emergency room, we found the rumor was true. My husband texted me, confused, saying that the nurse told him no interpreters were available because it was the weekend. I knew this was not accurate information, and since I had worked closely with the hospital for years in ensuring top-notch interpreter provision, I immediately told him to take photographs or get a copy of the nurse’s notes. The nurse also said the UbiDuo was now the standard for emergency room visits instead of interpreters. When I notified my contacts at the hospital, they apologized and said they would immediately remedy this mistake by communicating with the ER staff.

So after my friend’s text, I looked at the sComm Facebook page and couldn’t believe my eyes. In a post that has since been removed, sComm shared the article regarding Tennessee’s proposed law to use volunteer interpreters, and said: “What are your thoughts on volunteer interpreters dealing with child abuse cases? How is this a good thing? It’s simply not, not one bit.” I thought, “All right, that’s a great start.” But then the next paragraph floored me.

sComm wrote, “For these kind of situations as well, investigators would benefit greatly from a UbiDuo 2 to communicate easily and securely with the deaf and hard of hearing.”

I shared that post on my Facebook page, and added, “Uh, no! A UbiDuo 2 does NOT help if one is physically injured, traumatized, or scared. It also does not help if one is too upset to think straight in English, or is not fluent in English. I know when I’m really upset, I don’t want to have to type my thoughts out, even if temporarily. There have been times where I was too shaky to even hold a pen, much less type.”

I went back to the sComm page and asked, “Are you seriously proposing the UbiDuo 2 as a replacement (even if temporarily) for an interpreter based on this proposed law?” The response was a brief, “Yes, we are.”IMG_6595

Lest anyone think otherwise, this was not the first time sComm had made such outrageous comments. In a Feb. 6 post, sComm posted this:

“What would you do if you were in a life-threatening situation and unable to communicate? Wait hours for an interpreter? That’s not the solution and it’s a very dangerous solution.

The UbiDuo solves that problem. Communicate freely without barriers with anyone you’d like to, without an interpreter.”

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Again, no. In order to use the UbiDuo, one needs to be fluent in English, and of a sound mind and not in any emotional distress. In cases of abuse, especially with children, this is usually not the case. When I saw the response, “Yes, we are,” I immediately thought of my four deaf children who are aged 7 to 3. Although the older two are developing fluency in English, they’re not quite there—and even if they were, I would not want them to have to type on a machine, especially if they’re injured or traumatized. They should, instead, be given a qualified, certified interpreter (and even a Certified Deaf Interpreter), so that they have full access to everything around them and have full access to expressing themselves in their native language.

Unfortunately, sComm has a history of pushing for the UbiDuo to replace interpreters. Just look at the blurb on the American Bar Association’s website:

The UbiDuo enables deaf/hard of hearing people to communicate with hearing people without any face to face barriers. The UbiDuo is a two-screen, two-keyboard electronic communication device. It is completely portable, wireless, operates in real-time, and is completely stand alone.  This device was tested in the 13th Circuit and was very successful.  OSCA then purchased 38 units through the Basic, Data and Training Grants for distribution statewide.  Having this equipment significantly reduces the need for hiring deaf interpreters.  These devices are used in courtrooms and juvenile offices for child welfare hearings, meetings, visitations, trainings, and other related events.

And then there’s the lawsuit brought against a Jacksonville, Fla., hospital:

Caserta said an UbiDuo communication device used at Baptist that allows patients and staff to communicate with keyboards and monitors isn’t helpful if the patient struggles to read, write or type, as several of her clients do.

sComm has also posted comments repeatedly saying they want to replace interpreters with UbiDuos. For example, take a look at this screenshot shared by Jahan Farzam-Behboodi:

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Derek Braun, Ph.D., a biology professor and the director of a molecular genetics laboratory, said in a response to my post: “I had a situation last year where I was in the hospital and in bad shape after a surgery that did not go well, and I couldn’t breathe. My head was swollen up. The doctors were trying to figure out if [I] had a pulmonary embolism.” He explains that the hospital brought in a TV for video remote interpreting. “Of course I couldn’t even see the TV because I was in bed and couldn’t sit up (or breathe!). My wife told me later that the connection was crappy anyway. She yelled for a real interpreter. That was almost criminal. What sComm is proposing is worse, and yet another step down the path to depraved indifference.”

Diane Plassey Gutierrez also wrote on my thread, “This is frightening. I recently had heart surgery and was unable to communicate with the medical staff for three days afterwards, due to fuzzy vision and weakness in my arms so that I couldn’t hold a pen. Fortunately the hospital brought in an interpreter and was able to communicate my immediate needs to the staff. I know I would be scared to go to a hospital or clinic that relied mainly on the UbiDuo with its frequent breakdowns, inadequate staff training in its use, and misunderstandings since not every Deaf person and not every medical staff person is fluent in written English.”

After seeing my Facebook post, several people posted comments on the sComm Facebook page, and sComm deleted most of them. I also asked at the sComm page if anyone on the sComm staff had deaf children, since I had four deaf children and knew firsthand the dangers of their mission to replace interpreters. They did not respond.

Given the grave, potentially life-threatening, misleading message sComm is promoting through social media and probably in its business-to-business marketing efforts, it is crucial that CEO Jason Curry step up to the plate and recognize that they need to develop a new marketing strategy that focuses on the truth, rather than hyping a one-size-fits-all solution that puts full, appropriate communication access at risk. sComm must also publicly recognize that the UbiDuo cannot be offered as a replacement, but as an option. Their current stance is dangerous, and puts entities using the UbiDuo in place of interpreters at great risk for misunderstandings, miscommunication and liability.

sComm may also rethink its statement on its website: “sComm is relentless in its efforts to transform face-to-face communication for deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people and will not rest until it has achieved 100% one-on-one communication equality.” Certainly. sComm has been relentless in refusing to recognize that what they promote is not communication equality. And I will be relentless, too, about that.

UPDATE: sComm released a video responding to the criticism about its post. I share my thoughts on the sComm statement in this video response. The transcript is below.

Hi. When my article was released, I was taken aback by the thousands, actually, almost 20,000 views of the article, which was in relation to sComm and the UbiDuo. Of course, the majority expressed anger and dismay. Just a few hours ago tonight, March 27, sComm posted a video with Jason Curry, the head of sComm; sComm produces the UbiDuo. He said, in sign language, that sComm does not support the replacement of interpreters with UbiDuo; rather, the UbiDuo is ideal for when interpreters are not available. That was the essence of his message. I watched his video, and…I applaud him for responding to the criticism. Still, what he did was spin-doctoring, trying to control the information so that the real issue is pushed aside. I’d like to emphasize this, though. Some people seem to think the UbiDuo is fine. Yes, it’s perfectly fine — if you can use it effortlessly and are satisfied with it. If you don’t need an interpreter, then by all means, use it. But for situations involving hospitals, trauma, police, court, and specifically children — I have four deaf children aged 7 to 3. The older two probably could use it — but in cases of trauma, that’d be a very bad idea. I’d prefer to see an interpreter and even a certified deaf interpreter brought in so that the children can know everything that’s going on around the. Not just the conversation on screen, but also what’s being said around them that the interpreters could interpret. Not just for my children, but even for myself. Even if I’m fluent in English, when I’m upset, I prefer to sign, or when if I’m shocked. In crises, no, the UbiDuo isn’t a good idea. Besides, I don’t want anyone to tell me that I can’t have an interpreter, that I must use the UbiDuo. I get to decide, not them. That’s the essence of my stance.

At a recent workshop I presented, a participant shared the example of another person whose first language wasn’t English. This person went through a court report and marked off areas that were not true, but she wrote “not sure” [the signs for both words are similar]. She thought the word for “true” was “sure.” Obviously she didn’t have fluency in English, so for people like that, it’s not fair to force them to use the UbiDuo. They might think they can write in English, but they’re not in reality fluent. That’s risky. So my point is that I appreciate Jason’s comments, but no, sComm needs to go back and revise all of their messages, all of their website contents, print materials, everything. Even their meetings with everyone — sComm has numerous high-profile clients — governmental agencies, and everyone. They need to go back and inform everyone that the UbiDuo is an option, not a replacement. If they don’t do that, then they’re really endangering a lot of people’s lives. They say they’re relentless; so am I. I will keep on until they improve their message. I don’t want them to put me or my family at risk, period.

March 28: This story just gets more mind-boggling. Someone shared this link with me, produced by sComm.  At about 2:50, this appears:

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“Crippled”? Really? And the video also, even if jokingly, promotes VRS fraud. To stay updated, be sure to visit my Facebook page.

March 29: I posted this on my Facebook page tonight.

Hi, everyone! A huge thank you to everyone who has shared their input, and to everyone who has provided screenshots and videos posted by sComm.

Here’s what has happened since I first posted my article/video showing how sComm claimed that the UbiDuo should replace interpreters, particularly in child abuse cases. This article has been seen by tens of thousands of people. 

sComm did release a video clarifying that they did not support having only UbiDuos in child abuse cases (and I posted that on my website); I posted a follow-up video to that on Friday, March 27. Since then:

1. sComm has deleted all of my comments (unfortunately for them, I kept screenshots and copies of their videos). They have also deleted many of their dissenters’ comments. Otherwise, they’ve been staying quiet aside from having their supporters respond to dissenters.

2. More and more people have sent in emails and information demonstrating just how deep sComm’s mockery and oppression of ASL and interpreters has gone for quite some time now. It’s heart-breaking, truly, especially as a deaf business owner myself. I actually have no problem with the device itself; it’s the ethics (or lack of, rather) behind sComm’s marketing and claims demeaning ASL and mocking interpreters that I cannot support.

4. I am releasing a letter to sComm asking for a few things; that will be posted here and on my website tomorrow. 

5. In the meantime, I ask that we all not mock anyone’s signing or communication preferences. When anyone does this, this is no than sComm demeaning ASL. 

If you think what I have posted isn’t enough, here are additional screenshots — from February 2015 — of where sComm states that ASL is a simplified language.

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

Power of Me Retreat Interview with Trudy Suggs

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I recently did an interview with Global Deaf Women for its Power of Me Retreat, sharing my experiences as a business owner. I’m really looking forward to finally participating in this retreat; I’ve heard many great things about it from previous years. It also has a great speaker list this year, and I’m excited to learn about other start-ups and to pick up a few business tips.

2014 Holiday Hop: A Spotlight on Deaf-Owned Businesses

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T.S. Writing Services (TSW) and Your Desk’s Assistant (YDA), two deaf-owned small businesses, have come together to create an exciting, never-before event to take place on December 1-14, 2014.

To promote deaf-owned businesses, and to help spread awareness of the fantastic diversity among such businesses, Holiday Hop will showcase different deaf businesses each day. Many have provided items or services for raffle drawings as giveaways. To participate in the Holiday Hop, go to www.facebook.com/deafholidayhop and click LIKE. Be sure to also turn on “GET NOTIFICATIONS” (usually found as a drop-down option in the LIKE/LIKED box on that page) to stay updated.

To enter the raffle, each individual has three opportunities: liking the TSW Facebook page, the YDA Facebook page, and the showcased business Facebook page if there is one.  A new set of businesses will be showcased each day, starting at 1 p.m. Eastern. Each raffle will last for 24 hours, and end the following day at 1 p.m.

There are at least 35 deaf-owned businesses participating to date; we’re thrilled by this tremendous response. So come on over to the Holiday Hop Facebook page and become part of this exciting event!

Workshop: Think of a Word, Quick! on Sept. 6

 

If you’re in the Washington, D.C. area, sign up for the always fun THINK OF A WORD, QUICK! workshop. It’s on Sept. 6, and is a great way to hone your interpreting skills while having a good time.