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.

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#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.

 

 

Giving Credit Where It Wasn’t Due

Video description: Trudy, a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, is wearing a deep royal blue sweater. She is seated in the corner with brown bookshelves on her right and a sea blue wall on her left.

I was the keynote speaker at a world languages ceremony at a public high school last year, and I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to highlight American Sign Language (ASL) as a bona fide language along with its history of being oppressed. I sent my speech in advance to the interpreters, and arrived early to ensure that I could establish a rapport with them, since they would be controlling my voice and how I would be perceived by hundreds of hearing parents and students in attendance—many of who had never seen or met a deaf person before. I had shared my reservations about the interpreters’ ability to voice for me with the sign language coordinator, but I wanted to believe they would do just fine.

As I sat through the first part of the ceremony, I was reminded of my years as a mainstreamed student: rather than integrating me into the activities, they were providing me with minimal access — and therefore I was isolated just as I had been in school. One of the interpreters sat at the very far left of the stage, even though I was seated near center right in the front row in a reserved seat. It was very difficult to see her in the dimmed lighting. I discreetly asked her to move closer to me, but she couldn’t understand me. After repeating myself twice, she responded that she wouldn’t move because she was fine where she was. I decided to let it go, since I was more focused on my presentation.

Once I got onstage, I began to sign, only to realize that the interpreter was immediately faltering. The other interpreter wasn’t involved at all, not even in a supporting role. Fortunately, the hearing (and fluent) ASL teacher Ms. Doe, who had invited me to the ceremony, was standing next to the interpreter. I quickly asked her to take over the voicing, so she did, and the speech went well in spite of this initial stumble.

At the end of the ceremony, the director of the ESL, World Languages, Bilingual Education and Performing Arts department came onstage to give closing remarks. As the interpreter signed, I did a double take, but decided to hold any reaction until I could confirm what had actually been said. I emailed that director later on to request a copy of her comments. As I read the copy a few weeks later, I realized with a sick feeling that I hadn’t misunderstood, nor had the interpreter misinterpreted. Below is a direct copy-and-paste from the director’s remarks, which she read from onstage:

Before I start, one thing I need to comment on is the power of Ms. Suggs’ presentation. Aside from teaching us so much about the history of ASL, she and Mrs. Doe performed a very beneficial role reversal for us tonight. So often, as speakers of the dominant language of our culture, we take for granted that we are going to understand everything that is told to us. The broadcast news is geared to us, with the little sign language translation box is in the corner —sometimes. Tonight, most of us were totally dependent on Mrs. Doe for comprehension. That brings about many emotions, maybe even negative emotions. Think about how you felt during that presentation, totally dependent on a translator. Were you bored? Frustrated? Engaged in the challenge of trying to decipher it? What about if Mrs. Doe had not been there to help us? Please remember what you felt tonight when you encounter speakers of other languages, in particular the over 800 students who are currently considered English Language Learners in our [town name deleted] Public Schools family. What you experienced tonight is what they experience every day. I would also like to recognize Mrs. Doe’s extraordinary talents. Simultaneous interpretation is one of the most demanding language tasks, and her interpretation was first-rate.

Her comments spotlighted Ms. Doe and the “helplessness” instead of focusing on the message I shared — which was the incredible history behind signed languages, and their equality to spoken language. Ms. Doe was made the hero of my presentation, instead of focusing on signed languages. To add insult to injury, the two interpreters’ failure to work together or adequately prepare for the presentation was converted into a “challenge of trying to decipher” what I was signing, rather than outright incompetency. And let’s not even talk about the “little sign language translation box in the corner” comment.

To be fair, the way the challenges were framed — “. . .bored? Frustrated” and “negative emotions” — were probably intended to remind people about the importance of respect. Yet these very words seemed to imply that signed language was “boring,” as if I didn’t communicate myself clearly and was difficult to “decipher.” If the interpreters had done their job properly, nobody would be bored, frustrated or negatively responding. Finally, “What if Mrs. Doe had not been there to help us?” is a perfect example of deficit thinking.

Deaf people have always found a way to communicate, and it’s our words that interpreters are voicing, even if haphazardly at times. There is no helplessness involved; there is no dependence involved. Unfortunately, this perception of helplessness remains, even among people who are fully educated on how ASL is a separate language and in no way correlates with helplessness.

How do we address this? I’m not quite sure, because it seems like everything we’ve tried in the past few centuries hasn’t worked. I do know that we must educate people about giving interpreters, or in this case, someone who happened to sign fluently, so much credit. We also must have them start shifting the focus onto the message, rather than the modality or translation process. If only the director had listened to what I said in my presentation: “All this stems from the mistaken notion that one language is superior to another . . . .and one way to combat this is as you continue to study languages, embrace their peoples, history, and cultures, and celebrate all that the language stands for.”

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

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.”

Speech given at a high school in 2015

The following is a speech I gave at a public high school’s world languages ceremony in 2015. Read the article I wrote about this experience.

Language, as we know firsthand, is at the very heart of every civilization, and has been ever since the beginning of humankind. Whether it be gestures or full-blown language, language has endured changes, evolution, abuse and even death, or linguicide — and nowhere is that more evident than in signed languages.

Allow me to back up a bit and give you a bit of background. I am second-generation Deaf, which means my parents are also deaf. My husband is third-generation, so that means our four deaf children are fourth generations — and we have over 50 deaf relatives on both sides of the family in terms of cousins, uncles and aunts, grandparents and lots of other relatives I probably don’t want to meet. That translates to a long history of using sign language in our family, dating back to the early 1900s. In essence, we’ve had sign language for over a hundred years. As Deaf people, we recognize the immense value of language, and being able to connect with each other through words, spoken or signed.

Today, American Sign Language, ASL, like many other languages, is recognized on so many levels. It’s one of the fastest-growing languages in the U.S., and is believed to be the third most used language in the U.S. Sounds good, right?

Well, let me give you a bit of history. Although sign language has been around since primitive times, and the earliest recorded drawing of the fingerspelled alphabet dates back to the 1500s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Dr. William Stokoe, a hearing man who wasn’t very fluent in sign language, did research that proved ASL was a bona fide language, separate from English.

I remember growing up telling people, and even writing in my research papers for school, that ASL was broken English, that it was abbreviated English. I can’t believe I actually said that, because this was during the 1980s and early 1990s. ASL research already existed. Why didn’t anyone tell me otherwise? Why was I never taught that ASL had its own rich vocabulary, syntax and other properties?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because for centuries, sign language has been looked upon as a language for animals, as primitive, as unsavory, and any other host of adjectives. This primarily has to do with the notion that spoken language is superior. This is only natural; anything different from us is considered strange, funny, fascinating, or even beautiful. We all experience xenophobia to different degrees. That’s why learning new languages is so important, so that we can learn about other cultures, other peoples, and each other.

The problem is that signed language is often not considered another language. Rather, people mistakenly believe it’s a basic form of gesturing, and a direct representation of English on the hands. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

As students of language yourself, you know how challenging grammar in other languages can be. This is equally true for sign language, whether it’s American Sign Language or French Sign Language or any other signed language. As an aside, sign language isn’t universal, if you were wondering.

So, back to why nobody told me ASL was a stand-alone, distinct language from English. . . there is a long history behind this, and it involves Alexander Graham Bell. Yeah, that one. The same guy who invented our telephone, or rather, he was the first to claim the patent. It’s now known that he wasn’t actually the first inventor, but he got the patent first.

Bell was the son of a deaf mother, and is said to have been very fluent in sign language. He later married a deaf woman, who did not sign. Nobody really knows why, but Bell became very adamant that sign language was not the way go. He became a steadfast proponent of banishing sign language from all education. He also believed that deaf people should not marry, and actually was a huge supporter of eugenics, the social movement claiming to improve the genetic features of human populations through selective breeding and sterilization in order to create a superior society. He even served as president of the National Eugenics Society.

Many people find that astonishing, and I do, too. How could someone who signed fluently, had deaf relatives and was such a brilliant man have such warped perspectives? Even if times were different back then, it’s still shocking.

Bell had a pivotal role in something that has had major ripple effects to this day. He was one of 164 delegates to the 1880 International Congress on Education of the Deaf, which was held in Milan, Italy. At this conference, it was voted that sign language would be banned from education in favor of teaching deaf children to speak. Out of the 164 delegates, guess how many were deaf? Only one.

So, as a result of this ban, Deaf teachers and other deaf professionals lost their jobs if they could not speak. Deaf children were raised without access to sign language, often being punished if they even as much moved their fingers, and this lack of access caused great delays in language development, in later-life opportunities and much more. The effects are being felt even today, 135 years later — all because of the notion that spoken language is superior to signed language.

Around the country, and in many other countries, deaf schools — which are not the stereotypical institutions you think of where you “abandon” people with disabilities or mental illnesses; they’re actually beautiful, flourishing places where culture, language and tradition are preserved from generation to generation — are closing down for many reasons, but especially because of the perceived cost. More and more school districts are favoring mainstreaming because they think it saves money, when in reality, it causes a lot more harm for so many children in terms of language access. I’m not saying mainstreaming is bad; it’s not always bad. It worked for me, but I wish I knew back then what I know today.

There is also a massive spoken language — in other words, no signs — movement underway around the nation. More and more doctors are urging parents to shun sign language and to focus on spoken language. Spoken language does work for some, but not for all. What happens is that in 20 years, many of these deaf babies raised without sign language, come to the deaf community with anger, frustration and struggles because they had limited language access. This has happened time after time, and despite the most massive efforts, signed language has persisted.

With my four children — who are ages 7, 6, almost 5 and 3.5 — I saw firsthand just how naturally their language developed. They began babbling in sign language at maybe three months, and then began making words when they were six months old. It didn’t change with each child; each child hit the same language milestones in their first year of life. I have many examples that support how bilingualism is really beneficial.

When my oldest was 17 months old, she told me about a dream she had about a wolf inside a pumpkin. I was astounded, because that was from a children’s book we had read a few days before. For her to be able to describe such an abstract concept — dreams — and be so detailed in what it was about was just mind-blowing. Yet, because she was not yet fluent in English at that age, she would have been incorrectly perceived as language-delayed. Today, she’s seven and reading and writing at two grades above level. My other children are the same; all are above grade level for language in both ASL and English. This is no surprise for those who are familiar with bilingualism with any two languages; bilingualism has consistently shown to help young children acquire languages and get ahead in many areas.

With the proliferation of sign language classes and programs around the country, it’s sadly ironic that more and more deaf people — specifically children — are being denied access to sign language, which is their natural language. All this stems from the mistaken notion that one language is superior to another. Signed languages are not the only victims of this, though. This is also happening with many other languages in the United States, all because of the belief that English should be the only language.

And this, my friends, is exactly why language access is so crucial for any child, deaf or hearing. Unfortunately, because being deaf is still looked upon as a disability instead of a linguistic minority or cultural minority, millions of children around the world are being denied sign language. We must cease the belief that any one language is superior to another, like English being superior to Spanish.

So, what does this have to do with you? Why should you care? The answer is simple. You are given the privilege of choosing to study one language, any language and making yourself bilingual or even multilingual. And you can do this using your natural language. This same privilege needs to be given to deaf children, just like I was given that privilege. There are many ways you can do this as a world language student.

Say you’re learning Italian or French, and you go to Italy or France and run into a deaf child. What would you do? Or maybe you have a deaf child yourself someday. How would you respond? May I suggest that as you study your language of choice, you also learn the sign language of that country? Learn about sign language, learn about the glorious culture of Deaf people not only in America, but in other countries as well, and help promote the fact that signed language is as important as your language of choice. By ensuring that signed language persists despite blatant modern-day efforts to abolish it and misconceptions, you are helping bring language access to every deaf person out there. Linguicide is not acceptable for any language, and one way to combat this is as you continue to study languages, embrace their peoples, histories and cultures, and celebrate all that the language stands for.

Thank you for allowing me to share the importance of preserving any and all languages without oppression or notions of superiority. Congratulations on this wonderful journey you have embarked on into world language learning.

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

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

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

I first saw the term DEAF-HEART at an interpreting conference back in the early 2000s. There was a heated discussion in a workshop, and an interpreter stood on stage saying how important it was to have DEAF HEART—she signed “deaf” over the heart. My friend, a top-level interpreter, quickly looked at me to see how I reacted. I naturally was caught off-guard by that sign and turned to her, saying, “What the…?” She giggled at my reaction, and said, “Yeah, I know. A new phrase that’s catching on.”

I had a sick feeling in my stomach, although I didn’t understand quite what bothered me so much about the phrase. It didn’t help that the newly certified interpreter on stage was not yet fluent in American Sign Language. Later that day, I chatted with other deaf people at the conference and discovered that I wasn’t the only one bothered by this phrase.

Fast forward to the 2013 Street Leverage event in Atlanta, where this term seemed to be all the rage. Even Deaf presenters stood onstage and talked about what DEAF-HEART meant. I wanted to write about this phrase then, but I still hadn’t quite pinpointed why it was such an abrasive phrase to me. Over time, I talked to many people: interpreters, Deaf people, CDIs, and everyone else in between. The same messages kept emerging: they, too, didn’t like the phrase but weren’t sure why. The select few (all hearing) who did like the phrase said the phrase made them feel like they belonged to the Deaf community.

Let’s explore the history of this phrase. While there’s no hard evidence of exactly when DEAF-HEART began being used, the phrase has been around at least 15 years, based on the first time I saw it. I spoke with Lewis Merkin, CDI, who said he and a group (including CDIs Jimmy Beldon, Alisha Bronk, Janis Cole, Kristin Lund, and Priscilla Moyers) had met in December 2008 as part of a Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Deaf Members in Leadership committee meeting. As reported in the Spring 2009 issue of the RID VIEWS:

The best approach to reminding members of the value of an “of Deaf” perspective is to create an atmosphere where this occurs naturally. We discussed “Deaf Heart” [sic] concepts (ASL, visually accessible information, collectivism vs. individualism, culture, history, CODA input, etc.) and looked at how this can be incorporated (at the 2009 RID National Conference, collaborating with NAD, CIT and ASLTA to incorporate allies principles into interpreter training program curricula, revisit the wording of RID’s strategic challenges, etc.).

In that same issue, Bronk wrote in “Interpreters: Gatekeepers for the Deaf Interpreter Community”:

We should all be open to sharing our experiences, frustrations and joys of our work in an effort to improve ourselves and our field. We know that deaf and hearing interpreters, working in teams, can provide the best service to many Deaf community members, enhance all of our skills, and bring what the Deaf community calls “Deaf-heart” [sic] back into our field.

Merkin told me, “I know when we were talking about it, it was to find a way of explaining what we considered positive traits. How it’s been co-opted is another story.”

I continue to be uncomfortable with it for a number of reasons, and I continue to be surprised by how many people have expressed their discomfort with this phrase but are hesitant to share their discomfort for fear of backlash.

With the interpreting field becoming much more professionalized—not a bad thing, in any way—I find that more and more interpreters are trying to use different labels, including “having DEAF-HEART.” John, a friend I shared this article with said it best: “Without having the lived experience of being deaf, you may be able to identify various factors and experiences deaf people have on an intellectual level, but at the end of the day, you don’t have that personal experience.” This is true even for those who are hearing and have Deaf family members; while they may see the good and bad experiences of being a Deaf person, they don’t experience it firsthand.

I remember when I first understood this. Ironically, it was a hearing person who taught me this—a straight, white male who people love to hate: a police officer. Ken and I were co-teaching a course at the Illinois State Police Academy after two deaf men had been killed by police within a month’s span back in 1996. A high-ranking Illinois State Police administrator, Ken happened to be my graduate school notetaker and became a trusted ally and friend. We naturally joined forces, with our work leading to a statewide curriculum addressing how police should communicate with deaf people.

During a class, Ken asked the 60 cadets, “How many of you had met a deaf person before today?” Only five or six raised their hands, which surprised even me. He then asked me, “Trudy, how many times this morning did you have to tell someone you were deaf?” I mentally did the calculations, and said, “Five or six times.” It was only 10:00 a.m. when I gave that answer, and I suddenly understood just how much being Deaf shaped my life experiences, even for simple tasks such as getting gas or buying food.

This illustrates exactly why no matter how “Deaf” a hearing person may be or feel, that person will never have firsthand knowledge of the tension or even fear we have when we are in a situation involving communication. They can empathize, of course, but it’s a completely different experience when you’re actually living 24 hours a day as a Deaf person.

Another reason I bristle at DEAF-HEART is that it seems as if this is yet another way to try and gain entrance to the core of our community. Can you imagine telling someone, “That [white American] interpreter has ASIAN-HEART”? While it obviously is meant to be complimentary, it’s really not.

This is the crux of the problem for me: how interpreters consistently and continuously try to be as integrated into the Deaf community as they possibly can be. I can’t count how many times an interpreter or ASL student has excitedly said to me, “Wow! That person thought I was Deaf or had Deaf parents!” as if this was the highest praise available. And of course there are those who say, “That interpreter really does have a DEAF-HEART.” To me, this is an example of cultural appropriation—even if unintentional. I also recognize that many Deaf people promote this phrase without understanding the weight it holds. One Deaf interpreter said, “DEAF-HEART is like branding. By gaining this label, you’re branded ‘in’ with Deaf people.”

John, my friend, added, “To me, DEAF-HEART has a negative connotation because it implies that one does ‘goodwill.’ We do not need their goodwill, we need them to respect us and treat us equally.  That’s it. Why isn’t having our respect enough?  Why do we need to reward hearing people, who represent the majority, by giving them a name like DEAF-HEART when they are supposed to respect our culture and language, anyway?”

Yet it seems many hearing interpreters and deaf people have become enamored with the idea that it is necessary to be as Deaf as possible to be accepted in the Deaf community. This is not appropriate, nor true. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an outsider who supports the Deaf community. You may ask, “But what about trust? How can we gain Deaf people’s trust?”

Ah, but there’s a word for this: ally. I think this word is so much more powerful than DEAF-HEART. Ally has been in use for years, and for good reason; most dictionaries define it as coming together for a common cause or purpose and in mutual respect.

One can be an ally and have access to the community by practicing that word’s meaning to the highest standards possible. John added, “To be a true ally, people have to practice humility, which means they do not tell Deaf people they have gotten our respect or share the praises they get from us. Humility and respect are what makes them true allies.”

Exactly. And that’s why I will always choose to work with someone who is sincerely an ally rather than someone who supposedly has DEAF-HEART, because to me, a genuine ally means someone who actually works with you to make something happen, shows respect, and understands better than anyone else that this is your experience.

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

To Lead or Not to Lead? Sharing Power in the Field of Interpreting

This article originally appeared in the spring/summer 2014 issue of the RID VIEWS (Volume 31, Issue 2).

View it as a PDF file: Suggs-Bowen_Article.pdf

By Doug Bowen-Bailey, CI/CT, and Trudy Suggs, CDI

In the field of interpreting, a critical question is how to share power in leadership. While interpreters might often think of this at the organizational level, they also need to see this power-sharing method in daily practice.

As certified interpreters, we have worked together on many projects. We are also both passionate about language, both written and signed. In our partnership, we frequently have had to navigate ways to share power as a hearing person and a deaf person. Our work, however, often focuses on much broader issues than linguistics.

One such example of power-sharing becoming an issue emerged during a video project where we worked with a hearing project manager in creating an ASL version of an English-based curriculum. The project manager did not sign and was relatively new to the deaf community, although he had worked on other deaf community projects in the past. He had tremendously good intentions and was very committed to access. Yet at the beginning of this collaboration, he frequently communicated via telephone with Doug on project details, and Doug would then let Trudy know of the conversations. The conversations were rarely long or substantive, but they put Doug in the role of gatekeeper. As a result, Trudy responded to ideas rather than helping to create them, a significant shift since it was Trudy who had initially advocated for Doug’s involvement in this project.

After a few times, Trudy expressed a bit of concern about this process. Doug agreed, especially since he had also noted this pattern. Together, they determined that using a text-based online meeting platform would allow everyone to have equal access (with the added benefit of having a transcript for notes). Also discussed was who should propose this idea to the project manager; we decided that Doug should do it because, as a hearing person, there was less risk that he would be perceived negatively for challenging a hearing norm. Doug then offered this alternative to the project manager, pointing out the barriers created by the phone calls. The project manager quickly agreed, and the text chat turned out to be very successful in allowing all parties to more fully contribute.

Such instances often are so subtle that they don’t appear as clear delineations of power, but over time, they can become leadership challenges. In exploring such daily opportunities for sharing power, a better understanding of leadership can be achieved. We don’t intend to lift up our choices as the ideal model; however, there are principles in how we responded that may be helpful. The steps in that process consisted of:

  • Understanding the power of gatekeeping
  • Committing to shared decision-making
  • Analyzing the dynamics of power and risk
  • Creating a joint plan of action

Understanding the Power of Gatekeeping

It is important to look at the function and power of gatekeeping. In this example, gatekeeper meant being in a position to allow access to a system or institution. Initially, Trudy was the gatekeeper for Doug by advocating for his involvement in the project. However, in American dominant hearing culture, society is much more comfortable with hearing people in the role of gatekeeper. Whether rooted in audism, or in the ease that many find in communicating through spoken English, or a combination of both, Doug quickly became the gatekeeper.

In an August 2014 interview, Jimmy Beldon identified in the dynamics of opportunities for hearing and deaf interpreters:

…sometimes CDIs will see doors open and invite a hearing interpreter to work — in a team. But then the hearing interpreter walks ahead and goes through the door alone, leaving the CDI behind. When the hearing interpreter enters alone, it means that interpreter starts building a relationship with people and with clients while also building skills. As typically is the case, when people build skills, they naturally become leaders and accept leadership roles.

Such a pattern leads to a power imbalance. Fortunately, we were able to recognize this dynamic in that particular project and managed it in a way that did not leave either of us behind. In fact, for certain projects, it has been critical for Trudy serve as gatekeeper. For example, we have needed to recruit talent who are Deaf and fluent in ASL. Her understanding of and relationships within the Deaf community make her much more effective in this role than Doug can be.

Valuing the Wisdom of the Deaf Experience

A common approach to making decisions about deaf people is to simply exclude them and determine, based on various altruistic and systematic values, what is “best” for them. As discussed in Trudy’s Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter presentation for Street Leverage, disempowerment is the taking away of power. She shares examples of how everyday disempowerment happens at minuscule, yet influential, levels. This, in turn, creates a cycle of situational disempowerment and economic disempowerment — thereby continuing the (unintentional and intentional) oppression of deaf people in every facet of their lives.

In the aforementioned project, Doug’s moving into the gatekeeper role certainly could have had economic consequences. If Doug had ignored or minimized Trudy’s concerns, he could have gone on to build relationships that led to further projects for him while leaving Trudy behind, creating economic and situational disempowerment.

In her StreetLeverage presentation, Trudy pointed out some other approaches:

By refusing to control situations, by deferring to the deaf person whenever appropriate, by allowing the consumers to control the situation, and by ensuring that you don’t speak on behalf of the entire deaf community especially if you’re hearing—you can take steps towards ensuring that deaf people retain their power while you do your job. (Suggs, 2012b)

The idea of hearing people deferring to deaf people is not done out of pity or patronization. The justification for it is not that deaf people have experienced oppression, so therefore hearing interpreters should simply back off. Rather, it comes from a valuing of the wisdom that comes from Deaf epistemology, which is defined as “the nature and extent of the knowledge that deaf individuals acquire growing up in a society that relies primarily on audition to navigate life” (Hauser et al., 2010, p. 486).   In other words, the experience of being deaf in a hearing world provides insights that hearing interpreters can’t have access to unless they are open to following deaf people’s lead.

Another deaf-hearing team experience showcases this deference as a key step. Nic Zapko and Patty Gordon are the creators of StoryBlend, an immersion experience that uses theater to build ASL and interpreting skills. Nic, who is deaf, and Patty, who is hearing, have noticed a consistent dynamic in the process as it moves from the first to the second week. Initially, all interactions are in ASL. By the second week, participants begin to work on translating ASL into English. At some point, the atmosphere shifts from being Deaf-centric to hearing-centric. Nic was the first to notice this; in fact, Patty states that she often doesn’t see or sense it until Nic points it out. She has learned to defer to Nic’s identification of the shift so that it can be addressed for the benefit of all involved with StoryBlend.

Analyzing the Dynamics of Power and Risk

In identifying issues related to leadership and power-sharing, the next step is to make an assessment of the dynamics of power and risk. Valuing the wisdom of and deferring to the leadership of deaf people does not mean that hearing interpreters can, or should, simply step back from taking action or responsibility. In some situations, a deaf person may provide the insight and leadership, but it may be too risky to be the point person in carrying out an action. Consequently, a hearing interpreter may serve that purpose as an ally. This does not mean that the deaf person is giving up power to someone with privilege. Rather, taking an honest assessment of the dynamics of the situation helps figure out the best way to address how to achieve an objective with the least risk.

In the initial example with the project manager, we determined that Doug had less to risk in challenging the hearing norm of phone conversations. One of the ironies of hearing privilege is that hearing people can often bring forward the exact same critique of a situation and be perceived as insightful, whereas a deaf person may be perceived as militant, divisive, or angry.   Trudy shared an example of this labeling in another StreetLeverage presentation (Suggs, 2012a). In that situation, the deaf people involved were simply sharing experiences, yet they were perceived as venting, divisive and angry. (It’s also important to note that anger can be a legitimate response to experiences of oppression and using such labels can be expressions of privilege.)

The dynamics of audism often means the risk can be even more subtle. To use a non-interpreting example, Oprah Winfrey was denied access to a store in Paris. She felt that she had been discriminated against because she was black. The store claimed that they were setting up for a private party and couldn’t let her in. Tim Wise suggests that the reason doesn’t matter. What is more significant is that “Oprah Winfrey, with all her money, all her power, and all her influence, still had to wonder, even if only for a moment, whether her race had trumped all that in the eyes of another person” (Wise, 2008, p. 72). Deaf people frequently have similar thoughts and experiences when encountering systems and institutions that favor the ability to hear, or hearing privilege. No matter how competent or powerful those individuals are, the risk of encountering doubt and insecurity is simply a part of living in a hearing-dominated society.

In this context, there may be situations where it seems too risky for a deaf person to be the lead, such as a deaf-hearing interpreting team. If a CDI brings forward a concern to an agency, the agency may view the deaf interpreter as the problem, choosing in the future to hire only hearing interpreters because they are perceived as safe. In addition, while being deaf in a hearing world can provide wisdom and insight, it also can be exhausting. At times, it makes sense for hearing interpreters to serve as allies in taking action. Yet, this is not a decision that hearing interpreters should make without deferring to the deaf interpreters.

Creating a Joint Plan of Action

If the team decides that the hearing interpreter is to take the lead, this should always be part of a joint plan. With the project manager, it made sense for Doug to raise the concern, but it didn’t mean that he acted on his own or that Trudy somehow ceded power to a privileged white, male, hearing interpreter. While in many respects, Trudy provided the leadership in the situation with insight into what was taking place and how to address the situation, Doug still could share his perspectives.

After an action is carried out, it is vital to evaluate the consequences. Throughout the project and even today, we continued to have conversations about the dynamics of interactions. Such a sharing of power is not something can simply be checked off a list. It is a continuing process.

Although such a process can consume energy and requires commitment, the upside is that sharing power does not have to be a zero-sum equation. Deaf people exercising their power do not diminish hearing interpreters’ power. Working together to create a plan of action that takes into account the value of deaf people’s experiences and the dynamics of a situation can be of benefit to all involved.

Beldon, in his interview, ended with an encouraging point in thinking about deaf-hearing interpreting teams:

Hearing interpreters have to help, serve as allies, and promote CDIs as team members. Share the message that it will ensure equivalent messages. It’s about deaf people’s language. Hearing interpreters can do their thing, and let the CDIs do theirs. It’s beautiful.

Deaf and hearing people working together in everyday situations to share leadership and power is just as beautiful, and well worth the energy to make it happen.

References

Beldon, J. (2014, Spring/Summer). Opening the door to CDI leadership. VIEWS. (no page number)

Hauser, P., O’Hearn, A., McKee, M., Steider, A., and Thew, D. (2010). Deaf epistemology: Deafhood and deafness. American Annals of the Deaf, 154(5), 486-492.

Suggs, T. (2012a, August 7). A deaf perspective: Cultural respect in sign language interpreting. Retrieved from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/08/a-deaf-perspective- cultural-respect-in-sign-language-interpreting

Suggs, T. (2012b, December 11). Deaf disempowerment and today’s interpreter. Retrieved from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/12/deaf-disempowerment-and-todays-interpreter

Wise, T. (2008). White like me: Reflections on race from a privileged son. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press.

Copyrighted material, used by permission. This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the written consent of the authors.

Hi, I’m H.I.XXX Deaf.

This article appeared at i711.com.                                                                                                                

I think it’s a never-ending struggle.

I’m, of course, talking about the persistent use of “hearing impaired” and other related terms. Tom Willard, a writer who is also Deaf, published an amusing article in August 1993 about how Deaf people are portrayed in the media. He wrote that journalists have a tendency to use the same words in stories about deaf or hard of hearing people (i.e., “silent” or “through an interpreter”), and that they also tend to write as if “deafness” is something to be overcome. 12 years later, his article continues to ring true.

Someone recently sent me a real estate ad that upset some people. The ad said:
HEARING IMPAIRED? [Agent’s name deleted for privacy] now has hearing impaired agents to work with your needs.

I decided to fax this agent in case she wasn’t aware about the inappropriateness of using “hearing impaired,” and included a print out of the National Association of the Deaf’s comments on correct terminology (available at www.nad.org/site/pp.asp?c=foINKQMBF&b=103786) I appreciated her attempt at reaching out to deaf and hard of hearing people, though.

The faxed response said (all typos are hers), “Hello, Thank you for your informative fax. I hire hearing impaired agents and secretaries. They are the Ones that set up the ad for me. You might want to educate whom ever wrote you this letter. May God Bless you today!”

I replied that that this “letter” was actually an article from the NAD website, and that I was preparing to write a column about the use of ‘hearing impaired’ in general. I got a second fax, apparently from one of her agents, saying:

PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU ADD THIS TO YOUR ARTICLE AS WELL. THANK GOD FOR A COMPANY THAT HAS A TTY FOR REAL ESTATE. My name is [deleted] and I work for [name deleted]. I instructed [name deleted] to use the Words hearing impaired and tty numbers. We are most thankful to have a real estate firm that Cares about our needs. I am proud to be working for [agency] and we want our hearing impaired friends to Contact us via our tty or stop by our office any time. God Bless You All.

Hmm. This is an intriguing matter. Even with Deaf people’s complaints about the labels pasted on our foreheads by society, we’re shot in the feet (often unintentionally) by people who have hearing losses but prefer to identify themselves as “hearing impaired.” Maybe they aren’t educated on the history behind the use of ‘hearing impaired’, or maybe they choose to use those words.

I completely understand, and respect, how the majority of people with hearing losses do not identify with the Deaf community. I also have no problem with people who identify themselves as ‘hearing impaired’ – it is their choice, after all. Still, shouldn’t my identity be respected? Each time someone insists on calling me hearing impaired, it’s a slap in my face. And ironically, most of the slaps in my face come from individuals who have hearing losses themselves or from families of deaf people.

This has nothing to do with whether if they identify with the Deaf community, the hard of hearing community, the late-deafened community, the DeafBlind community or the hearing world; it’s about respect. Maybe it’s just semantics, but terminology has a huge role in how one’s self-respect is revealed. Words also reveal how far a group has come – especially a cultural minority like the Deaf community.

In school, I called myself “H.I.” simply because the teachers at where I was mainstreamed told me “deaf” wasn’t a good thing to be. I look back on those days with disbelief. How could I have allowed hearing people, who could barely sign, dictate my cultural identity? Would they have done that to a hearing kid from a different culture?

For us to be able to call ourselves Deaf without backlash is a major step forward, and enables us to reclaim our history, identity, and opportunities. How I identify myself really should be respected by everyone, deaf or hearing. Just because people don’t identify with Deaf culture doesn’t mean they can speak for us, or us for them. Why is it even an “us versus them” mentality, anyway? Shouldn’t we all mutually respect each other regardless of label and identity?

Perhaps this mutual respect is so difficult to achieve because people still do not accept the idea that there is a culture among Deaf people. Take the recent letter in the May 23 issue of People in response to a story about Marvin Miller’s plans for Laurent, S.D.:

Has activist Marvin Miller lost more than just his hearing in “Building a Town for the Deaf”? Through the miracle of the cochlear implant, my deaf child lives in the world of hearing. Deafness is not a culture but a disability. Miller gives new meaning to the expression “deaf and dumb.”_- Deborah Gideon, Pepper Pike, Ohio

Ouch.

Would this letter have been published had it contained racial or ethnic slurs? I think not. Yet the editors of People found it fit to publish, calling us “deaf and dumb.” It would have been equally hurtful had the writer said “hearing impaired” for me, because it represents so much more than just an insult for me.

So, yeah, it’s a never-ending struggle. The bottom line here is that even if people call me hearing impaired, I am Deaf.

UPDATE: The real estate agency mentioned in the above article quickly changed the wording to ‘deaf’ as soon as they learned the implications and history of using ‘hearing impaired.’ Kudos to them!

People has also sent me e-mail saying they will be printing an apology in the next issue.

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Are Deaf People Really Lousy Tippers?

lowtipping

(Click on the comic to see a larger version.)

Is bad tipping still a realistic stereotype about Deaf folks? Do Deaf folks still deserve the reputation of being bad tippers?

I don’t know. A friend says I’m in denial because I’ve only had one bad experience with a Deaf person’s tipping once in my entire life. Knowing how “Deaf” my life is, that’s pretty amazing. Or is it? Are Deaf people really bad tippers? I don’t think so. I think it’s an individual habit, not a community tendency.

I’ve heard horror stories about Deaf folks not tipping appropriately, but I’ve heard even more horror stories about hearing people not tipping appropriately. Heck, advice columns print comments about tipping all the time. In fact, the above cartoon ran in the Jan. 30 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper.

Yet, “DEAF TEND LOUSY TIP” consistently comes up as a topic among outsiders who are learning about the Deaf community. And I keep this stereotype in the back of my mind whenever I go to restaurants or beauty salons. But here’s what I do when I receive genuinely poor service.

Last week, I went to a local restaurant (keep in mind I live in a very Deaf-friendly town). We waited more than ten minutes (I counted) before the teenage waitress finally came to take our order. She only came because I walked up to her and asked her to come to our table. When the food finally arrived, there was some confusion over some orders, and the waitress took another ten minutes before coming back with our food.

By then, our glasses of soda had been depleted, and we were waiting to get refills. More than 15 minutes passed, and I finally went back to the waitress, who was chatting with her friends. No luck there in getting our refills. Finally, another waitress took our drinks and gave us refills. Never mind that the chicken I ordered was overcooked and I couldn’t even eat half of it, and the potato was cold.

I asked to speak with the manager — who didn’t seem much older than the teenage waitress — to let her know about the poor service. She smiled as she nodded, saying, “Okay, what would you like us to do about this?” I wrote, “Just make sure the waitress knows we’re not leaving a tip and it’s because of her poor service, not because we’re Deaf.” I also wrote on the receipt, “POOR SERVICE = NO TIP.”

This is a strategy I’ve adopted over the years. I don’t know whether it prevents the stereotype of Deaf folks being lousy tippers or not, but the point is: bad service is bad service, and good service is good service. I always tip 20%, but I’m not going to tip someone for horrible service just to avoid the stereotype of being a poor tipper.

I still say it’s people in general who are poor tippers. I also say Deaf people (and probably other minority groups, too) simply happen to be stuck with this stereotype because we’re more noticeable than hearing people. How a person tips has to do with a person’s background, whether they’ve been educated about how to tip or not, and respect for the work performed.

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