By West Resendes & Angie Martell
Imagine living in a world where no one knows your language and you must navigate everyday life using interpreters and special services to help you communicate with others. Imagine a world where everyone is deaf and you are the only hearing person and you are excluded because of your ‘hearing’ disability and you are labeled as an ‘other.’ That is the reality for the American Deaf community. As a Deaf man, that is West’s reality, and as a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), that is the world my parents face.
There are approximately 1.4 million Deaf and Hard of Hearing people living in Michigan and over 38 million Deaf and Hard of Hearing people across America. The Deaf community is a vibrant and incredibly warm community that unfortunately has been incredibly marginalized by mainstream hearing society. Deaf people bear the scars of daily discrimination and oppression. Deaf people have faced generations of systemic discrimination, including forced sterlizations in the twentieth century. The relationship between the hearing community and the Deaf community has often been strained due to the continued lack of understanding of the Deaf community and its values, and the subsequent paternalistic perspective of hearing people in knowing what is “best” for the Deaf community and forming policies for Deaf individuals without their input.
American Sign Language (ASL) is the language of the cultural Deaf community, and an incredibly sophisticated visual-gestural language with its own syntax and grammar distinct from English. Eye contact is immensely important in ASl, as it allows you to see the facial grammar of ASL and conveys to your conversational partner that you are paying attention to their message. ASL’s grammar is more similar to Spanish than English and throughout the world there are different sign languages specific to each country – even England!
Why don’t all Deaf people know and use English? There is a longstanding and seemingly logical viewpoint that learning how to speak should be the priority for any deaf child if they are to succeed in hearing society, and that sign language is to be avoided because it would ony distract deaf children from learning how to speak. Despite popular beliefs, it is physically impossible for a deaf person to read lips fluently as only 30% of all spoken words are visible on the lips. Many hearing parents, to whom 90 percent of deaf children are born, and schools have adopted this ‘oralist’ approach, despite research showing that this focus on speech for children who have limited or zero hearing ability comes at the great cost of not fully learning a first language during the critical first years of a child’s life. If sign language is good for hearing babies, why not also for Deaf babies? We see the ripple effects of these decisions about language choice throughout deaf individuals’ lives, as the typical deaf person struggles to learn English and graduates from high school with a 4th-grade reading level on average.
With society’s lack of fluency in ASL and lack of understanding of the Deaf community comes challenges in other aspects of daily life for Deaf individuals: employment, higher education, healthcare, mental health services, emergency preparedness, technology, and government benefits. Employers oftentimes avoid hiring a deaf employee as they see a person who will need ‘more’ by way of costly accommodations. This perspective is untrue, as many deaf employees are able to adapt well to the job and employers need to remember that we are a diverse society of unique individuals with unique strengths. Professional schools have refused to provide accommodations to Deaf students, despite being compelled to do so by the 25-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act. This far-reaching law also guarantees accommodations that provide equal access to healthcare for individuals with disabilities, such as deaf people. However, many medical providers simply ignore this law and do not provide ASL interpreters to facilitate communication between deaf patients and hearing doctors, instead relying on pad and paper, which presents comprehension challenges for individuals with limited English proficiency. Hospitals may also use virtual ASL interpretation on a monitor, but this often results in technical difficulties or is inappropriately used in situations where the deaf individual is unable to seen the screen (lying down for a MRI exam or in the operating room, for example). Imagine trying to understand your diagnosis through brief notes on a piece of paper or on a monitor you cannot clearly see.
Access to mental healthcare is one of the most important issues facing the Deaf population today, as the rates of sexual abuse are staggering in deaf children: 54 percent of deaf boys and 50 percent of deaf girls have experienced sexual abuse, compared to 10 percent and 25 percent of their hearing counterparts. Some states have introduced “Text-to-911 in which someone can text 911, which have the ability to save lives as a deaf individual may not always have immediate access to a videophone to make a 911 call. Advances in technology have vastly closed the communication gap between Deaf and hearing people – such as texting – but technology also remains woefully behind in other respects, such as the lack of closed-captioning on the majority of online videos. Accessing the government’s benefit programs and services is an onerous process for a native English speaker, never mind someone with limited English ability – which may limit that cultural group’s ability to lobby the government for better resources.
This is most clearly exemplified by the budget differential of the Michigan state offices servicing the Deaf and the Blind: for the 2015 fiscal year, the Division on Deaf and Hard of Hearing had a $785,600 budget servicing a population of 866,879 individuals with hearing loss and the Michigan Commission for the Blind had a $23,567,222 budget servicing a population of 199,400. Per person, a person with a visual impairment received $118.19 operating dollars, whereas a person with hearing loss received a miniscule 91 cents, despite their population being more than four times larger. This inequality is just one element of the many injustices the Deaf community faces.
What can you can do? First, share the story of the Deaf community with your family, friends, co-workers. This story needs to be known. Second, be cognizant of the words you choose. Expressions like “it falls on deaf ears” and labels such as “deaf-mute,” hearing-impaired,” “hearing-disabled,” are long outdated and offensive. Do not perpetuate the marginalization of the Deaf community. Third, when interacting with a deaf person, remember the following:
TEN TIPS WHEN COMMUNICATING WITH A DEAF PERSON
- Before speaking, get the person’s attention with a wave of the hand or a gentle tap on the shoulder. Do not shout for the person’s attention.
- Face the person and do not turn away while communicating.
- Try to converse in a well-lit area and do not cover your mouth or chew gum.
- If a person is wearing a hearing aid or cochlear implant, do not assume the individual can hear and understand you completely. Minimize background noise and other distractions whenever possible.
- Talk at your normal rate, or slightly slower if you normally speak very fast. Yelling or raising your voice will not help you be understood better. Only one person should speak at a time.
- Use visual aids when possible, such as pointing to printed information. Remember that only about one third of spoken words can be understood by lipreading.
- When communicating via written notes, keep in mind that the Deaf person may lack fluency in written English but may not admit it to you and instead pretend to understand what you are writing.
- If you feel a deaf person may not be understanding you, write a note to ask what communication aid or service they need.
- When you are in any complex conversation with a person whose primary language is ASL, a qualified interpreter is almost always needed to ensure effective communication. When using an interpreter, look at and speak directly to the deaf person, not to the interpreter.
- Never use their family members or children as interpreters. It is not only disempowering to the deaf person, but the family members and children are not professionally-trained interpreters who have a college degree in sign language interpretation and they will almost certainly lack the vocabulary or the impartiality needed to interpret effectively.
If you want to learn or do more, you can always reach out to us at Iglesia Martell Law Firm and we can connect you with different volunteer organizations and task forces committed to equality for the Deaf community.
West Resendes has worked with me at Iglesia Martell Law Firm as a paralegal for over the past two and half years. He is leaving for Yale Law School this fall where he aims to become an attorney to make a difference in the world.