Being an Ally to the Deaf and HoH Community

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IMG_2654 By Shaley Howard, PQ Monthly I visited Costa Rica a few years ago and took a coffee plantation tour. Our tour guide first described what we were seeing in Spanish and then said the same thing in English. I realized quickly that I was the only person who did not speak or understand Spanish on the tour so the English portion was really… just for me. Yes, I have to admit I felt very… well, white. But aside from having my own little special one-on-one English portion of the tour, what really struck me was how I felt a little marginalized. As I waited for my English turn, I watched everyone else o-o-h and a-a-h and laugh at whatever humorous comments our tour guide was dishing out in Spanish. I found myself actually laughing with them, not wanting to be excluded even though I had no idea what was funny. I felt a little isolated and definitely confused. Now this definitely wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced the feeling of exclusion from not understanding conversations in other languages. Heck, I’m confused sometimes even when it’s English! But what it did make me think about were friends in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) community—I wondered if this might be a daily experience on some level for them. And as a hearing person who tries to be aware of others, I honestly and sadly know we still very much live in a society that marginalizes, often ignores and labels Deaf and HoH as just another “other.†Things are slowly progressing, but let’s face it; in our world of categories and hierarchy, we do place hearing people in a category above Deaf and HoH. In most circles being Deaf and HoH is actually considered a disability and often something hearing people want to “cure†completely, ignoring the fact that the Deaf and HoH are an actual culture and do not need saving. There are approximately 28 million Deaf and HoH people in the U.S. If estimating that approximately 10 percent of the population is LGBTQ, then it’s fair to say there are about 2.8 million queer Deaf and HoH people in the U.S. Even if this is a rough figure, it’s still an estimate of more than 2.5 million LGBTQ Deaf and HoH. That strikes me as a ton of people within our own community who are possibly feeling marginalized. Our society is based on a hierarchal structure where white, straight men are at the top followed by either men of color or white women followed then by women of color as so on, down the line. At the lower end of this pecking order are groups such as differently-abled persons, LGBTQ and Deaf and HoH. Often within groups there is further hierarchy and categorization that occurs. So, for example, in the LGBTQ community white gay men are at the top followed by gay men of color and white lesbians, and so on. It’s not surprising that even within the LGBTQ community we’ve been conditioned to also follow this hierarchal archetype. What is surprising, however, is how most LGBTQ people actually understand what it feels like on some level to experience discrimination and feel “less than,†yet can’t see the hypocrisy of treating others within our own community with the same disrespect. “Deaf LGBTQ often are marginalized due to the fact that it is often how the system works where white straight hearing people have more privileges and power,†commented Amy Blades, a Deaf lesbian and affiliate American Sign Language (ASL) professor. “The Deaf woman is another ‘layer’ of difference with being a woman and member of [an] LGBTQ community. A black Deaf lesbian comes with an additional ‘layer.’ We do get frustrated when hearing LGBTQ knowingly abuse their power and privileges. It is especially frustrating because they may have experienced systemic oppression themselves as LGBTQ individuals. Hearing LGBTQ need to constantly keep their power in check by asking themselves how they can distribute their power and if their hearts are in the right place.†Aside from any subtle and perhaps overt systematic discrimination that occurs within the LGBTQ Deaf and hearing community, the main barrier I’ve discovered is an overall lack of understanding and awareness from hearing people in general toward the Deaf and HoH community. CM Hall, a hearing queer, adjunct faculty at Western Oregon University and ASL interpreter for 22 years, remarked:
“The biggest obstacle remains audism. Hearing people who do not believe in Deaf individuals’ abilities simply because they cannot hear. Hearing people’s OBSESSION with ‘fixing the impairment’ as opposed to accepting the whole person and learning their language. To take a cultural and social justice perspective rather than a pathological and clinical perspective when talking about Deaf people. Deaf people are a cultural and linguistic minority. Not a ‘hearing impaired’ group of people. That phrase came from hearing people about Deaf people. How does ‘impaired’ sound good to anyone? Why not use the term that’s been around for centuries and is used by Deaf people? The term Deaf. If hetero people decided that LGB people were heterosexually impaired we would have none of it. We wouldn’t see that term as ‘politically correct.’ Accept Deaf people as a cultural and linguistic minority. Examine your hearing privilege and audism.â€
The other challenge in understanding is the literal gap in communication. This may be due to ignorance as to how to communicate effectively and/or simply being oblivious and not feeling the need to participate. More often I think most hearing people simply lack the understanding of how to communicate and don’t want to possibly offend or look foolish. I have to admit I’ve fallen in the latter. Many Deaf and HoH also mentioned that because of the communication barrier they often opt to socialize mainly with other Deaf and HoH, as it’s easier and they feel more comfortable being with others who “get†them. “What hearing allies can do for Deaf is to ask Deaf people ‘How can I work with you?’†commented Blades. “Don’t assume anything about Deaf people but instead ask questions like ‘What communication method do you prefer to use?’ and ‘What is the most effective one for us to use together?’ If you know sign language, use it. It makes or alleviates communication barriers a great deal. We really appreciate the effort. There have been times when a hearing person who knows sign language but does not use sign language when the Deaf person is in the room; it automatically puts the Deaf person in a subordinate position. A Deaf person does not have 100 percent access to communication as often as a hearing person does.†Another common misunderstanding is that most Deaf people can read lips. Statistically, most Deaf and HoH are only able to understand about 30 percent of the conversation. Imagine having a conversation with your friends or family and only understanding parts. It seems that if inclusion, connection and comprehension are the goals of both Deaf, HoH and hearing people, all sides need to be more proactive and supportive. “While we are able to talk within our own communities, when the Deaf and HoH and hearing world overlap, information is often lost. Not everyone is able to relay information fluidly or quickly,†said Marianne Maks Skuzinski, a drafter at OHSU and Deaf lesbian. “To bridge that gap we need to be more assertive in sharing or requesting information such as fliers, interpreters and closed captioning. And while LGBTQ is a minority, the Deaf LGBTQ is even further down the minority status and can be easily overlooked. But don't be afraid to attempt communication. We won't bite.†As a hearing person, I know I’m speaking from a place of privilege when discussing the Deaf and HoH world. My only desire is to expand awareness and start dialogue. My experience in Costa Rica opened my eyes and helped me reflect on the privileges I all too often take for granted. It also made me acutely aware of how important it is for me as a hearing person to take the initiative in breaking down barriers and not assume, as many people in privileged positions do, that the world should cater to us. Perhaps signing up for both Spanish and ASL lessons would be a first step in reaching out. If you would like more information about the Deaf community and culture, check out the NW Rainbow Alliance of Deaf (NWRAD) or the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). Also, there is a petition to make the ASL symbol for “love†an emoji. Click here for more information.