Last week, the internet went wild over the live American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s song “WAP” at Lollapalooza; however, backlash from people who are deaf or hard of hearing was swift. Fetishizing ASL in this way, some argued, is a form of discrimination known as audism.
The term “audism” was coined in 1977 by Tom Humphries, PhD, a Deaf American academic, author, and lecturer on Deaf culture and deaf communication, says Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. “[Dr. Humphries] defined it as, ‘the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears,'” he says. “In essence, any oppression of a deaf or hard of hearing person on the basis of their level of hearing is audism.”
Even if this definition is clear—it’s essentially ableism—you may still wonder why an ASL interpreter’s exaltation is offensive. Neil McDevitt, Executive Director of the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre (DHCC), explains that American Sign Language is not some “cool” thing to be enjoyed as entertainment by the hearing. “It’s a true language that is the common denominator of an entire community with rich cultural roots,” he says. And Matt Maxey, a hard-of-hearing ASL interpreter and founder of DEAFinitely Dope, agrees that it’s not a great feeling to watch ASL being fetishized.
The interpretation’s virality is also problematic because the interpreter in question—Kelly Kurdi—is not deaf or hard of hearing. Both Maxey and Rosenblum say that the Deaf community would prefer people engage more directly. “The community appreciates interpreters that make it possible for them to have full and equal access but do not appreciate it when interpreters take their ‘space’ and speak for them,” says Rosenblum. “The media often focuses on those interpreters and how they express themselves without considering that the language and culture come from the Deaf community.” In fairness, Maxey notes that Kurdi has been doing her best to amplify individuals in the Deaf community since she went viral—the problem is not with her behavior but with the tunnel vision around her. And though it may seem like the interpretation’s virality is amplifying ASL, McDevitt argues that the “check this out!” nature of its fame is not doing the interpreter’s efforts justice.
So, what might those of us who gawked at the ASL interpr Below, Maxey, McDevitt, and Rosenblum describe how the Deaf community faces discrimination in everyday life.etation of “WAP” focus on instead? It’s a good time to examine some of the other ways audism shows up in the world.
Audist ideas and behaviours are unique to each person.
According to Rosenblum, there are a variety of audist behaviours, just as there are with other “isms” (e.g., racism, sexism). First and foremost, he claims, is the assumption that deafness or hearing loss may be remedied. This usually starts with medical experts, who, according to him, like to promote technological “cure” options on people with hearing loss. When this happens to children, parents frequently assume that the best answer is to use technology to help their children hear as much as possible and to train them to lipread and speak in order for them to assimilate into mainstream culture. Despite this, according to Rosenblum, research suggests that deaf and hard-of-hearing children who are given the opportunity to learn language through visual means such as sign language do well in school and language development. So, not only is mainstreaming deaf and hard of hearing persons not necessarily the greatest option for their well-being, but it’s also often undesirable.
Rosenblum claims that deaf and hard of hearing people are frequently left out of conversations at the dinner table, in social meetings with friends, at work, and in a variety of other settings. Hearing loss usually takes centre stage when they are included in talks, especially with new people, according to Rosenblum. “We’re frequently asked the same questions,” he says, “such as can we lip-read, can we drive, or how do you sign [insert bad word].” “We are not frequently asked questions about our hobbies, interests, or political beliefs that are asked of everyone else. But we’re also people.”
Other microaggressions include ignoring a deaf person in favour of communicating with their companion, commenting on how well a deaf or hard of hearing person speaks, believing that deaf or hard of hearing people need to be infantilized, and yelling in any form (“If you yell in our ears, we don’t magically hear better,” Maxey says). This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should demonstrate how hearing individuals contribute to audism.
Audism displays itself on a greater scale in society.
Audism isn’t simply obnoxious or rude; it also causes real problems for the deaf and hard of hearing. For starters, deaf or hard of hearing persons have a much higher unemployment rate than hearing people, according to Rosenblum. “Too often, employers are hesitant to hire deaf and hard of hearing people,” he says, “because they believe deaf and hard of hearing people will not be productive and decent employees.” “Even when firms do hire deaf and hard of hearing people, deaf and hard of hearing personnel are frequently underpaid and denied advancement.”
According to McDevitt, the deaf and hard of hearing are likewise underserved by the American healthcare and educational systems. Their safety is also jeopardised because they don’t have the same access to emergency notifications during storms, floods, fires, tornadoes, or earthquakes as everyone else. “This is because many systems are built around verbal communication without guaranteeing that everyone is included,” Rosenblum argues.
ASL interpreters are uncommon not only in emergency situations, but also in most other places where they are required, such as physicians’ offices, labour and delivery units, and legal settings. These situations can be life or death, but there are also instances with smaller stakes, such as panels and conferences, where interpreters are not present. “I’m frequently requested to speak at conferences about Deaf and hard of hearing community needs, only to have my invitation retracted when they learn how much an American Sign Language interpreter costs,” McDevitt says. These omissions put those who can’t rely on verbal communication for information at a disadvantage.
Rosenblum also points out that technology advancements, such as Siri or self-driving cars, tend to marginalise deaf and hard-of-hearing people. “Companies are continuously inventing new technology that rely on hearing or speech, rendering them inaccessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing,” he says. “This country has at least 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people—a that’s lot of people to leave out of the product market.”
Of course, these are just a few of the numerous ways that audism poses daily obstacles for the deaf and hard of hearing; there are a plethora of others.
COVID-19 has given a fresh set of issues to the Deaf community.
The events of 2020 and 2021 have made things even more difficult for the deaf and hard of hearing. For starters, most masks act as communication barriers. “Because so much of sign language involves body language and facial gestures,” Maxey explains, “removing [the bottom portion of the face] impacts so much of how we express ourselves.” To put it another way, masks have made communication more difficult than it was before the pandemic, which was never easy to begin with.
Rosenblum also mentions how difficult it has been to acquire ASL translators to attend key press briefings, which residents have been relying on for over a year. Surprisingly, he says that it required lawsuits—against New York governor Andrew Cuomo and the Trump administration, for example—to get ASL interpreters included in emergency briefings.
Even if a broadcast manages to include captions, the involvement of translators is critical. “Many deaf and hard-of-hearing people speak American Sign Language (ASL), which is an entirely different language than English,” notes Rosenblum. “Many of these deaf and hard of hearing people cannot fully comprehend English, particularly when the information is sophisticated and advanced, such as information about health pandemics.” It is not enough to provide emergency communications in English with this group; the same information must also be shared in ASL.
Rosenblum suggests wearing clear masks to help the deaf and hard of hearing get through the pandemic. “Even for great lip readers, clear masks are often not clear enough for full comprehension,” he explains. “However, they are useful in providing visual clues to aid communication in limited contexts.”
Qualified professional sign language interpreters and/or professionally supplied captioning services should be provided in more complicated scenarios, such as medical and mental health visits, legal consultations, court appearances, and so on, he argues. (This is true in general, but it’s especially important while we try to communicate while wearing masks.)
A few pointers on how to become more anti-audist
You may help the deaf and hard of hearing community by avoiding microaggressions and understanding more about how audism manifests, in addition to not promoting viral interpreter content. If you’re having problems talking with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person, Maxey suggests using SMS or other written means of communication. He also emphasises the importance of being open to feedback if you make a mistake, such as saying something inappropriate. He says, “We’re not trying to intimidate you.” “We’re just trying to make it as easy as possible for you to communicate in your best style while we communicate in our best style.”
Maxey confesses that as someone who didn’t learn sign language until much later in life, he has upset people of the Deaf community throughout the years, and that you don’t know what you don’t know. “We’re just trying to encourage folks not to be as fearful,” he says. “It’s a process to learn more about our culture and community.” Inclusion, according to McDevitt, is simple: “Make sure Deaf individuals are a part of your community, your organisation, and your circle of friends.” “And make certain that all hurdles to complete inclusivity are discussed and eradicated.”
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