Monday, October 5, 2015

Deaf Pride as a Model for Equality Movements

Waiting On The World To Change has been the unofficial song of 'Deaf Pride' and every once in a while, the above video makes its rounds as a sort of rallying cry for us Deaf people to keep up with the struggle for accessibility in an otherwise 'hearing world.'
     While the song is a bit sappy for my taste, it does aptly illustrate the sentiment that many Deaf people harbour in their efforts to overcome the communication barrier that comes with being unable to hear--and sometimes speak--in a world of P.A. announcements, fast-talkers, radios, and the refusal of many services to provide sign language interpreters.  To get an idea of what it's like being a Deaf person 'left out' of the hearing world, consider these typical experiences:

  • Roadside 'amber alerts' warning drivers to "tune to" such and such a station for information regarding a recently-abducted child.  Deaf people, who are generally more visually perceptive than hearing people (because of their primary reliance on eyesight) miss both the opportunity to stay in the loop and to helpfully be on the lookout for abducted children;
  • Many Deaf patients are left out of the loop regarding their hospitalisation because physicians and nurses prefer to speak with hearing relatives and make decisions that way instead of seeking out a sign language interpreter and directly communicate with the Deaf patient;
  • P.A. announcements at aerorports and on planes leave many Deaf passengers completely out of the loop to gate changes and why a plane may be on the runway for a long while before taking off.  When gate agents or airline attendants are called by Deaf people for an explanation, they are usually met with facial expressions of exasperation and fustration, as if our need to know the situation is unnecessary;
  • Customer service agents at stores oftentimes refer queries to a 1-800 number to call.  Deaf people usually cannot hear well enough on the phone or enunciate well enough to speak on the phone, and most companies do not even have a TTY line--which, by the way, represent technology that is fast becoming obsolete;
  • Many schools and universities impose substandard sign language interpreters because they do not want to invest time in searching for quality interpreters or devote a significant portion of the budge to interpretative services;
  • Closed-captioning on most cable news services rely on either terrible transcribers or terrible speech-to-text software, leaving many Deaf people unaware of how important events being reported are unfolding.
Additionally, Deaf people often put up with well-intentioned hearing people offering what they believe to be helpful guidance when, in fact, they are often offensive.  To wit:
  • Constantly being suggested that Deaf people are 'defective' and that they "should get a cochlear implant";
  • Frequently being told "I'm so sorry" when Deaf people inform hearing conversants that we are Deaf and cannot hear or need an interpreter, as if our deafness is a pitiable state;
  • Being referred to services printed out in Braille when we are Deaf, not blind;
  • Fighting with our schools of matriculation to enrol in a class that we are exempt from beacause "It's too hard for deaf people";
  • In some counties in the United States (I do not know about Canada), an audiogram proving our hearing loss is required periodically in order to maintain welfare assistance so as to 'prove' that we are 'still deaf.'
That's not all.  I know of a few Deaf people who, on account of their credentials, are unable to find jobs in their area of expertise precisely because of barriers to job interviews or the perceived 'threat' of a person so 'disabled' with impeccable or overachieved credentials.  A deafblind colleague of mine with a M.A. in mediaeval history (specialisation in 13th century English law with respect to disabled persons) has postponed his Ph.D. studies precisely because such an achievement vis-a-vis his disability has been advised to be too 'threatening' or 'confrontational.'

One need only recall episodes of America's Next Top Model to see how Mr Nyle DeMarco is often left out of the going-on in his house.

I could go on with more examples, but I trust the reader sees my point.

What is worth noting, however, is how Deaf Pride--that is what we call our self-identity and our activism--unfolds in our efforts at inclusion.  It begins with a very different understanding of 'inclusion' than what is generally taken by, for example, LGBT Pride.  We know, for example, that this is indeed 'a hearing world' and that expecting absolute symmetry of services offered to both deaf and hearing people is unrealistic.  We wish to be included, yes, but on the basis of not that we are 'the same as everybody else' but rather because we are in need of services that are the exception, not the norm.  This gives Deaf activism a very different trajectory by which we launch our efforts at equality and inclusion.  It begins with dialogue and education.

Now, I am not a sociologist.  I have never taken 'Deaf studies' courses--mainly because it would be slightly redundant as I myself am a Deaf person whose primary language is American Sign Language.  I lost my hearing at the age of 18 months due to a vaccination needed to fight off spinal meningitis.  As a result I lost not only my hearing, but also my motor functions and my language, both of which needed to be reacquired.  Since kindergarten, I have been in classrooms with other Deaf children; in high school and university I had a sign language interpreter.  In all three cycles of graduate schooling, I've had to rely on FM transmitter systems linked to my hearing-aide and rely on lipreading (because the youth of American Sign Language has not yet had the time to accommodate the intricacies of the language of philosophy and theology), and because I opted to be realistic that private schools simply cannot afford a sign language interpreter (although for my first Masters' thesis, a fellow-student kindly interpreted my thesis defence because one of the readers was present via teleconference).  Most of my observations are both anecdotal and, thanks to my long interaction with Camp Mark Seven--where many of the staff are Deaf studies majors from either Gallaudet University or Rochester Institute of Technology--these anecdotes are confirmed by conversations with these students (and professors, some of which serve on the Board of Directors of the Camp).

What the Stonewall Riots in 1969 were to gay liberation, similarly the 'Deaf President Now!' student walkout of Gallaudet University in 1988 was to Deaf Pride.  Frustrated with the 'paternalism' that Deaf people often experience at the hands of hearing people who believe themselves to be better caretakers of Deaf interests--which led initially to the election of a hearing person, Dr Elisabeth Zinser as the seventh president of Gallaudet University--the student population undertook a protest that shut down the University and barred access to the campus.  The grievance included demands that the board of trustees of the University have at least 51% d/Deaf representation.

The protest ended with the election of Dr I. King Jordan, Gallaudent's first Deaf president.  The 'Deaf President Now!' movement galvanised the public to Deaf needs, thanks to the efforts of many Deaf people who explained their position--especially through journalists who interviewed them.  The movement also set in motion a series of legal changes which led to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Not only am I a Deaf person, I am also a Deaf priest, so I have experiences that span both the 'Deaf world' as well as the 'ecclesiastical world.'  Thus I have firsthand and inside experience in the struggle for Deaf inclusion in the Church.  At one point, I sought to be included; now, I seek to include.  I am happy to note that the Archbishops of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, among many others, have been wonderfully conscientious to include Deaf persons in the events of their respective local Churches.  The late John Cardinal O'Connor, for example, maintained the tradition of the ASL Deaf choir signing Silent Night, Holy Night at the Midnight Mass at St Patrick's Cathedral.  Both Los Angeles and San Francisco have standalone Deaf parishes.

In most places, however, the struggle to make aware our needs has been a story that is too frequently told and often expected.  Not a few Deaf people sense themselves to be the collateral damage to some dioceses' 'pet ministries' such as Hispanic or Native American outreach.  Many parishes refuse to hire a sign language interpreter for Deaf parishioners.  We are often relegated to the peripheries of parish life, reduced to having Mass in parish halls or at inconvenient times (4:00 Sundays, twice a month, for example).

Here is not the time to complain but to observe how Deaf people react to these experiences of being excluded:  Our preferred method of activism is one of education and awareness, seldom picketing or boycotting, and certainly not running a company out of business when non-Deaf-friendly services are being insisted upon.  Here, I think, is an important distinction that can be observed between 'LGBT Pride' and 'Deaf Pride'--our efforts at inclusion is primarily one brought about by discussion and dialogue, not imposition.  We do not harbour the mentality of habitually threatening an ADA-related lawsuit analogous to some LGBT groups threatening a Human Rights Commission lawsuit.  Lawsuits are filed on occasion, yes, but not with the same intensity that we see in many '#Equality' movements, and certainly not with the same intensity of vitriol.

Perhaps it is precisely because Deaf Pride grew out of an educational and intellectual milieu--'Deaf President Now!' at Gallaudet University.  But we realised, too, that our needs needed to be presented intelligibly, especially after the profoundly damaging consequences of the Milan Conference of 1880--when a contingent of hearing educators of deaf students sought to impose oralism and suppress sign language in schools.  When I was growing up, a nearby school district still had the policy of prohibiting sign language instruction because of the lingering effects of the Milan Conference.  Deaf Pride, Deaf activism, and even Deaf militancy (a very small contingent that does not hide its hostility to the larger hearing world), in my experience and according to my interactions with Deaf activists, has always relied on persuasion and convincing than by cutthroat legal manoeuvres.

(I should add that Deaf activism bears a certain resemblance to the Black civil rights movement sparked by Mrs Rosa Parks in terms of its intellectual unfolding--consider, for example, Revd Dr Martin Luther King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail--which I consider to be of greater consequence than his I Have A Dream speech.)

This is not to say that all LGBT activism has been cutthroat, not at all.  But within the last five years, if one takes her or his clue from national and local news, it does seem to be the case.  What is hoped, on the basis of the above observations, is that the method of activism of 'Deaf Pride' can provide a model for any 'equality' activism--reasoned, thoughtful, intelligent, and devoid of emotivism and heated exchanges.  Dialogue and debate that is healthy and governed by civil discourse and the rules of critical thinking holds the only promise for inclusion that is both just and legal.  This is inevitably going to involve not just many takes, but some gives, too.  Deaf Pride has begun to admit overstepped boundaries (e.g. the growing acceptance of cochlear implants over its stalwart opposition even twenty years ago by the majority of the Deaf community).

Equality is something too important to be conflated across the board for all interest groups.  It must be based more upon needs than upon wants, and it must be presented in intelligible dialogue.  It is based, if one is to maintain classical jurisprudence, upon the virtue of 'justice'--to give to each their due.  Otherwise we run the risk of a Nietzschean society of der Wille zer Macht that cannot end in anything but disaster.