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 interpretation of “WAP” focus on instead? It’s a good time to examine some of the other ways audism shows up in the world. Below, Maxey, McDevitt, and Rosenblum describe how the Deaf community faces discrimination in everyday life.
Individual audist behaviors and beliefs
As is the case with other “ism’s” (e.g., racism, sexism), there is a range of audist behaviors, says Rosenblum. First and foremost is the belief that being deaf or hard of hearing needs to be fixed, he says. This typically begins with medical professionals, who he says tend to push technological “cures” on those with hearing loss. When this is done to children, parents often believe the best solution is to enable their children to hear as best they can through technology and to teach them to lipread and speak to fit into mainstream culture. And yet, Rosenblum says, research shows that deaf and hard of hearing children who are given the ability to learn language through visual means such as sign language thrive in their education and language development. So not only is trying to mainstream people who are deaf and hard of hearing not always the best approach for their well-being, it’s often unwelcome, too.
On a more subtle level, Rosenblum says that deaf and hard of hearing people are often left out of conversations at the dinner table with family, in social gatherings with friends, at the workplace, and many other settings. When they are included in conversations, especially with new people, Rosenblum says hearing loss typically takes center stage. “Often, we’re asked the same questions such as: can we lip-read, are we able to drive, or how do you sign [insert swear word],” he says. “We are not often asked the questions that are asked of everyone else, such as our hobbies, our interests, or our political views. But we’re people too.”
Other microaggressions include ignoring a deaf person in favor of communicating with their companion, commenting on how well a deaf or hard of hearing person speaks, harboring the belief that people who are deaf or hard of hearing need to be infantilized, and yelling of any kind (“If you yell in our ears, we don’t magically hear better,” Maxey says). This isn’t a complete list, but hopefully, it provides clear examples of how hearing people perpetuate audism.
Audism manifests in society on a larger scale
Audism isn’t just offensive or annoying; it creates tangible problems for the deaf and hard of hearing. For starters, the unemployment rate for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing is far greater than that of hearing people, says Rosenblum. “Too often, employers do not want to hire deaf and hard of hearing people, and this is often because of their perception that deaf and hard of hearing people would not be productive and good employees,” he says. “Even when employers do hire deaf and hard of hearing people, those deaf and hard of hearing employees often are given lesser pay and denied promotions.”
The deaf and hard of hearing are also underserved by the American healthcare system and the American education system, says McDevitt. And their well-being is further compromised because they’re not given the same access to emergency alerts during hurricanes, floods, fires, tornados, and earthquakes. “This is because many systems are designed on the basis of verbal communications without ensuring that all people are included,” Rosenblum explains.
ASL interpreters are not common in emergency settings, but they’re also not common in most settings in which they’re needed, including doctors’ offices, labor and delivery wards, and legal settings. Those circumstances can be life or death, but there are lower-stakes situations, like panels and conferences where interpreters are omitted, too. “I often am asked to speak about the topic of Deaf and hard of hearing community needs at conferences and then I find that invitation rescinded when they find out how much it costs for an American Sign Language interpreter,” McDevitt says. These omissions create obvious barriers for those who can’t rely upon verbal communication for intel.
Rosenblum also points out that technological advances–like Siri or self-driving cars–tend to exclude the deaf and hard of hearing. “Companies are constantly inventing new technologies that depend on hearing or speaking, which makes them inaccessible to deaf and hard of hearing people,” he says. “There are at least 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people in this country–that’s a lot of people to exclude from the market for products.”
Of course, these are just a few of the myriad ways in which audism presents everyday challenges for the deaf and hard of hearing; there are many, many more.
COVID-19 has presented the Deaf community with a new set of challenges
The events of 2020 and 2021 haven’t made things any easier for the deaf and hard of hearing, either. For starters, most masks create barriers to communication. “So much of sign language is body language and facial expressions, so taking away [the lower part of the face] changes so much of how we express ourselves,” says Maxey. Masks have, in other words, made the process of communication more burdensome than it was before the pandemic, and it was never easy to begin with.
Rosenblum also points out that it’s been a struggle to get crucial press briefings–the ones citizens have been relying on for over a year–attended by ASL translators. Shockingly, he notes that it took lawsuits–against New York governor Andrew Cuomo and against the Trump administration, as two examples–to get ASL translators included in emergency briefings.
And the use of translators is important even if a broadcast manages to include captions. “There are many deaf and hard of hearing individuals whose primary language is American Sign Language (ASL), a language completely distinct from English,” explains Rosenblum. “Many of these deaf and hard of hearing individuals are not able to fully understand English, and this is especially so when the information is complex and advanced such as information about health pandemics.” For this population, it is not enough to share emergency communications in English–the same information must be shared in ASL.
To help the deaf and hard of hearing through the pandemic, Rosenblum recommends use of clear masks. “Clear masks often are not clear enough for full comprehension, even for expert lip readers,” he says. “They are nevertheless helpful to provide visual cues to assist with communications in limited situations.”
In more involved situations–medical and mental health visits, legal consultations, court appearances, etc.–qualified professional sign language interpreters and/or professionally rendered captioning services should be provided, he says. (This is generally true, but it’s even more critical as we try to communicate from behind masks.)
Becoming more anti-audist: a few tips
Beyond not sharing viral interpreter content, you can support the deaf and hard of hearing community by avoiding the microaggressions and learning more about how audism manifests. If you’re having trouble communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, Maxey recommends relying on texts or other forms of written communication. And he notes that if you mess up–e.g. by saying something that’s not quite cool–be receptive to feedback. “We are not trying to intimidate you,” he says. “We’re just trying to allow you to communicate in your best style while we communicate in our best style, without it being a big debacle.”
Maxey notes that, as someone who didn’t learn sign language until he was much older, even he’s offended members of the Deaf community over the years, and he acknowledges that you don’t know what you don’t know. “It’s a process to learn more about our culture and community, and we’re just trying to encourage people not to be as scared,” he says. And as McDevitt sees it, inclusivity is simple: “Make sure Deaf people are part of your community, your organization, your circle of friends,” he says. “And make sure that all of the barriers that prevent full inclusivity are discussed and removed.”
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