Deaf Awareness Month: Celebrating Culture and Correcting Misperceptions
Anyone reading the news can be forgiven for thinking that the Deaf community is struggling mightily in the face of COVID-19. “Deaf Community Faces Unique Challenges During the Pandemic,” the Houston Public Media reported. “Local Deaf Community Says they are Struggling to Communicate During COVID-19,” announced an Amarillo, TX news outlet.
While it’s true that many of those who can’t hear are experiencing social isolation and lip-reading challenges, “Deaf people do not have it worse than others. That is relative to all of us, depending on our lived realities,” when it comes to COVID, according to Ryan Commerson, Deaf activist, filmmaker, consultant and founder of the non-profit, Facundo Element. “We are all impacted by COVID-19 in one way or another.”
Furthermore, the Deaf community was an earlier adopter of the video chat platform. “The adjustment during the pandemic hasn’t been huge for us,” said Commerson, who is deaf. “We were already communicating remotely.”
Such misperceptions about the Deaf community is one reason for the creation of Deaf Awareness Month. Since first observed by the World Federation of the Deaf in the late 1950s, the month of September, culminating in International Week of the Deaf, is dedicated to promoting a greater understanding, and celebration, of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
Deaf . . . deaf . . . hard-of-hearing . . .
Mention “deaf,” and what might come to mind is someone who can’t hear. In reality, there are degrees of hearing loss, ranging from slight (small hearing decrease) to profound (unable to hear, at all). In their book “Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture,” authors Carol Padden and Tom Humphries explain that “deaf” (lowercase) refers to people with hearing loss. Then, there is Deaf (upper case), defined as “a particular group of deaf people who share a language — American Sign Language — and a culture.”
And, that group of people doesn’t take kindly to the term, “hearing impaired.” The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) explained that a lack of hearing is substandard, focusing on “what people can’t do.” Acceptable terms are “deaf,” “Deaf” and “hard of hearing,” or HoH.
Then and now
With help from technology, activism and legislation, the Deaf community has, for the most part, shaken off the negative “deaf-and-dumb” label. “We’ve come a long way from weighted doorbells attached to strings, that alert a Deaf person in the house that someone is at the front door,” Commerson added.
The Deaf community boasts well-known historical figures, such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Helen Keller and Thomas Edison. Today’s activists, artists, actors and influencers include Marlee Matlin, Lauren Ridloff, Nyle DiMarco and Chella Man.
Federal civil rights laws are also in place, such as the following:
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which increases availability of free public education to eligible children with disabilities.
- Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990, requiring television receivers to have circuitry allowing closed-caption displays.
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, protecting individuals with disabilities from discrimination in areas of employment, transportation and access to government services.
- Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, which increases the ability of people with disabilities to access modern communications.
Even with the advances on behalf of the Deaf community, there is still a great deal of room for improvement. For example, Commerson explained that COVID-19 exposed flaws in current special education policy, adding that, “to mitigate the negatives, we have to rethink best practices in educating the youth, whose natural language indication is sign language.”
Basis of communication
Diving into sign language
Commerson’s comments refer to American Sign Language, commonly used throughout North America. ASL is defined as “a complete, natural language that has the same linguistic properties as spoken languages, with grammar that differs from English.” And, as is the case with spoken English, ASL has its own regional differences, complete with slang and other iterations.
Nor is ASL the only game in town. At last count, 144 different sign languages exist worldwide.
Technology and The Video Relay Service
VRS allows the hard of hearing to communicate with others, via a video camera with internet connection. Through this system, the caller contacts a communication assistant (CA), who is a qualified ASL interpreter. The CA places the telephone call to the destination party, acting as the interpreter between the two parties. VRS allows for smoother communication between a deaf individual and hearing person, eliminating cumbersome typing or texting.
Focus on the Deaf community
Deaf Awareness Month is to provide more clarity about the contributions made, and challenges faced, by the hard of hearing — even if that clarity is as focused on how the Deaf community is really coping with COVID-19.
To become more aware during this month, consider participating in some of the following:
- Volunteer for non-profits that assist the Deaf: These can include schools, civil liberties groups and community organizations.
- Reach out to elected representatives: Contact national and state representatives, as well as municipal leaders, and ask them to support HoH legislation and regulations.
- Increase content accessibility through closed captioning: At Rev, we offer English caption services for videos, while also providing live captions on the Zoom platform and for webinars.
- Learn more about the community and culture: For example, Savory Words publishes books by Deaf authors. Furthermore, “Through Deaf Eyes” and similar documentaries provide information about Deaf living in the United States.
“As a nation, we are becoming more aware of cultural history, and the importance of protecting and preserving it,” Commerson pointed out. “During Deaf Awareness Month, take time to learn about Deaf culture, history and American Sign Language.”