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Author Archives: Lydia Callis

The Rise #DeafTalent

deaftalent-hollywood-deaf-disabled-actors-actresses-talent-01Under mounting pressure from a wide variety of demographics who feel underrepresented in film and television, the entertainment industry is finally beginning to show signs of diversity. It is important to recognize that this gradual movement toward a multicultural media is only the result of long and tiresome grassroots efforts. The fight for representation touches people from all cultural minority groups, and intersects in a powerful way. Here, we do not see change coming from the top down, but rather from the bottom up — we, the people, are dictating what the future of film and television will look like.

Considering National Association for the Deaf (NAD) is the oldest civil rights organization in the United States, it’s easy to see that the American Deaf community has long been involved with the fight for social justice. In film and television, specifically, there have been a number of highly influential Deaf actors who have left lasting impacts on audiences of all ability. One of the most well-known examples is Linda Bove, who exposed many generations of children to deafness and ASL during her 30 year role as Linda the Librarian on public television’s Sesame Street.

deaftalent-deaf-actors-actresses-talent-diversity-hollywood-02Over the past two years, the Deaf community has been actively pushing for greater cultural awareness through the #DeafTalent movement. #DeafTalent was started as a way for actors, performers, and directors who are deaf to push back against an industry that continuously hires hearing individuals when a deaf individual would be a much more appropriate choice. Why cast a hearing actor to play a deaf role? Why hire a hearing director to offer a deaf perspective? There are plenty of exceptionally talented deaf individuals seeking exactly this type of work, who would truly enrich any creative project.

The existence of #DeafTalent effectively removes any excuse people might have for culturally negligent hiring. Popularized by director Jules Dameron, the hashtag and social media presence has become one way to connect casting directors, investors, and so on with the deaf community. It shines a very clear spotlight on the problems in the industry and Dameron, herself, even offers up solutions on how to create true diversity in film and TV.

deaftalent-deaf-actors-actresses-diversity-hollywood-03“Much of our inspiration today built on previous movements such as the historic 1988 Deaf President Now (DPN) movement at Gallaudet University which led to the passage of the ADA bill in 1990,” Charmaine Hlibok, Director of Fundraising at Mark Seven Deaf Foundation explains. “DPN will celebrate its 30th anniversary next March, and today’s deaf children have many more opportunities today than many of us had.”

Without constant labor from advocacy groups, mainstream film and TV would probably never deviate from reinforcing the white, cisgendered, able-bodied, heterosexual male perspective as status quo. Like other minority groups, people who are d/Deaf/HoH couldn’t just wait around expecting Hollywood to change. For generations, performers, writers, directors, and filmmakers have been creating their own inclusive artistic communities, laying the foundation for the success of the activist efforts of today.

deaftalent-deaf-diversity-hollywood-talent-04Set to make a bicostal debut on Saturday, March 25 with premier events in both Los Angeles and New York City, The Strength Within You short film series is the first, and certainly not the last, of its kind. Inspired greatly by the #DeafTalent movement, The Strength Within You series features an exciting roster of Deaf talent in each of five films (both in front of and behind the camera). The film project was coordinated by filmmaker and producer Katia Belas as a way to explore various social issues and taboos— from domestic violence to LGBTQ rights— through a slightly different lens than audiences are used to seeing.

After being away from the film industry for 13 years, Belas, who is a Brazilian immigrant, found it impossible to make a career. “People looked down at me and would see only an old stupid, no-talent, no-vision, no-good-for-anything person.” Belas found herself working internships so she could learn how to utilize the new methods of media distribution that had come about during her hiatus. Like so many others trying to break through in the film and TV industry, she quietly endured instances of discrimination while networking and developing her craft. Finally, one day, she saw a film that opened her eyes to an alternative. Instead of waiting for an opportunity to make an impact, she had to create that opportunity herself!

deaftalent-deaf-diversity-hollywood-talent-05“It was a very short 1:54 minute silent film (almost a PSA) done by 2 amazing Deaf talents called ‘CIG.’ I saw it and thought: that is what I will do for me, and for people who, like me, are also seen as the ‘stupid, no-talent, no-good for anything’ in this world,” Belas explains. “Being involved with Deaf people for 3 years, I had already decided that my main goal when working in the industry was to work with Deaf Talents. So I just put 2 and 2 together, and came up with the idea to make this series.”

“It is a series of empowering, uplifting, humanity messages created by a team of Deaf and hearing filmmakers,” continues Belas. “Short films done with Deaf talents, proving to the world that we (Deaf, immigrants, older people) have talents, we are not stupid, and we can do anything regardless of anything, age, disability, language.”

Filmmaker Jade Bryan has been working for more than a decade to, as she explains it, “increase positive representation of Deaf People of Color in television and film.” Bryan’s more recent projects, If You Could Hear My Own Tune and The Shattered Mind have made extensive rounds on the festival circuits, winning numerous awards. She is currently working on an exciting new documentary series, alongside deaf actress and producer Maleni Chaitoo, titled #RESIST Through Our Eyes.

deaftalent-deaf-diversity-hollywood-talent-06According to the project’s active Fundraising Page #RESIST Through Our Eyes will be an 8-part documentary series “which will follow and document Deaf and Hard of Hearing people’s personal experiences and concerns when their human and civil rights are violated, challenged and threatened in the current political climate of chaos, toxicity, propaganda, “alternative facts” and uncertainty that exist under a regime Administration. We will meet and interview Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals whose Constitutional Rights have being threatened or violated… this includes activists, advocators, educators, lawyers, interpreters, Human and Civil Rights agencies and organizations, and their allies.”

Bryan sees intersectionality as the future of media. “Diversity does not necessarily means inclusive because they do not always include ‘the others.’ What do I mean by other? Deaf talents of color, people with other disabilities,” she explains. “As of today, 2017, the entertainment and television industry do not see us as an equal part of society. We’re always kept on sidelines or ignored… We have so much story to tell. Why are we as intersectional, the disabled and black deaf talents, being overlooked? Although I promote inclusion and deaf talents of color, we must be careful of erasing anyone. There are so many of us who are ready to tell our stories.”

deaftalent-deaf-diversity-hollywood-talent-07With the rise of the internet, which offers opportunity for visibility and a public platform, people who are d/Deaf/HoH have been actively correcting wrong assumptions, smashing stereotypes, and working to dismantle the structural barriers that oppress entire groups of people due to the way they are born and/or they way they choose to communicate. Members of the majority culture are now getting exposed to all different aspects of deafness and Deaf culture through intersectional social justice dialogues and deaf-created content. People are seeing, perhaps for the first time, that people who are deaf are mostly just regular everyday human beings who want the same kind of happiness and success as everyone else, and that they can do pretty much all the same things hearing people can do— except for hear.
deaftalent-pharrell-happy-asl-deaf-film-camp-cm7-08At the very roots of all grassroots movements are the younger generations. Working to ensure a future where d/Deaf/HoH children grow up confident in their ability to pursue their creative dreams without limitations, CampMark7 Deaf Film Camp is now in its fifth year of working with aspiring filmmakers ages 13-16 in Old Forge, NY to learn the ins and outs of the process— from script writing to screening. Campers are given the equipment, software, and guidance they need to turn their ideas into reality in a fast-paced, yet supportive hands-on filmmaking program. Several of the deaf campers’ final films have even gone viral— the ASL music video they made for Pharrell’s “Happy” has more than 1.7 million views on YouTube at this time!
“The Deaf Film Camp is a huge success because they work directly with skilled deaf role models and campers have direct communication access to their teachers,” Hlibok explains of CampMark7. “The Lights Camera Access! 2.0, the National Disability Mentorship Coalition, PolicyWorks, and many others support our mission and collaborate with us on various outreach projects. We host summits in NYC, DC and Los Angeles during the year for students who wish to meet mentors and meet with role models in the media industry who can provide opportunities to find internships or careers in their respective fields.”

deaftalent-deaf-kids-hollywood-talent-09As an accessible, inclusive, and immersive program, CampMark7 fosters the innate potentials of young people who might otherwise encounter discouraging limitations. Deaf/HoH youth deserve more music and arts programs that enrich their lives and facilitate a deeper, reciprocal connection to the cultural arts. Supporting organizations that work with young people is easy, for example the Deaf Film Camp Showcase Event on March 25 at Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NY will help raise funds for 2017 camper tuitions. For those who struggle with communication on a regular basis, creative outlets such as film, writing, art, or music, can provide a much needed avenue for healthy self-expression and building self-confidence.

“Human difference is a strength for all of us when we can teach and learn together,” Hlibok continues. “America has struggled with this in the past, and we are making progress towards correcting injustices every day. This is among the reasons why diversity is so important in film & TV.”

As the DeafTalent movement continues to spread, influencing the very fabric of American pop culture, creative people who are deaf will build further upon these grassroots efforts. The larger intersectional discourse with regards to how the media portrays people from minority communities is bringing many advocacy groups together, thus raising the visibility of marginalized people seeking work in the industry. Awareness about the importance and availability of deaf perspectives only increases as skilled actors, writers, directors, camera people, and consultants are gradually making their way onto major production teams and on-screen roles.

Discovering Deafness through Children’s Literature

books-literature-deaf-children-01Literature is one of the most powerful ways we come to understand society and our place in it. Through books, children learn about relationships, conflicts, empathy, morality, and how to classify their own emotions. Stepping into the lives of fictional characters, kids can experience a wide array of influential events in a very meaningful way— travel, adventure danger, love, loss, death— expanding their perspective, while remaining in a safe environment.

When choosing books for young children, then, it is important to consider the reality that is presented. Does your child’s library reflect the multiculturalism of the world we live in?

Books that feature deaf/ hard of hearing characters or protagonists should be added to every child’s collection! Whether you are the parent of a deaf child or the parent of a hearing child, introducing developing young minds to deafness can help cultivate an appreciation for human diversity.

10 Reasons to Make Sure There Are Deaf Characters In Your Child’s Library:

  1. Help children understand that deafness is a medical condition that has different levels, and that different people who are deaf can navigate the world in a wide variety of ways.books-literature-deaf-children-02
  2. Help children understand Deaf Culture and what it means to have Deaf identity.
  3. Help children understand that Sign Language is a visual language and why it is important.
  4. Familiarize children with the characteristics of people who are deaf/ HoH. For example, they may have hearing aids, cochlear implants, or an “accent.”
  5. Learn how to effectively overcome simple communication barriers in everyday situations.
  6. Learn how to welcome deaf children as friends.
  7. See the value of having diverse friend groups and the benefits of diversity in all situations.
  8. Important for deaf children to see themselves represented.
  9. See deaf/HoH individuals as role models.
  10. View deaf/HoH individuals as interesting and complex people worth getting to know.


I asked parents on Twitter and Facebook for recommendations for books that feature deaf characters, protagonists, or themes of deafness and/or Deaf Culture. Below you will find a collection of book recommendations and resources. The list incorporates a variety of books for children of all different levels, with both fiction and non-fiction titles.



  • A Birthday for Ben – by Kate Gaynor
  • A Place for Grace – by Jean Davies Okimoto
  • A Screaming Kind of Day – by Rachna Gilmore
  • Dad And Me in the Morning – by Patricia Lakin
  • Deaf Culture: A to Z – by Walter Paul Kelley
  • Dina The Deaf Dinosaur – by Carole Addabbo
  • Five Flavors of Dumb – by Anthony John
  • Hurt Go Happy: A Novel – by G. Robby
  • Jakes the Name : Sixth Grades the Game – by Deb Piper
  • Mandy – by Barbara D. Booth
  • Movers & Shakers: Deaf People Who Changed the World Storybook – by Cathryn Carroll & Susan M. Mather
  • One TV Blasting and A Pig Outdoors – by Deborah Abbott
  • River of hands : deaf heritage stories – by Symara Nichola Bonner
  • Robin sees a song – by Jim & Cheryl Pahz
  • Shay & Ivy: Beyond the Kingdom – by Sheena McFeely
  • Signs for Me – by Ben Bahan
  • Smart princess and other deaf tales – by Keelin Carey, Kristina Guevremont, and Nicole Marsh
  • Strong Deaf – by Lynn McElfresh
  • The Deaf Musicians – by Pete Seeger, Paul DuBois Jacobs
  • The Grump: The Original Short Story – by Mark Ludy
  • The Heart’s Language – by Lois-Ann Yamanaka
  • Deaf Child Crossing; Nobody’s Perfect; Leading Ladies – all by Marlee Matlin



Do you have recommendations for children’s books that feature deaf characters, protagonists, or deafness as a theme? Please share your favorites in the comments! 

Can Mainstream Schools Meet the Diverse Needs of Students?

deaf-hoh-in-school-education-01In the year 2016, one might assume that education for those who are d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing has advanced to the point where deaf young people in America are receiving the same level of education as their hearing peers. One might assume that federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does enough to protect deaf/HoH children’s right to expand their minds while developing valuable cultural and practical skills in a safe, productive environment. One might have faith that the education system of our modern society has evolved to accommodate the diverse needs of an increasingly diverse population.

Upon closer observation, however, we see that education programs for deaf and otherwise disabled individuals in this country are in an unfortunate state, and in even further jeopardy as more children are enrolled in mainstream schools that are underfunded, lacking in support, and simply not equipped for people with specialized educational requirements. To aid in the progress of our multicultural society, we all must become aware of the institutionalized injustices that perpetuate oppression, and then we must work together to change these structures— from both the top down, and from the bottom up. Before people begin working toward a solution, it is crucial to first identify the root of the problem.

Building a Solid Foundation

deaf-hoh-in-school-education-02Access to education is an issue that most people who are deaf/ HoH begin to face long before they set foot in a school. Since 9 out of 10 deaf children are born to hearing families, these kids often begin their journey without acquiring basic communication skills, as their families don’t use sign language. Deaf babies who do not have access to a signed language cannot easily articulate their wants and needs with caregivers, and therefore they can become quickly frustrated. Falling behind their hearing peers in early linguistic comprehension causes many deaf youths to face a disadvantage right from the start. This is where schools for the Deaf can make all the difference by offering young deaf children the support they need to develop their language and literacy skills in a specifically structured setting.

“For over 130 years, the Deaf community have been fighting for Deaf Education to be optimized for each Deaf child, but the medical and educational system have consistently failed the Deaf children because of lack of full access to language acquisition,” explains Julie Rems-Smario, Founding Executive Director of DeafHope, President of California Association of the Deaf, and co-founder of the grassroots organization Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids (LEAD-K). “It is not the ‘deafness’ that causes the child to be language deprived. It is the lack of full access to language acquisition, especially during first two years, that causes the Deaf child to be language-deprived.”

deaf-hoh-in-school-education-03Both scientific research and personal anecdotes have shown the positive impact of Deaf schools. In this environment, whether it is a day school or a residential school, children who are deaf are more likely to have their emotional, social, and educational needs met by a qualified staff. In Deaf schools, children who are deaf are able to connect with others who share the experience of deafness. They will be exposed to more deaf role models and/or potential mentors, and may themselves become a mentor for another deaf young person. Immersed in a Deaf cultural institution, children can develop a strong self-identity and sense of pride in something they may have once felt ashamed of.

“Deaf schools are not just an educational option, but are the only beneficial placement for many deaf children,” states the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) position statement on Schools for the Deaf. “Deaf schools, an integral part of American history, have not only received quality education but also benefited from the fostering of its culture, heritage, and language through such essential institutions. Schools for the deaf, including charter schools founded to serve deaf children, are uniquely capable of providing the necessary visual learning environment and the ideal conditions for language development for deaf children.”

There is ample evidence to support American Sign Language (ASL)/ English bilingualism as an optimal solution for deaf children, especially those in hearing families. Research shows higher educational outcomes for deaf children who have access to visual language, even those who are being raised to vocalize or who have a Cochlear Implant. The benefits of Deaf schools are undeniable, yet these programs are seeing budget cuts and lowered enrollment numbers all across the country as parents are steered toward mainstreamed education options. There are currently around 100 schools for the deaf in the United States. Since the year 2000, seven state schools for the deaf have closed down— most of these either pre-K-12 or K-12 programs.

Why Deaf Schools?

deaf-hoh-in-school-education-04“Placing every deaf child in their respective neighborhood school is not practical, economical, or educationally beneficial,” asserts the NAD position statement. It continues to explain that mainstream schools with few deaf students tend to lack the appropriate resources. “In many states, there are large geographical areas with a small deaf student population, making schools for the deaf a cost-effective means to optimal educational services.”

When students are enrolled in a mainstream school, they are entitled to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) with teachers and administrators that is designed to meet their needs; this may include interpreters and note-takers in the classroom. While IEPs are great in theory, in practice they tend to lack resources and long term support, failing to offer deaf/HoH kids an equal opportunity to receive an education. According to Tawny Holmes, Education Policy Counsel at the NAD, recent years have seen downsizing in education programs for deaf children across the board, further isolating already isolated youths in the mainstream system.

“[There has been] a huge shift to ‘solitaire’ education,” Holmes explains. “By that I mean, not only do schools for the deaf have declining numbers, but many large mainstream programs are closing. So that means an increased number of deaf/hard of hearing students are isolated in their public school- ‘the only deaf student in the school.’ This is confirmed by the Gallaudet Research Institute [survey] results.”

Students Bear The Consequences

deaf-hoh-in-school-education-06Research suggests that isolation and a lack of educational support results in overall lower test scores and reading levels for deaf young people. For more than half a century, the average reading level among deaf adults has hovered around the 3rd or 4th grade level, compared to 7th or 8th grade for the general population of adult Americans. According to Sheri A. Farinha, CEO of NorCal Services for Deaf & Hard of Hearing, and co-founder of LEAD-K: the 2008 California English Language Arts K-12 statistics showed that less than 15% hard of hearing students, and less than 6% deaf students, are able to read and write proficiently.

In mainstream settings, where classrooms may be brimming with different students who have all different abilities and teachers are often under pressure to get students prepared for state exams, the unique needs of deaf students can get overlooked despite educator’s best intentions. These children quietly fall behind without easy access to remedial tools, such as tutoring or mentorship. They frequently struggle with feeling intellectually inferior, when they are actually just experiencing communication barriers. In schools, the interpreter may become their only ally and resource— viewed by the young person as a teacher, language model, advocate, and conduit between the student and the rest of the classroom. Unless teachers are provided thorough cultural competency training and are offered ongoing professional development opportunities that focus on academic inclusion, it’s unlikely that they will be prepared to accommodate the educational and social needs of children who are deaf. This disconnect can keep deaf students in mainstream schools from ever forming a real relationship with their teachers, peers, or the educational experience.

The effects of poor education, of course, ripple out into the community at large. Kids who feel ostracized by the system tend to work outside of it, instead. Around 60% of juvenile delinquents in California have disabilities. According the the US Department of Justice, nationwide, “an estimated 32% of prisoners and 40% of jail inmates reported having at least one disability,” with about 7% of all those surveyed self-reporting a hearing deficit. Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD) has found that there are no official statistics regarding the number of deaf individuals in prison, but their organization has located more than 500 deaf prisoners who have gotten caught up in a legal system that offers them little justice.

deaf-hoh-in-school-education-07Deaf individuals continue to face exponentially higher unemployment rates and many reluctantly rely on social services for basic survival while seeking sustainable employment opportunities. Instead of investing in deaf education and cultural competency training programs, thus changing the potential outcome for generations to come, the system effectively perpetuates a cycle of dependence. Grassroots and community-led organizations have been gaining momentum over the past few years as citizens attempt to pick up the pieces where the existing infrastructure has failed.

“An increased number of D/HoH students do not have access to qualified interpreters, teachers of the deaf, nor peers/role models. Nor do they receive information or knowledge on self-advocacy, community support and resources,” Holmes says. “We [at NAD] have been receiving increased distress by parents, teachers, and community members on not being able to secure services for the deaf/ HoH children they have or see. Our intake requests in this area has increased by 500% in the past three years.”

Deaf Education Needs More Deaf Leadership

Mainstream education programs are severely lacking in a deaf perspective, and this has been a major source of oppression since the Milan Conference in 1880, when a group of deaf-hoh-in-school-education-08hearing individuals decided the unfortunate course of deaf education for the next 100+ years. In this modern era, however, deaf people have the technology to connect and organize like never before. We are currently witnessing a major push-back against hearing parties making decisions for the deaf community, with assertive advocates utilizing new communication tools to rally support for proactive deaf-led reform. They are sharing their own experiences with the families of deaf children, alongside supporting research, to help secure better opportunities for generations to come.

Community organizations are emerging as important resources and beacons of hope for the families of children who are deaf. By providing easily accessible information from a deaf perspective, these organizations hope to demystify deafness and raise awareness about issues that impact the community. One of the most important issues being a child’s human right to a language they can use. Without access to language, a child’s learning will inevitably be delayed. Deciding it was time for a new course of action, in 2011 Rems Smario and Farina envisioned a legislative plan for addressing language deprivation. They invited a group of a group of stakeholders in California including parents, educators, and community members to cultivate the LEAD-K movement.

“The goal of the LEAD-K movement is to create generations of Kindergarten-ready Deaf children,” Rems-Smario explains. “To make this a reality the LEAD-K stakeholders strategized to pass a state law to enforce language acquisition milestones and accountability for all Deaf babies during the first five years of their lives so they are ready for literacy, reading and writing, when they enroll in their Kindergarten class.”

According to their website, LEAD-K’s strategies are twofold:

1) Raise the awareness and understanding of the general public, parents, and the education system of the Deaf child’s experience in language learning, the role of visual learning for a Deaf child and how that impacts their educational success; and

2) To work with other partners to change public policy related to the education of Deaf children who use ASL and English, both or one of the languages toward Kindergarten-readiness.

Within just nine months, LEAD-K made a strong legislative impact by passing laws in three states. California became the first state to pass the language acquisition accountability law, SB 210, which was authored by Senator Galgiani and signed into law by Governor Brown in October 2015. Kansas and Hawaii’s LEAD-K bills were signed into law during Spring 2016. During September 2016, Deaf representatives from 23 states are flew to Sacramento to receive LEAD-K legislative training, led by the LEAD-K campaign director.

“All three legislative achievements were accomplished by the Deaf people in the driver’s seat; this is a Deaf-led movement, which is very empowering for the families and their Deaf children to witness and model after,” says Rems Smario. “The LEAD-K is the answer to ending over 130 years of language deprivation and dismal educational status endured by our Deaf children because it gives the families the knowledge, the tools and the power to enforce language acquisition accountability for their children to be Kindergarten-ready. It is a very exciting time for the families and their Deaf children. “

deaf-hoh-in-school-education-10Using the fame he gained as winner of both America’s Next Top Model and Dancing With the Stars, Nyle DiMarco has been a highly visible advocate for ASL language rights and an ally to the LEAD-K movement. Coming from a Deaf family, DiMarco understands how crucial it is for deaf young people to have language access and role models in the public eye. He endeavors to give back to the community through his non-profit, the Nyle DiMarco Foundation (NDF). DiMarco has become the LEAD-K celebrity spokesperson, and NDF and offers funding for LEAD-K initiatives. According to the NDF website, “The Nyle DiMarco Foundation’s mission is to empower positive Deaf Identities in all aspect of life, and we wholeheartedly support [LEAD-K] goal for accurate resources to share with families, professionals and communities. With the Nyle DiMarco foundation, we can continue onward to create new generations of Kindergarten-Ready Deaf Kids!”

Meeting Diverse Educational Needs

Early intervention creates a strong foundation, but education does not stop in Kindergarten. How do we help the deaf kids already in classrooms throughout the country? The needs of students who are deaf/ HoH can best be met through a variety of different educational strategies, some of which could very easily be implemented to the benefit of all students. Recently Gary Behm, Director at the Center on Access Technology Innovation Laboratory at National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), offered to explain one effective classroom strategy that is utilized for deaf students at NTID.


“This program is specifically targeting less lecture in classrooms and more hands-on work and discussion. Teachers will record themselves doing a lecture and students can watch the lecture at home, then they go back to classroom and focus on hands-on aspects. The program is called Flipped Course,” said Behm. “In the DeafTEC program, the Flipped Course lectures themselves are deaf professors from all different fields. Students are using those videos for lectures, and then using classroom for discussion. There are many older deaf teachers that are retired, so we are trying to use their skills.”

By offering students a variety of classroom strategies, educators are able to effectively acknowledge the diversity of their students. Adopting new techniques is possible in any educational program but in mainstream settings, even with an IEP, the resources to create high quality deaf-specific curriculum are generally lacking. Rolling out something like a Flipped Course can be done anywhere, but it is most efficient in a situation where it meets the needs of many students— once again highlighting the true value of schools for the deaf.

Looking to the Future

deaf-hoh-in-school-education-05Gallaudet University estimates that “anywhere from 9 to 22 out of every 1,000 people have a severe hearing impairment or are deaf.” These numbers reflect a small but still significant segment of the population. And, like most marginalized groups, people who are deaf often find themselves struggling for upward mobility within a system that was not designed for their success. As individuals we can only do so much to remedy the injustices of society, but together we can create real and lasting change.

Through raising awareness, educating, and offering valid platforms to deaf individuals to share their experiences, hopefully we can soon see a shift in the educational landscape that offers more fruitful opportunities to those who are deaf. After more than 130 years of oppression, deaf advocates are reclaiming the reigns and spearheading much needed educational reform measures. By dispelling stereotypes and falsehoods surrounding ASL and language acquisition, deaf advocates strive to break the cycle of oppression that keeps deaf individuals out of classrooms, boardrooms, and legislative positions.

5 Great Reasons to Establish a Bilingual Household

reasons-bilingual-household-deaf-hoh-01Did you know: statistics show that in the United States, 9 out of every 10 kids who are deaf are born to hearing parents. Many of these parents have very little prior knowledge about deafness, and probably even less exposure to sign language and Deaf Culture.

These parents might fear that they won’t be able to communicate with their child, or that their child will be limited without the ability to hear. Like all parents, the hearing parents of deaf children want to do the right thing and give their kid the best opportunities available… But what does this really mean?

Raising deaf children with access to sign language has been shown to yield benefits in many areas of life, even for children working to acquire spoken language skills or those who have Cochlear Implants. Although it may require more effort from everyone in the family, creating a bilingual household where spoken and signed language coexist presents an ideal solution for overcoming communication barriers.

5 Great Reasons to Establish a Bilingual Household

1. Helps Development of Personality

reasons-bilingual-household-deaf-hoh-develop-personality-2From the time we are infants, we use language to create our narrative of the world and to establish our place within it. Studies have shown that not only do deaf/ HoH babies benefit from early exposure to signed language— signing allows ALL babies to express their needs and desires long before they are able to verbalize them, since humans develop tactile and motor skills at a much earlier age.

While children develop their sense of self, it is important that they are able to label both internal and external stimuli. Visual language allows children who are deaf to identify thoughts and feelings using their natural senses, which can be less frustrating for these children during their early developmental years.

According to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, article 30 section 4, people who are deaf are entitled, as a basic human right, to have access to their linguistic identity. Research has shown that even children who are learning oral communication methods benefit from family support for ASL, since it encourages a strong sense of identity and can aid in effective personal expression.

2. Build Stronger Family Relationships

reasons-bilingual-household-deaf-hoh-educational-benefits-3When parents and siblings also know ASL, a child who is deaf has the added benefit of being able to communicate comfortably with the people around them. Learning a new language might seem intimidating at first, but luckily ASL is one of the most fun and interesting languages to acquire because it is so expressive.

Spending time together learning sign language as a family can be a positively enriching bonding activity for adults and children, both deaf and hearing alike. For relatives of a child who is deaf, learning ASL can help build a bridge of communication and trust. Knowing sign language enables siblings a variety of options for communication, thereby deepening these important relationships.

Research has shown that knowing multiple languages increases overall brain activity (it can even help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia). Language helps open up new perspectives and expands ones’ point of view. When hearing parents take the opportunity to foster a bilingual family, every member benefits!

3. Educational Benefits

reasons-bilingual-household-deaf-hoh-04Researchers from the 1960s through to the 1990s (most notably Mark T. Greenberg and Carol A. Kusché ) observed and documented that deaf children from deaf parents academically outperformed their deaf peers with hearing parents. Benefitting from early exposure to a language which they could feel comfortable using, the deaf children from deaf households demonstrated higher levels of literacy and reading comprehension.

According to NAD, “recent evidence from multiple studies shows that profoundly deaf children possess high levels of language organization if they had early exposure to a visual language… Specifically, they found two factors correlated with reading achievement: ASL fluency and exposure to print… While spoken language phonological coding may not predict reading ability very well in deaf children, signed language phonological coding is a stronger factor in development of reading ability. These findings suggest that an emphasis on visual language development activities as a path to successful reading acquisition may serve as a better model of literacy development for deaf children.”

4. Social Benefits

When a child is able to develop their social skills from an early age without restriction, they can experiment with the boundaries of nuanced human interactions. Deaf children who use ASL with their families are less likely to report feeling isolated, and are therefore more likely to be outgoing in other social situations. This snowball effect of self-confidence can lead to later success in personal and professional networking.

5. Forming a Cultural Identity

reasons-bilingual-household-deaf-hoh-05Aside from boosting personal awareness and self esteem, having the ability to connect with the larger Deaf community gives children who are deaf the option to communicate with other people who share the common experience of deafness. Offering deaf/HoH children the advantage of bilingualism provides them with the ability to access deaf society if they so choose.

According to research by Tingting Gao, “a common language fosters understanding and respect among deaf people and the existence of this culture provides a strong identity that deaf people can adopt in the face of a communication barrier between themselves and the rest of society.” Often, deaf people who grow up learning oral communication discover ASL at some point in their life. Many of these individuals report this discovery as an important experience!

“By learning Sign Language and interacting with the Deaf community, a deaf person can reverse all of his previous misconceptions regarding deaf people’s subaltern state relative to hearing people,” continues Gao. “More importantly, it chases away whatever doubts or uncertainties the deaf individual has had about himself, including the view that deafness is abnormal.”


There are many excellent ways to begin learning ASL! Please check out THIS BLOG for some great free and low cost options to get you started.

Other resources include

The ASL App
Signing Savvy

But, off course, the most effective way to learn ASL is to really immerse yourself. By working with a Deaf individual or a native ASL user, you can delve into the rich tapestry of Deaf Culture, gaining a deeper understanding of what it means to be deaf in America.

SignNexus is pleased to offer personal ASL training for individuals or groups. Learn sign language on your own time, at your own pace, from the comfort of your own home or a public location in NYC. Learn to sign while exploring Deaf culture and current issues in the community. Get an in depth perspective on deafness and deaf communication from our qualified instructors.

Creating Opportunities for Deaf Employees

deaf-employees-employment-jobs-opportunity-1b“Where do you work?” “What do you do for a living?” In America, these are among the first questions a new acquaintance will ask us. This simple inquiry reflects the cultural emphasis placed on work and career choice in the modern world. But for many, this dreaded question serves as a reminder that even work is a privilege.

A recent survey conducted by TotalJobs, one of the UK’s leading jobs boards, revealed that more than half of d/Deaf and hard of hearing employees have faced discrimination at some point during their career because of their deafness. Approximately 25% of the survey’s respondents reported leaving a job as a result of discrimination. Just last year in the United States, deaf protestors marched on Washington D.C. to demand access to work, holding a banner that read “75% of Deaf are not working in USA.” What these numbers and actions suggest is that while companies are proudly touting diversity initiatives and proclaiming themselves to be “equal opportunity employers,” the reality does not match the narrative.

Discrimination in Hiring

deaf-hoh-job-employment-discrimination-2Often, discrimination against deaf individuals begins right in the interview stage. Deaf / HoH job candidates face the difficult task of revealing their disability to a potential employer, knowing full well how this might impact their chances of getting hired.

Deaf job seekers who use ASL as their primary form of communication are forced to decide whether they will hire their own interpreter for a job interview and pay out-of-pocket; or whether they will invoke their ADA right to have an interpreter provided by the company they are interviewing with.

While it might seem obvious that companies should provide interpreters for interviewees, as legally required, the unfortunate reality is that this makes deaf job candidates seem like a “burden” right off the bat. At this stage, a person who is d/Deaf is trying their best to make a good impression and, fair or not, asking a company to pay for reasonable accommodation during the interview process creates a stigma that is hard to overcome.

Take the example of Ricky Washington who applied for a job at McDonalds in 2012. Washington was a qualified employee with experience as a cook. He disclosed on his application that he was deaf and he was granted an interview, however once he asked McDonald’s to provide an interpreter for the interview, it was cancelled and never rescheduled. The restaurant management continued to interview and hire new workers while denying Washington the opportunity to interview. This is discrimination and it’s a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.


As per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Enforcement Guidelines on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship:

An employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified applicant with a disability that will enable the individual to have an equal opportunity to participate in the application process and to be considered for a job. Thus, individuals with disabilities who meet initial requirements to be considered for a job should not be excluded from the application process because the employer speculates, based on a request for reasonable accommodation for the application process, that it will be unable to provide the individual with reasonable accommodation to perform the job. In many instances, employers will be unable to determine whether an individual needs reasonable accommodation to perform a job based solely on a request for accommodation during the application process.

Although those who use auditory communication (ie: cochlear implants, hearing aids, lip reading) may not utilize an interpreter for job interviews, they face a similar set of difficulties during the hiring process. If the interviewer does not face the interviewee and speak clearly for the duration of the interview, the deaf/HoH person may struggle with understanding exactly what is being said. If the deaf/HoH interviewee asks the interviewer to repeat themselves too many times, the interviewer might become frustrated. If the deaf/HoH person chooses not to disclose their disability, they run the risk of the interviewer assuming they are just not paying enough attention or, even worse, that they are not intelligent because they cannot follow the conversation.

Workplace Discrimination

deaf-hoh-job-employment-barriers-advancement-04If all goes well in the interview phase and the company decides to hire a d/Deaf/HoH employee, they may not even realize that their workplace is not set up for accessibility. They might not notice that their employees are not culturally competent. They might not fully understand what steps need to be taken to ensure a productive work environment for a diverse team. Creating a deaf-friendly workplace begins with basic communication needs and extends all the way into corporate culture.

“If an organization or business is interested in hiring deaf people, they must have commitment or buy-in from all levels,” explains Karen Cook, Director of the Career Center at Gallaudet University. “From top executives, CEOs, Board of directors, to managers, supervisors and HR staff. They must educate themselves about deaf people, Deaf culture, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act, section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, and other legislations that can advise them of proper procedures and regulations.”

Management sets the tone for how deaf employees will be treated in the workplace. Cultural competency education is a critical piece of this puzzle. Cultural competency education helps erase stereotypes and assumptions, providing a foundational understanding of what it means to be deaf, what accommodations deaf individuals may need, and how to best connect across the language and cultural divide to most effectively collaborate when working with a diverse team.

Of course outright discrimination still exists in the workplace— we can find examples of deaf people being made fun of by other employees or denied interpreters for important meetings— but there are other, more subtle forms of discrimination that can hinder a deaf person’s career. Being left out of social activities, such as lunches or happy hours, can create a sense of isolation. If a deaf employee feels marginalized by their coworkers, they are less likely to share their valuable thoughts and opinions, defeating the entire premise of a multicultural group. If deaf employees ask other workers to repeat themselves and are told “never mind” or “it wasn’t that important” too many times, they may just cease to ask questions and retreat into the background.

The Total Jobs survey showed that discrimination against d/Deaf/HoH individuals in the workplace is sadly common, with 1 in 4 deaf workers having left a job as a result. As previously mentioned, jobs can be difficult to come by and therefore deaf workers are not typically eager to leave their hard earned positions. But when they believe their needs as an employee are not being met, or they perceive hostility from other employees or management, these workers feel left with no other choice.

Barriers to Advancement

deaf-hoh-employment-workplace-more-deaf-friendly-6When people who are d/Deaf/HoH are not able to access conversations and are left out of information exchange, they are automatically placed in a position of disadvantage. Even casual communication in the workplace is important, as it builds rapport and a sense of camaraderie.

If a deaf worker doesn’t feel comfortable in a group, or they aren’t able to fully participate in projects due to lack necessary accommodations (ie: captioning, interpreter, etc), they are less likely be considered when the time comes to offer promotions. If hearing workers are invited for dinners or rounds of golf with the boss, while deaf workers are overlooked for these invitations, guess which individuals will feel more confident and self-assured as professionals. In this way, hearing employees are able to benefit from even indirect mentorship simply because access to their superior is not limited by the boss’s willingness to reach across a communication gap.

Often times employees who are deaf are overlooked for promotions just because management is culturally unaware. They may fear that advancing deaf workers will be challenging for hearing subordinates (it’s not), or that the company will incur too many “additional expenses” (ADA provisions are part of running a business). Instead of recognizing the true potential of an individual and striving to remove barriers for everyone’s benefit, organizations tend to end diversity initiatives where the bottom line begins. Instead of analyzing the actual needs of deaf/ HoH employees, organizations might just assume that it will be too costly and time consuming to give deaf workers more responsibility. This uninformed and audist attitude toward creating opportunities effectively prevents companies from getting the most out of their deaf/HoH employees, since there seems to be no hope for upward mobility.

Creating Opportunities for Deaf Employees: How Can Deaf Individuals Take Action?

According to Cook, there are a number of ways deaf job seekers can improve their odds of being hired. Consider the following:

  1. Learn how to advocate for yourself. Be able to talk about your abilities and what accommodations you anticipate needing in the workplace, and provide five examples of your accomplishments.
  2. Practice interviewing with someone before an actual interview, and receive feedback on how to improve interview skills.
  3. Develop a resume with good format and no spelling or grammatical errors, which clearly highlights accomplishments, education, work experience. A good resume is what gets the attention of an employer and gets you an interview.
  4. Work with agencies that assist people with disabilities to find jobs (i.e. Vocational Rehabilitation)
  5. If individual is a college student or alumni, they can attend job fairs sponsored by their institution as employers who attend these Fairs are already interested in hiring them.
  6. Research employers and organizations such as US Business Leadership Network (USBLN) that promote inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce. Other organizations include National Organization on Disability (NOD) which is a non-profit that focuses on increasing employment opportunities for working-age Americans with disabilities who are unemployed, and Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD) which is a national association of colleges and employers focused on career employment of college graduates with disabilities.

How Can Employers Make Their Organizations More Deaf-Friendly?

working-with-deaf-hoh-people-7Employment and workplace discrimination is a complex problem that requires cooperation at all levels. The foundation for a positive and productive multicultural workplace begins with recognizing diversity as an asset. Cultural competency training for all employees, from the top executives to support staff, can help foster a deeper understanding of the value deaf individuals bring to organizations.

Beyond basic cultural competency training, Cook says that Human Resources departments should “work to ensure their processes, qualification standards, and job descriptions do not prevent the hiring and advancement of qualified persons who are deaf/HoH.” This means taking a look at current and future job postings to identify language that marginalizes those who experience hearing loss or deafness.

Cook also suggests that companies develop internship programs that bring in deaf students, with the potential to become full time positions for well-performing individuals. HR coordinators can partner with universities, such as Gallaudet and RIT/NTID, as well as vocational rehabilitation organizations to help create pipelines from school to work. Hiring managers can reach out to organizations involved in providing job opportunities for people with disabilities, such as US Business Leadership Network, Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities, and National Organization on Disability to learn about best practices.

Once the decision has been made to add deaf/HoH employees to the team, employers should take time to learn about that employee’s communication needs and the different technologies that are available to accommodate deafness in the workplace. A great suggestion for welcoming a deaf individual who uses sign language to the organization is to offer ASL classes to any interested supervisors, managers, and coworkers. Besides helping hearing people learn to communicate with deaf individuals, ASL training can be a fun group activity!

If a person who is deaf feels like they are a valuable part of the workforce, they are likely to perform better and feel more invested in the success of the company. Cook points out that if an employer treats deaf/HoH employees well by providing accommodations, increasing job responsibilities, and offering opportunities for promotion, they will also be more likely to tell other deaf people that it is a great place to work. This creates a snowball effect for the diversity of the organization.

Working Together

reasons-hire-deaf-employees-05As we progress through the 21st century, previously marginalized groups are finding ways to fight back against the inherent oppression of mainstream culture. People with different identities are standing up and advocating for access to opportunity, including the basic right to make a living. Without these opportunities, a cycle of financial, spiritual, and cultural poverty is created.

By welcoming people who are d/Deaf/HoH into workplaces and setting them up with the tools they need to succeed, the entire organization can reap the benefits of diversity. Deaf employees bring a unique perspective and new ideas. When they feel comfortable, supported, and included as part of the team, they can focus on contributing to the overall success of your company.

SignNexus is thrilled to offer Cultural Competency Training seminars for businesses and organizations on a national level. Learn how to effectively integrate Deaf/HoH employees in the workplace and provide them the support they need, while educating other staff members and management about deafness and Deaf culture. Our cultural competency training is comprehensive, informative, and a great team-building exercise!

Deaf Influence on Consumer Technology

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