Category Archives: Deaf facts

Hearing the Voice of the Deaf Community

ASL-HoH-Deaf_Camp-01Often, people ask me “what is going on?” with Deaf culture. More than ever, we are seeing deaf individuals on TV, in the news, and other mainstream sources. For thousands of years, deaf people were silent members of society, sometimes denied basic rights simply because they could not hear. But with new communication technologies emerging each day, the world is finally getting a true glimpse into the complex and elaborate Deaf cultures which quietly evolved over centuries.

storrs-sister_ASL-02As we all know, just because deaf people may not be able to hear or speak doesn’t mean they have nothing to say! Throughout history, deaf people have existed, and they have wanted to engage with the world around them. Since hearing society was generally insensitive (remember, deaf people who couldn’t speak were commonly called “dumb”), deaf people were desperate for others who they could relate to. Until the mid-1500s, the deaf population remained uneducated, disconnected, and largely ignored. Over time, official sign languages began emerging and people slowly started to understand communication as a human right.

telephone-operators-1960s-03If you ever played the “telephone” game as a child, you know how difficult it can be to relay a message through multiple sources. The telephone was a revolutionary invention for Americans, making it possible to stay connected with friends and family from a distance. But it was still decades before the deaf population was able to experience the joys of our networked world. If they wished to make a phone call, deaf individuals had to ask a hearing person to place the call and act as their interpreter. It was not convenient, and certainly not a good way to hold a private conversation.

deaf-hoh-clubsSeeking a sense of community, Deaf clubs began to assemble. Outside of the mainstream, away from the hearing world, deaf people began organizing their own social associations. Deaf clubs were among the very first institutions created BY deaf people FOR deaf people. In private spaces, deaf people could express their hopes, discuss political issues, and share stories of oppression. Here, deaf folklore and jokes evolved. Aided by the use of sign language, Deaf culture became rich and nuanced, while deaf people grew empowered. By the 1940s, these social clubs could be found in nearly every major city across the United States.

tty-teletype-deaf-hoh-05In the 1960s, the Teletype (TTY) was invented. TTY machines allowed messages to be typed then transmitted through the phone lines, where the message was received by another TTY device. If a deaf person wished to call a hearing person who did not have a TTY, then a relay service (TRS) could be used. TRS operators would receive the deaf person’s TTY messages then read them out loud to the hearing entity. While this technology was a step in the right direction, it fell short in a few ways. Firstly, if the deaf individual could not read or write very well in English, this was not an effective method. Additionally, TRS call center employees were often hearing people with little knowledge about Deaf culture or ASL. Because TRS operators were not always linguistically or culturally competent, it was very possible for messages to be miscommunicated, misinterpreted, and misunderstood. Although they certainly had their place, especially in deaf families, TTY was not an ideal solution.

how-tty-teletype-works-06It was not until the end of the 20th century that Deaf Americans were impacted by the communication revolution. The invention of cell phones with text messaging finally offered Deaf Americans the freedom that the telephone provided hearing people. When the internet became a household utility, instant messaging and chat rooms allowed deaf people to make new connections. These easy-to-use methods were convenient not only for Deaf people to communicate with one another, but they could now chat directly with hearing people. No more “telephone” game!

deaf-hoh-facetime-skype-video-call-07On the internet deaf people began to meet each other, explore Deaf culture more deeply, and express themselves just like everyone else. As Internet speeds got faster, uploading and streaming videos became simple. Instead of typing out their stories in English, deaf people could now comfortably record video in ASL. By captioning or doing voice-overs, deaf video bloggers could reach both deaf and hearing audiences. For the first time, deaf stories could be told by deaf people directly to mainstream audiences without a third party. Now the whole world can finally see that deaf people are individuals with their own personalities.

video-relay-service-deaf-hohThe ability to have a long distance conversation in sign language has been monumental. Using video chat, deaf people can now converse freely using ASL; whether they are around the block or across the ocean. Apps such as Skype and FaceTime empower deaf people to stay in contact and share their experiences. Video Relay Service (VRS) call centers– staffed with certified ASL interpreters who understand Deaf culture and ASL linguistics– now provide a way for deaf people to make phone calls. Using VRS, deaf people can quickly communicate with hearing people, allowing them to participate more fully in areas of everyday life where they had normally been excluded. VRS is used in businesses across the country to provide deaf access, and empowers deaf employees to become engaged in the workplace.

deaf-hoh-facetime-video-call-09This all takes us to our modern day — with the widespread use of texting, instant messaging, and video chats. The internet has become the biggest Deaf club in history! Deaf people are blogging, vlogging, and connecting instantly on any number of social networks. With the help of modern technology, deaf people have access to better education and communication than ever before. My deaf nieces are growing up in a world where they can call aunt Lydia on FaceTime, and tell me about their day using their native language: ASL. My deaf sister and I can text gossip back and forth, or I can just share a photo of the leaves in Central Park with my mother. I know I am blessed to live in a time where I can be so connected to my deaf family and friends, because it wasn’t always so easy.

deaf-nation-cafeWhen people ask me why they are suddenly seeing so much about Deaf culture in the media, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride. From deep roots of oppression, Deaf Americans quietly cultivated a beautiful culture all their own. The internet allows hearing society to access a wealth of deaf art, music, poetry, news, and advocacy information. Using the tools of the modern age, the Deaf community is able to amplify it’s voice. Finally, the mainstream world is staring to listen.

Deaf Rights: What You Need to Know

Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski_MAWorking in the Deaf community, I’ve noticed a great deal of confusion surrounding the legal rights of the Deaf. Both Deaf and hearing individuals have difficulty understanding what accommodations deaf people are entitled to, and how exactly those needs
get met. I recently had a chance to discuss these important issues with Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski, who serves as a Deaf legal liaison, and Deaf discrimination attorney Andrew Rozynski, Esq.

Deaf Rights

Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski — who serves as Deaf Liaison at Eisenberg & Baum Law Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing — explains that Deaf persons frequently encounter barriers when trying to protect their rights. Profoundly deaf since birth, Eisenberg-Michalowski has personally witnessed discrimination against deaf individuals from all walks of life, in a wide variety of scenarios. Utilizing her extensive experience, Eisenberg-Michalowski serves as an advocate for deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind individuals; helping people better understand how to protect themselves against discrimination.

professional-asl-communication-nyc“Imagine yourself as a deaf individual with virtually no knowledge regarding the law. You may have been faced with job discrimination, personal injury, sexual harassment, or denied ASL interpreters for medical care. Obviously, legal assistance is needed, but the lawyer who takes your case may have no knowledge of Deaf culture or the needs of deaf individuals.” Eisenberg-Michalowski explains that many attorneys will take valid discrimination cases, but neglect to provide guidance for their Deaf client. “Without interpreters, clear communication with your lawyer is nonexistent. Where are your rights?

“Over the years, many laws have been passed in order to improve quality of life for deaf individuals,” she continued. “But even with today’s laws, I still see so much Audism– a term meaning the oppression of the Deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind.”

Andrew_Rozynski_EsqAndrew Rozynski, a Deaf discrimination litigation attorney and partner at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, offers some insight into Federal legal obligations to provide reasonable accommodations. Rozynski comes from a Deaf family, and his clientele is almost exclusively deaf. He is one of only a handful of attorneys in the United States who focuses his practice on the protection of Deaf persons rights.

“As a Deaf rights attorney, I focus my practice of law on combating discrimination against the Deaf in a variety of settings,” said Rozynski. “Hospitals, government, businesses; these are just some of the areas of everyday life where Deaf people require accommodations.”

ada-deaf-hohThe Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires many public and private entities to provide reasonable accommodations for the Deaf to ensure effective communication. What is a reasonable accommodation varies from situation to situation, and the need for accommodation can be different in each setting. Since each Deaf person has individual needs, determining what accommodation is appropriate can sometimes be confusing. Rozynski offered to elaborate:

“Reasonable accommodation is very ‘fact specific,’ which means it is evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” he explained. “It really depends on many factors, however, two important factors that are utilized are: (1) What are the Deaf person’s needs to facilitate effective communication, and (2) The length and complexity of the communication.”

So, how do you know if an interpreter is necessary?

“Assuming the Deaf person uses ASL as their primary form of communication, hospitals are one setting where a qualified sign language interpreter is almost always appropriate because critical communication concerning medical treatment is being conducted. In government settings– such as court proceedings or interviews with the police– interpreters are crucial for effective communication, because ones’ legal rights can be seriously impacted by miscommunication. In the employment setting, having interpreters for business meetings ensures that deaf employees can participate equally in the workplace.”

three_people_ASL_signingRozynski went on to provide further examples. “In the alternative, if you go in to a sandwich shop and request an interpreter, would that be appropriate under those circumstances? Probably not. “

“But, say a Deaf person is looking for a house and needs an interpreter to effectively communicate with the real estate broker. That might be an instance where people don’t know they have the right to request an interpreter. Or if one is getting a mortgage from a bank, that is another instance where a deaf person may be entitled to an interpreter so that they can fully understand the terms of the agreement as explained by the bank”

For brief interactions, like those in retail and restaurant locations, writing notes may be an appropriate option. The amount of information being communicated is often minimal and the content of the communication is simple. However, note writing is not always the solution.

ASL-in-hospital-setting“Sometimes doctors think writing notes back and forth for an appointment is an effective means of communication. It’s often not,” He continued. “Imagine trying to have a 20 minute phone conversation via handwriting. Would you explain yourself just as thoroughly? When people write, they often only give brief summaries of the information they want to convey. Additionally, people whose primary language is ASL may have some difficulty with the English language, making this method ineffective.”

The more critical and complex the communication, and the longer the interaction; the higher likelihood an interpreter will be needed. For example, a business training seminar or disciplinary meeting would both be times where an interpreter is an appropriate accommodation, because the information being relayed to the Deaf individual is very important and specific. ASL interpreters also serve as cultural mediators, bridging any gaps between Deaf and hearing culture so all parties can fully understand the messages being relayed.

“What accommodation is needed, is what provides for effective communication for the Deaf person,” said Rozynski.

asl-in-workplace-video-relayOne strategy that is being utilized across the country is Video Relay Interpreter (VRI) systems, which provide a professional interpreter through a video connection. “There are a lot of Deaf people who complain that VRI does not provide effective communication because the system will freeze, or not turn on, or staff members who are trying to use the VRI don’t know how to use it. Sometimes the screen is very small, or not suitable for the situation. For example, if someone is giving birth they often cannot look at a tablet off to their bedside. It’s generally not effective. Providing effective communication is key to each situation.”

In the work setting, both employer and employee should work together in an interactive process. The Deaf employee should let their manager know clearly what their communication needs are, and what situations they would like an interpreter for. Employers and places of public accommodation should analyze whether they are truly doing everything possible to ensure the Deaf individual receives equal access to all information being provided by the organization. Deaf parties should be realistic about what accommodations are necessary for each specific situation.

asl-in-metropolitan-museum-of-art“People often think that they can just refuse VRI without trying it, which isn’t always the case. Often times, people should try VRI if it’s offered. If it is not effective, you have the right to request a live ASL interpreter so that you can be provided effective communication” said Rozynski. VRI, if it works properly, can be a solution for short one-on-one communication—for instance when a hearing employee needs to have a brief conversation with a Deaf coworker. But in situations where there are multiple parties speaking, the information is critical, or where the equipment is not functioning correctly, VRI is usually unable to provide effective communication for Deaf individuals.

If you are a hearing entity responsible for providing reasonable accommodation, Rozynski has a few tips to ensure you provide equal access. Step one is contacting a reputable interpreting agency. Look for agencies that employ RID Certified interpreters and have a great deal of experience working with Deaf consumers. Businesses should be aware that if a meeting will last more than an hour, depending on the type of meeting, it may be required that 2 interpreters are provided. Also, make your interpreter request as far in advance as possible so that there will be no problems with scheduling, and the interpreter has ample lead time to prepare. Providing a professional interpreter is not optional when it is the only means of providing effective communication for the Deaf individual.

“Using family members or coworkers is also not ok,” he said, unless the coworker is designated by the business entity as a qualified staff ASL interpreter. Otherwise “it’s not appropriate.”

asl-in-the-workplaceIf you are a Deaf person requesting accommodation, Rozynski advises you communicate with a manager and keep a record of your requests. “I always recommend people make their requests in writing, just to be clear that a request has been made. If you still do not get your request for accommodation, I would suggest going up the chain as far as possible. If you still feel like you’re not being provided appropriate accommodations, ask for the reason why.”

Rozynski says that business often claim they are unable to afford sign language interpreters. “This is often disingenuous. Hospitals, banks, and big corporations are often able to pay for an interpreter.” He points out that the ADA looks at the financial strength of the whole organization when considering if an interpreter is cost prohibitive. A large museum, for example, may not refuse to provide an interpreter because it causes them to lose money on a $20 ticket. The same goes for doctors and dentists offices. It is the whole entity that is looked at, not the cost of the individual service provided.

“If you’re an employer or you’re a place of public accommodation, you have an obligation to provide effective communication to that Deaf person. If you do not provide effective communication to a Deaf person, you could potentially be opening yourself up to liability and have a lawsuit that could cost your organization much more than the cost of the interpreting services provided.”

deaf-hoh-asl-in-court-reportingIf the Deaf party still feels that equal access is not being provided, that person may have a legal claim.

“I would suggest someone who feels that their rights are violated should contact either an attorney or a local advocacy organization,” advised Rozynski. “Some attorneys do charge to take on discrimination cases; others don’t have any upfront charges and take the case on contingency, which means you don’t pay unless you win or the case settles. Many attorneys offer free consultations, and will let you know whether you have a viable case or not. It is also important to note that all cases have a statute of limitations, so if you feel your rights may have been violated an attorney should be contacted as soon as possible.”

“I think a lot of people are scared to take this next step because they worry that they will have to pay money to proceed with a lawsuit. Another reason for peoples hesitation is that they might not be comfortable with the legal process. This can be tough for people because they don’t know what to expect. Finding a law firm that a Deaf person can be comfortable with is key. The Deaf public should know that attorneys do have an obligation to provide interpreters– some attorneys are not even aware of that!”

child-asl-signingEisenberg-Michalowski adds that Deaf liaisons are also critical to the legal process because they can empower Deaf individuals to actively advocate for themselves. “We have had clients who are shocked at how involved they are in their cases, when compared to their previous law firms. One client told me that his (former) lawyer just made decisions without him. This treatment is a violation of these individuals’ legal rights.”

At the end of the day, most Deaf people do not want to go through a lengthy court battle to get the accommodations they deserve. They just want the equal access they are legally entitled to by the law. Providing reasonable accommodation is not a burden, it should be an expected cost of doing business. Welcoming Deaf individuals into all spaces is not just the law. It’s the right thing to do.

“I think the point is that these discrimination laws were created so Deaf people could equally participate in society,” concludes Rozynski. “It is our obligation, as a whole society, to ensure Deaf people have equal participation and that they can access the same kind of information that hearing people do in any type of setting.”

If you have any further questions, Andrew Rozynski and Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski can be contacted at:

Eisenberg & Baum, LLP 24 Union Square East, 4th Floor New York, NY 10003 Voice: (212) 353-8700 Video Phone: (646) 807-4096

 

Deafness is Not One Size Fits All

nick_news_with_linda_ellerbeeThe pediatrician just informed you that your child is profoundly deaf.

What is deafness like?

How does deafness impact a person’s life? What will you do now? Your answers to these questions will depend on personal experience. If you have connections to Deaf culture, you may feel very differently than someone who has never had interacted with a deaf person. Though we live in the Information Age, mainstream society still understands very little about what it means to be deaf.

This week, Nick News with Linda Ellerbee premiered an episode titled “Now Hear This!” (watch the full episode HERE ) The show does a great job exploring the spectrum of deafness, and demystifying the deaf experience by telling the stories of 5 deaf young people. The children’s’ experiences are vastly diverse, and touch on a number of issues from deaf education methods to family dynamics. The overall message is that, like any of us, deaf children have individual needs. Despite what some may claim, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for being deaf!

Scochlear-implant-graphicome families choose to assimilate their child to a hearing lifestyle by implanting a device called a cochlear implant into the skull, which stimulates the auditory nerve and allow the brain to “hear.” Sammy is a CI recipient from a hearing family who jokingly refers to herself as “part robot.” She was not born deaf, but her hearing deteriorated throughout childhood and, at 12 years old, she made the choice to have CI surgery. According to Sammy, her parents presented the pros and cons, and she strongly feels a CI was the right choice for her. She attends school with all other hearing students and plays on a basketball team, insisting she doesn’t need to know ASL because she can hear. Cici also comes from a hearing family, she lost her hearing as a baby. Her parents elected to send her to a school for deaf children that focuses on teaching English and oral communication, so she never learned any ASL. At 5 years old she received her CI. “It was hard to learn to speak,” she says, but she feels very grateful that she did because it allows her to communicate with her family and non-deaf friends. Cici is a ballet and tap dancer who feels that deafness is a disability that her CI and hearing aid help her overcome.

Restored Hearing - Cochlear ImplantAlthough the first instinct of a hearing parent might be to “fix” their “disabled” child through technology, they should first explore the many perspectives about deafness. Yes, cochlear implants and hearing aids work great for some people, but every person is different and everyone learns differently. In the show, CiCi says she loves her CI, but acknowledges how difficult it was to learn spoken English. Imagine having dyslexia– or any common learning disability– and being forced to learn a challenging foreign language. Though Cochlear Implants or oral English education do work for many, it’s unfair to assume that all deaf children have the same capabilities.

asl-interpreter-services-nycOther families choose American Sign Language for their deaf child. Isabella was born deaf and grew up in an all-ASL family, with two deaf parents and one hearing sister. She discusses education at her Deaf school, playing soccer on a hearing team, and having fierce Deaf pride! Isabella does not view deafness as a disability in any way, and she loves the language of her family. Arbab is a young man from a hearing family, who became deaf as an infant. In Pakistan, he would not have had educational opportunities, so his family immigrated to the US to ensure a better life. Arbab’s family does not use ASL and he does feel isolated from them, but he absolutely loves attending asl-interpreter-services-nyDeaf school where he signs freely with his peers. He uses technology, such as texting or video chat, to contact his friends when he is feeling lonely. Kaylee is the only deaf person in her entire town but, when she was in preschool, school administrators decided to add ASL to the curriculum for her whole class. The hearing kids all learned sign language, and use it throughout the school day to make sure Kaylee feels included. “My hearing friends sign to me, they are very fluent,” she says, “when my hearing friends don’t sign to me, then I feel alone.” She and her hearing friends love ASL and have made it their goal to spread Deaf awareness by volunteering to teach ASL to children.

private-ASL-lessons-nyAs a parent, it is your responsibility to become educated about your child; to engage and develop a relationship with them. Learn about deafness, and Deaf culture. Discover all the options available before making any major life decisions. Deaf children, like hearing children, have limitations, and areas where they excel. Instead of dictating how young deaf people should live their lives, parents can work together with their child to find the most comfortable way of adapting. This solution may not always be what the parent initially expected, and that’s ok! Holding on to strict expectations for any child– deaf or hearing– is unfair. Every person and their circumstances are unique!

“Now Hear This!” explores a spectrum of deafness, language use, and the various strategies deaf people use to communicate. We get a glimpse of how deaf people fit into different families, and how much parental choices can impact the course of a child’s life. Most importantly, the program presents 5 well-adjusted young people doing the best they can to learn new things, make new friends, and be understood “in a hearing world that doesn’t listen.”

Can Digital Devices Replace Interpreters?

best-ASL-interpreter-NYCWhile walking the streets of New York, nearly every person I see is staring down at a screen, fully engaged with digital devices. Through technology, our world has become incredibly connected; yet disconnected at the same time. There is comfort in being able to communicate without regard to time or distance but, somehow all this personal contact seems so impersonal, so two dimensional, so unnatural. Are we all truly eager to replace all human interaction with virtual realities?

google-gestureDigital Devices for Interpretation

Last week, the internet was buzzing with news of a new device called Google Gesture, a wristband which could reportedly translate sign language into spoken language in real time. The viral clip turned out to be just a concept video released by a group of marketing students in Sweden, but it stirred up some interesting discussions about the role of technology in cross-cultural communication.

Although most deaf/HoH are content with their lives the way they are, it’s nice to imagine a world where everyone is able to communicate seamlessly, and deaf people are not excluded from certain spaces. Over the past 30 years, technology has been viewed as a solution to provide deaf individuals greater opportunity.

cochlear-implant-asl-courses-nycThe most well known device, the cochlear implant, is an electronic device which allows the deaf wearer to “hear” by amplifying sounds and stimulating the auditory nerve. Cochlear implants require invasive surgery, are very costly, and do not allow the wearer to hear exactly the same way a hearing person does — sounds are often muddied, robotic, and can be difficult for the brain to process. Cochlear implants are not perfect, and they create a cultural grey area for wearers, who sometimes feel like they are neither Deaf nor hearing. Still, over the past few decades these devices have provided thousands of wearers with the ability to hear sounds they would otherwise not have been able to hear, and live the kind of lives they so choose to live. Having options is a positive thing.

TTY-deaf-assistive-deviceText messaging was one of the greatest communication revolutions for the Deaf community. Before the widespread use of cell phones, deaf calls had to be made using either a Text Telephone (TTY) or a Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS). TTY allows deaf individuals to type messages, which are then sent over a telephone line to the other party as text. TTY requires both the sender of the message and the receiver to have a TTY device, while TRS involves the hearing party communicating through an operator, who then types responses for the deaf person to read on their TTY.  Relay operators were often unfamiliar with Deaf culture, therefore unable to mediate terminology that did not translate directly. Although definitely a useful invention, TTY/TRS can be inaccurate, cumbersome, and was never a very simple solution.

best-ASL-interpreter-NYCSpeech-to-text services, such as Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), have emerged in the past decade as a “real-time captioning” solution. Using this method, spoken words are transcribed into text, either by a live person or by a computer program. For one-on-one situations where there are no other options available, speech-to-text options are certainly better than nothing. This is an excellent option for hard of hearing individuals or people for whom ASL is not their native language. But the truth is that the technology is unable provide accurate translation and contextual interpretation, meaning messages can easily be misunderstood. Any periphery noise, secondary speakers, or unusual inflections can easily lead to confusion. In addition, speech-to-text does not provide a way for deaf sign language users to respond, therefore only facilitates one way communication.

video-relay-deaf-hoh-nycThe Deaf community were among the first adopters of video chat technologies. Services such as Skype, Google Hangout, and FaceTime have made deaf-to-deaf phone calls infinitely simpler. I can’t even tell you how lovely it is to be able to video chat with my family members using ASL! For conversations between deaf and hearing people, Video Relay Interpreting offers a simple and cost-effective solution. Remote video interpreters are actually certified ASL interpreters who have knowledge of deaf culture, interpreting ethics, and how to mediate any cross-cultural misunderstandings. VRI is certainly convenient, and this technology offers deaf people more opportunity to engage with hearing entities. At the end of the day, however, VRI is designed for brief one-on-one dialogues, since remote interpreters are unable to see or hear every person in the room when they are speaking.

Google-Glass-deaf-hoh-interpreter-nycAs new devices improve all areas of our lives, making communication and information more accessible than ever, will we see a shift away from using live interpreters? In my opinion, interpreting a person’s words is a very delicate and human process. As revolutionary as emerging technologies might be, high quality ASL interpreters simply can not be replaced by a machine. Facial expressions, body language, tone, and context are all very important aspects of dialogue. In fact, research suggests that anywhere between 60% and 90% of interpersonal communication is nonverbal, which means words alone rarely covey the full message. This is specifically true of signed languages.

best-ASL-interpreter-NYCAmerican Sign Language is not a direct translation of English, it is a language all it’s own, with unique grammar, prose, and syntax. Deaf culture has it’s own humor, slang, and turns of phrase. ASL interpreters serve as both language and cultural interpreters. We bridge the social gaps, working to ensure deaf consumers have full access to any spoken English situations they choose. In a noisy environment, or when speakers are using ambiguous terminology, a live interpreter can mediate and provide understanding for all parties.

Technology has improved deaf access in so many ways, but software and screens can never fully replicate the feel of a conversation. They can not comprehend irony, translate sarcasm, or convey emotion the way a live interpreter can. New devices will continue to make the lives of deaf Americans easier, and for this we should all be grateful! When it comes to really communicating between the deaf and hearing worlds, however, no device can replace the human element of a professional ASL interpreter.