Category Archives: Deaf Organizations

2014: Deaf Culture Totally Had a Moment

This past year was a very visible one for Deaf Culture and American Sign Language. From viral videos to late night TV appearances, mainstream audiences just couldn’t get enough of Deaf superstars or their fascinating visual language. As we leave 2014, let’s take a look back at some of the most memorable Deaf pop culture moments of this year, and hope that 2015 brings even more awareness!

claire-koch-youtube20. KODA Signs Holiday Concert for Deaf Parents:

Okay, technically this happened in December 2013, but it’s so cute I couldn’t leave it out! Kindergartener Claire Koch decided to use ASL at her school holiday concert to make sure her Deaf family members could enjoy the performance, and it was adorable. So adorable, that the video her mother posted went viral with over 8 million views to date!

studiofeed-music-backpack-0219. New Technologies Present New Possibilities:

Each year, new technologies emerge which attempt to simplify and improve the lives of deaf individuals. A number of companies are working on different sign-to-speech translation solutions; while others are taking creative approaches to speech-to-text. One of my favorite ideas of 2014 is the StudioFeed music backpack, which turns music into a full body experience.

atlanta_pride_david_cowan18. Deaf Interpreter demonstrates what equal access really looks like at Atlanta PRIDE:

Deaf interpreter David Cowan is a known favorite among Deaf LBGT individuals for his expressive and appropriately flamboyant work each year at Atlanta PRIDE. Across the country, PRIDE festivals tout themselves as all-inclusive events. Hiring a Deaf Interpreter that deaf/HoH audiences adore is a beautiful example of equality.

santa-claus-speaking-in-asl17. People in Costumes Using ASL with Kids:

From mall Santas to baseball mascots— the people behind the characters have been doing their diversity homework! This year, there were a number of heartwarming stories and videos featuring deaf children who are overjoyed to discover that their favorite characters can communicate with them using ASL. Learning even a few simple phrases can help deaf kids feel included!

 

nick_news_with_linda_ellerbee-now-hear-this-0516. “Now Hear This” Premiers on Nickelodeon

It was pretty inspiring to see a children’s television network take a genuine interest in Deaf Culture. This Nick News special focused on the lives of several deaf young people across the country, and showcased how there are many different ways to be a deaf person in a hearing world.

jonathan-lamberton-asl-nyc-ebloa-press-conference-0615. Deaf Interpreter goes Viral After NYC Ebola Press Conference

As Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered critical information to the citizens of New York regarding the Ebola virus, Deaf Interpreter Jonathan Lamberton addressed the deaf population. Many hearing individuals were fascinated by Lamberton’s dramatic signing style, as it was the first time they had ever seen a Deaf Interpreter in action.

fargo-deaf-character-asl14. Popular TV Show “Fargo” Casts a Deaf Character who Uses ASL:

When creating characters for the FX series Fargo (based on the Coen brother’s film), the show’s creators decided to stray from the usual formula by writing a deaf character into the story. The character, played by actor Russell Harvard, is not included in the show to address deaf issues or explore Deaf culture; he is simply a normal character who happens to be deaf. Hopefully other programs will follow suit, as there are many talented deaf actors out there and all audiences deserve to see more diversity on screen!

derrick-coleman-deaf-athlete-pro-sports-0813. Deaf Athletes in Professional Sports:

Seattle Seahawks player Derrick Coleman gained superstar status not only for his impressive athleticism, but because he proved that deafness does not have to be a barrier in professional sports. Coaches and scouts have taken note, and are now offering more deaf athletes the opportunities they deserve.

robert-panara-deaf-pioneer12. Deaf Pioneers Leave Their Legacy:

Legendary Phyllis Frelich was the inspiration for, and the original star of, “Children of a Lesser God,” a revolutionary piece which introduced audiences to a complex, nuanced deaf character in a lead role. It won a Tony award for best play, and was later adapted into a film which won Marlee Matlin an Oscar. Frelich passed away this year, but her groundbreaking work has inspired and paved the way for generations of deaf performers to come.
In 2014, we also lost professor, writer, and poet Robert Panara. Panara helped translate classic works of literature into ASL, and was instrumental in the establishment of deaf studies higher education curriculum.

violations-of-deaf-citizens-rights11. Violations of Deaf Citizens Rights Gain Mainstream Attention:

The tragic and deplorable treatment of deaf/HoH individuals by the criminal justice system is finally being exposed, thanks to the information age. Stories about deaf people being beaten by cops, wrongfully convicted, and abused in jail were widely read and shared across the internet; leading to an increase in awareness and outrage. While this is not exactly a victory, and certainly not cause for celebration, it has provided visibility to a very real problem and strengthened advocacy efforts.

aclu-heard-know-your-rights-videos10. Marlee Matlin partners with ACLU and HEARD for #KnowYourRights videos:

To help deaf citizens better understand and protect their legal rights, award-winning Deaf actress Marlee Matlin teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union and Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf to create a series of videos. The videos represent a larger movement within the Deaf community for self-empowerment through education. The internet amplifies the power of minority voices, exposes injustice, and provides resources for assertive self advocacy!

MARK-VILLAVER-MOM-DANCE-BATTLE-deaf-129. Professional Dancer and His Deaf Mother Prove Music is for EVERYONE!

Mark Villaver, a hearing dancer, and his Deaf mother share their love of music and dancing in one of the most FUN videos of 2014! Some people mistakenly think deaf people can’t enjoy music. This couldn’t be further from the truth!

fcc-new-captioning-rules8. FCC Cracks Down on Captioning:

The internet has come to the forefront of the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, closed captioning was often neglected when providers made the technology leap; leaving deaf individuals without online access to programming. In 2014 deadlines were set which require providers to caption all shows and video clips, and guidelines were established to guarantee the quality of captions. Over the next few years, we will see all major video content providers moving toward accessibility. Additionally, airlines and other places of public accommodation are feeling increased pressure to provide equal access for deaf patrons.

deaf-med-student-wins-legal-battle-147. Deaf Med Student Wins Legal Battle

After a lengthy court battle, it was determined that devoted deaf med students have the same right to attend medical school as hearing students. We call this a 2014 victory. Hopefully this will lead to more hardworking deaf young people pursuing careers in the medical field.

the-tribe-deaf-movie-in-asl

6. “The Tribe” Indie Film About Deaf Students Wins Over Critics:

The film, which is all sign language without subtitles, was critically acclaimed at Cannes and has won a number of prestigious awards. The lack of captions serves to alienate hearing viewers– who are accustomed to the privilege of communication access– yet the film is engaging enough to keep all audiences along for the ride.

signs-deaf-restaurant-concept-toronto5. Signs Restaurant Opens in Toronto:

This fun concept for a restaurant creates a comfortable place for deaf diners; provides jobs for deaf food industry workers; and helps hearing people get a “taste” of what it’s like to be on the other side of the language barrier. The success of this endeavor may open the door for future deaf-focused businesses.

text-to-911-equal-access-deaf-hoh4. Text to 911 Rolls Out:

On August 8, 2014 the FCC adopted an order requiring wireless carriers and other text messaging providers to deliver emergency texts to 911 call centers. Equal access to emergency services was long overdue!

asl-rap-battle-jimmy-kimmel-live-173. ASL Rap Battle On Jimmy Kimmel Live:

This video instantly went viral because both deaf and hearing audiences love watching expressive ASL paired with hip hop beats. Sign language lends itself so well to the poetry and rhythm of raps. The two incredible interpreters skillfully turned spoken word into visual language, and Deaf performer Jo Rose Benfield wowed people with her enthusiastic interpretations.

deaf-super-heroes-a2. Deaf Superheroes Demonstrate the Power of Diversity:

Throughout pop culture history, superheroes have struggled against the odds to save the day. Until recently, however, superheroes have been notoriously privileged individuals— white and able-bodied— deaf-super-heroes-bwith very few deviations from the norm. In 2014, we saw diversity creeping into the fantasy world of good and evil when audiences were introduced to Deaf superheroes like Blue Ear and Superdeafy. These fictional heroes provide real life role models for Deaf children, demonstrating that deafness is only a minor obstacle to overcome on the way to greatness.

 

camp-mark-seven-happy1. Camp Mark Seven Goes Viral with “Happy” video:

If you haven’t seen this amazing upbeat video online, you must be living under a rock! Camp Mark Seven Deaf Film Camp  nearly broke the internet with their cheerful ASL rendition of Pharrell Williams smash hit “Happy.” Camp Mark Seven teaches young deaf filmmakers how to write, direct, and produce their own films; which helps integrate more deaf voices in pop culture and Hollywood. The video has millions of views online and made people all across America stop and smile. Haven’t seen it?Well what are you waiting for… Get Happy !

2014 was an impressive year for deafness in the media, and these are only a few of the many pop culture moments! Of course we still have a long way to go, but when Deaf Culture becomes more visible, Deaf issues start getting the attention they deserve. By amplifying the voices of the community, and highlighting the accomplishments of deaf individuals, we can help the world see that deafness is not a barrier– merely a small obstacle on the way to greatness!

Have a safe and happy New Year!

If you are interested in learning about Deaf culture and American Sign Language, I have extended a special deal on ASL training. From now until JANUARY 7, schedule 3 personal ASL lessons for only $150. Learn on your own time, at your own convenience. We can meet in person in NYC or via video chat. No matter what level your skills are, from beginner to fluency, we can work together to discover the beautiful silent world of ASL!

How the Criminal Justice System Fails the Deaf Community

deafness-criminal-justice-01Imagine a situation where you are accused of a crime– perhaps a crime you did not commit, or maybe even a crime you were the victim of. The arresting officers use a different language; you’re unable to communicate what happened before you get brought to jail. There is no way for you to contact your family or an attorney. Your legal rights are not accessible to you.

From frightening and dangerous arrests, to the lack of access to reentry services, our justice system fails deaf Americans every step of the way. I recently spoke with Talila A. Lewis, an attorney and civil rights activist, about the fight for deaf access to justice. In 2011, Lewis founded the DC-based all-volunteer nonprofit organization called Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD).  HEARD is dedicated to ensuring deaf and disabled people receive equal access to the legal system. HEARD focuses on educating justice professionals; correcting and preventing deaf wrongful convictions; ending abuse of deaf and disabled prisoners; and on increasing deaf involvement in the justice, legal, and corrections professions.

talia-lewis-deaf-02Most recently, HEARD has teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, to lead a campaign to end police brutality against the deaf.

“Deaf wrongful convictions often begin when police officers fail to ensure that communication is effective pursuant to federal disability rights laws,” said Lewis.

To contact law enforcement, a deaf individual might use a videophone, which places an interpreter between the deaf caller and the 911 dispatcher. The dispatcher must then relay all information accurately from the interpreter to the responding officer. If it is a hearing person who dials 911, they might not tell the dispatcher that there is a deaf person on the scene.

According to Lewis, who is tracking incidences of police brutality and discrimination against deaf people across the nation, effective communication during this initial stage is critical to preventing wrongful arrest and convictions. Unfortunately, police officers sometimes rely on unqualified third parties—including children, and even alleged abusers—to facilitate communication during these interactions.

deafness-criminal-justice-911Rarely, if ever, do ASL interpreters arrive on the scene with the police. Many times, police show up completely unaware that they are working with with a person who is deaf. This can lead to dangerous misunderstandings.

For instance, Philip Wolfe escaped a domestic dispute and had a friend call the police. Although the dispatcher was informed that Wolfe was deaf and required an interpreter, the police showed up without one and completely misunderstood the issue. The domestic abuse charge was never filed. Wolfe’s partner returned that night and abused him again. In Oklahoma, sixty four year old Pearl Pearson was pulled out of his car and beaten by police as he attempted to show them a card that said “I am deaf.” The officers were not charged for the attack; but Pearson was charged with resisting arrest.

pearl-pearson-deaf-police-brutality-04Once a deaf individual has been taken into custody, it is the responsibility of police officers to ensure that access to communication is effective. Communication may require releasing a hand from handcuffs, cuffing hands in front of a person, providing Certified Sign Language Interpreters or Certified Deaf Interpreters, or perhaps another accommodation, as there are many. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes clear that police departments are responsible for providing reasonable accommodations and that preference for the type of accommodation goes to the deaf person; but deaf people nationwide report that police departments are not in compliance with the law.

I spoke with Maria Dollhopf, a deaf woman who experienced injustice during the legal process. According to Dollhopf, the arresting officers in her case made excuses and persuaded her that she did not need an interpreter.

deafness-criminal-justice-05“I kept gesturing for them to take me out of the cuffs to communicate, but they wouldn’t,” said Dollhopf. “The police said they couldn’t get an interpreter, so I had to stay in jail overnight. It was over 24 hours that I did not have an interpreter. I felt like i had no lifeline of communication.”

According to Lewis, officers sometimes draft statements without providing accommodations; and sometimes without consulting the deaf person at all.  “Many deaf people who use sign language as their first or only language have expressed to me that they did not—and often still do not—understand what was written but they felt intimidated, frustrated, fatigued and pressured into signing these documents. Even the best attorney will struggle to defend against a signed statement.”

Justice and legal professionals often lack deaf cultural competency, which plays a major role in deaf discrimination and oppression. Cultural competence refers to the ability to effectively interact with individuals from different cultures. For example, if detectives and attorneys do not understand that ASL is its’ own language, they may assume that writing notes back and forth with a deaf person is adequate. Lewis reminds us that several of the possible deaf wrongful conviction cases HEARD is currently investigating resulted from this very situation.

deafness-criminal-justice-06

“A recent Disability Rights California study on law enforcement training and mental health crisis intervention revealed that California’s police academy standards only require six hours of 664 hours of training be dedicated to disability,” said Lewis. “Within those six hours, cadets are supposed to cover a wide variety of disability-related topics and numerous disabilities. That is simply not enough. Moreover, the training should be developed and taught in conjunction with people within those specific disability communities.”

By getting to know the diverse communities they serve, law enforcement agencies can help eliminate some of the barriers to justice. Cultural competency means spending far more than 6 hours learning about people with different abilities.

 

Jason “JT” Tozier is the HEARD Deaf Community Liaison. JT offered to share his experience with the legal system 20 years ago. “When I went to the station for fingerprints and to have my photo taken, I had no idea what was going on. The police kept talking to me and trying to force me to read their lips, but I am Deaf and I sign! I told them I needed an interpreter but they kept denying me this access.”

fcc-deafness-criminal-justice-07

“When I first arrived in court, the judge tried making my brother interpreter for me,” recalls JT. “He wasn’t certified, he was only 17 or 18 years old. He didn’t want to interpret, but he felt very pressured to.” JT’s trial was postponed 3 times before a court interpreter was provided.

Legal interactions are critical, so a qualified interpreter is the most effective accommodation for deaf people. Courtrooms and jails are both required by the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. The same goes for attorneys. To deny an interpreter is to deny equal access. Yet, time and time again deaf people are refused interpreters through every step of the legal process.

 

“The possibility of a person being wrongfully convicted only increases as time passes without consulting an attorney,” explains Lewis. “Immediate and effective attorney client communication is key. If the only way to access your attorney is via sign language and the jail fails to provide a videophone, you have no way to communicate with your attorney.”

deafness-criminal-justice-08

In many cases, lawyers do not know that they are required by law to provide ASL interpreters. Both Dollhopf and JT recall feeling confused and alienated from their respective attorneys throughout the legal process. “I didn’t really feel like the lawyer’s client because he did not offer me access,” said JT. “By the time an interpreter was finally provided, I just felt like everything was going over my head.”

Part of HEARD’s mission is educating those who work in the criminal justice system about providing access for the deaf. Lewis explains that in many cases, the courts themselves do not even understand where a deaf person’s rights have been violated. “There are lawyers who do not understand that they are required to provide interpreters pursuant to the ADA. Judges, public defenders, the bar. Administrators of justice have to become more culturally competent.”

The United States Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing the core provisions of the ADA. Unfortunately, said Lewis, there has been very little focus on these cases for myriad reasons. Lewis also explained that agencies sometimes have procedures related to working with deaf people, but policies are often outdated, or never implemented. Even the best policies become meaningless without enforcement. The end result is a criminal justice system full of entities that do not understand or comply with the ADA.

video-relay-service-session-from prison-09

There are thousands of deaf prisoners all across the country, yet only 6 prisons have video phones. Inmates are denied access to their family, friends, and legal counsel because effective communication technologies are not present, or because the staff does not know how to operate or “supervise” calls on the antiquated and unreliable equipment. Incarcerated deaf people are subsequently isolated, left out of prison orientations and safety meetings. Both Dollhopf and JT recall the guards in jail simply ignoring them, as if they were not human beings.

It’s practically impossible to overturn a wrongful conviction when you have no line to the outside world. A deaf man in Florida, Felix Garcia was sentenced to life in prison after his siblings framed him for murder in the 1980s. They have since admitted that Felix was not involved with the crime but, with only a 4th grade education, Garcia did not know or understand his rights throughout the legal process. He was unable to advocate for himself, and nobody came to his aid then. Former HEARD board member Pat Bliss, has worked on Felix’ case for nearly two decades and is currently supporting a bid for clemency for him. Like many deaf people who receive little or no access to communication throughout life, Garcia had simply gotten used to smiling and nodding his way through things. To date, Garcia is HEARD’s longest serving deaf wrongfully convicted prisoner—now on his thirty-third year in prison.

One major problem, notes Lewis, is that no one knows exactly how many deaf people are in the criminal justice system. HEARD created and maintains the only national database of deaf and deafblind prisoners, but Lewis emphasizes the importance of mandated tracking of deaf prisoners by government agencies and is pushing for the Department of Justice to create national standards for inclusion of and protection for deaf incarcerated people.

Empowering deaf individuals to become effective self-advocates is another major focus of HEARD. The organization has teamed up with the ACLU to produce videos that educate Deaf Americans about their civil rights, and Lewis and her deaf students at Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute of the Deaf are developing the first deaf-accessible resources on mass incarceration.

deafness-criminal-justice-11

“The hearing community talks non-stop about mass incarceration,” said Lewis. “Deaf people and people with disabilities are overrepresented in the prison population and the school-to-prison pipeline. I was trying to teach my students about mass incarceration, but there was just no accessible material available– nothing captioned or signed. So we had to actually create the videos for the Community.”

JT also emphasizes the importance of self-advocacy. “Know the Miranda rights, know your civil liberties, study the ADA. If you inform yourself and become educated, you can protect yourself. The police and legal system are going to try to oppress you. Be ready to stand up against that and know what you are entitled to!”

Lewis’ believes that creating equal access to justice requires intentional infusion of diversity into our justice system. “We need deaf professionals involved at every level. We need deaf consultants creating training programs and advising management. We need to see more deaf police officers, attorneys, judges, and prison officials.” Certified Deaf Interpreters and/or Certified Legal interpreters should be mandatory for legal proceedings involving a deaf signing individuals. More advocates within the system increases the odds of justice being served.

Deaf Americans deserve their constitutional rights, as guaranteed by the ADA. The legal process can be overwhelming for anyone, but for deaf people with no access, it can be confusing, dehumanizing, isolating, and treacherous.

“Honestly, it’s just not easy when you are deaf,” admits Dollhopf. “You can’t fight with the police, you can’t force them to get an interpreter. I was not able to get the services I needed, from the beginning. But what are you supposed to do? They make you feel like you have no voice.”

How Do I Know What Interpreting Agency to Work For?

hearing_speech_agency-interpretingLast year, audiences watched in disbelief as the South African sign language interpreter for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service earned the nickname “the fake interpreter.” Insulted, but not entirely surprised, the global deaf community used this public example to bring attention to an unfortunately common problem. The agencies which provide interpreters, even for large televised events, aren’t always looking out for the best interest of the communities they serve.

Applying to an Interpreting Agency

deaf-hoh-interpreting-agencyWhen interpreting agencies assign unqualified interpreters to jobs, they are denying equal access– it happens at hospitals, police stations, and court rooms alike. From the very start of our careers, interpreters should aware that these agencies are unethical, and that it is our professional responsibility to ensure access for the deaf is provided.

Novice interpreters graduate from their Interpreter Training Program (ITP) eager to begin serving the deaf community. For many, this means moving to a large metropolitan area, a place where they may not be familiar with the community, the neighborhoods, or the job opportunities available. When I first moved to New York City, I just wanted to get right to work! I have learned that professional responsibility starts right here, at this juncture. If you recently relocated or graduated from an ITP program, there are ways to ensure you are working for a reputable agency that cares about the quality of the interpreters that they provide to the deaf community.

Looking for agencies that are Deaf or sign language interpreter owned and operated is a good first step. People who live and work in the deaf community understand the importance of matching a deaf consumer with a skilled qualified interpreter. They can recognize any issues which might arise between interpreters and clients, and advocate for the deaf consumer when needed. Multiple language interpreting agencies are often unfamiliar with deaf specific issues, making them less qualified to mediate these types of cultural misunderstandings.

NAD-RID-agency-nycResearch agencies to ensure they adhere to RID/NAD standards. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) is a professional organization which strives to provide consistent and ethical sign language interpreters. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is a civil rights organization by and for deaf people, representing the interest of deaf and hard of hearing individuals across the United States. Together RID and NAD have developed a Code of Professional Conduct, a set standard practices and expectations for interpreters that protects the rights of deaf consumers. It is crucial that any agency an ASL interpreter applies to is not only familiar with, but in strict adherence of these policies. It shows respect for deaf consumers and a desire to provide the highest quality ethical interpreting services.

deaf-hoh-interpreting-agency-nycWhen applying to an interpreting agency, find out how they treat their employees and pay careful attention to the hiring process. It is important that the agency have an accurate interview and screening process, which will include assessment by a deaf or hearing interpreter to appropriately evaluate each new interpreter’s skill set. A quality interpreting agency will know their interpreter’s strengths and weaknesses, and distribute assignments accordingly.

Seek out agencies that follow community standards and protocol to ensure interpreters are taken care of. Assignment details should provide as much depth as possible to help prepare interpreters for any demands that may arise. An agency which demonstrates concern for its’ interpreters will work within the Demand-Control schema to reduce occupational stressors, allowing interpreters to perform at the highest possible level. Assignment details are so critical for interpreters because we are synthesizing conversations based on a specific situation. If we do not have the correct information, or have an incomplete picture, we will be doing a disservice to the deaf consumer.

spanish-sign-language-medical-interpreter-jobsOne difference between spoken language interpreters and sign language interpreters is team interpreting. When interpreting a verbal language into a physical one, ASL interpreters become prone to both physical and mental fatigue. After one hour of interpreting alone, even the best sign language interpreter will be providing a lower quality of service. ASL interpreters should make sure any agency they apply to regularly provides team interpreting for assignments. Not every situation requires a team of interpreters, but many do and it’s best to look for agencies that are ready to provide interpreters with support in the field.

sign-language-interpreter-agency-nycBefore you sign a contract with any agency, be sure you read it very thoroughly and that you agree to the terms. If you find any questionable items in the contract, bring it back to the agency to discuss how your needs can be met. Look for the following items: a cancellation policy that ensures pay for the interpreter if the assignment is cancelled without 24-48 hours notice; a policy that states payment will be made within 14-45 days of an assignment; and pay that follows the cost of living standards for your area. Whether you live in a city or rural area has a big impact on your income. Learn the standard rates for non-certified and certified ASL interpreters in your city, and seek out an agency that provides all interpreters a fair hourly wage.

sign-language-interpreter-nycWhen working for an organization that understands the deaf community, and truly cares about the quality of services they provide, interpreters will find they are better supported and able to focus. Look for agencies which emphasize the RID/NAD Code of Professional Conduct and have connections to deaf culture. At the end of the day, the people who suffer most when unqualified interpreters are assigned to jobs are deaf consumers. If an interpreter lacks the skill set to perform a specific task, and the agency does not recognize this, the deaf person is denied access. By partnering with ethical, consumer-focused agencies, sign language interpreters choose to support professionally responsible business practices. Beyond that, they choose to support equal access– and that’s what this job is all about!

_____

If you are seeking a professional ASL interpreting mentor, my services are available. It is critical for interpreters to continuously develop their professional skills at every step of their career. LC Interpreting Services is deeply involved with the deaf community, focused on deaf consumers, and passionate about providing equal access in all situations. If you are looking for career guidance and information about reputable agencies, LCIS would be happy to help!

 

Deaf Culture in Hollywood

Think about the last five movies you saw. Were there any deaf individuals in them? When was the last time you saw a deaf weather person delivering the forecast? It is estimated that nearly 20% of Americans live with some form of hearing loss, yet deaf and hard of hearing society members remain oppressed by mainstream culture.

Deaf people may be quiet, but they are certainly not invisible.

National Association for the DeafLast week, I had the pleasure of attending the first ever NAD Breakthrough Awards Gala in Hollywood. Throughout the evening, we celebrated the past, present, and future of deaf issues in cinema and TV. I had privilege of sharing a room with some of the most prominent deaf figures in popular culture. This landmark event was held as a benefit for the National Association for the Deaf — the oldest civil rights organization in the United States.

Marlee Matlin & Lydia Callis

The gala was filled with so many people whom I admire for their passion and dedication to their work– actors, writers, and musicians who have paved the way toward deaf/ HoH representation in the media. The past few years have been notable for an increase in deaf visibility, due in part to the breakthrough success of the ABC Family drama Switched at Birth. The show was acknowledged a number of times at the Gala for not only featuring deaf actors and actresses, but for bringing real Deaf culture issues to mainstream audiences.

Marlee Matlin is perhaps the most well known deaf actress in Hollywood; she was the youngest person to win an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Children of a Lesser God. When it came out in 1986, it was the first movie since the silent film era to feature a deaf actor as a lead character. Can you believe that Hollywood completely overlooked the possibility of deaf film and movie stars for over 50 years? Matlin proved to Hollywood that deafness does not make a character un-relatable for hearing audiences. On the contrary, Matlin opened people’s eyes to the wide range of engaging characters deaf actors can portray.

Deaf audianceThese days, Hollywood is slowly recognizing the possibility of powerful deaf/ HoH characters. Deaf actors like Katie Leclerc and Sean Berdy, who play lead roles in Switched at Birth; and Shoshonnah Stern, who had recurring roles on Fox’s Lie To Me and Showtime’s Weeds, are getting the prominent parts they deserve. Audiences are finally getting a taste of sign language communication and casting diversity. Even reality TV is starting to feature deaf individuals, for example: Project Runway contestant Justin LeBlanc; Luke Adams, who teamed up with his hearing mother to compete in several seasons of The Amazing Race; and deaf Chopped contender Kurt “The Irish Chef” Ramborger.

Deaf influence in Hollywood reaches behind the lens of the camera, as well. Bernard Bragg was recognized at the NAD Gala for co-founding the National Theater of the Deaf, which has worked toward quality training for deaf performers. No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie premiered in 2013 as the first commercial feature in American history with an exclusively deaf executive producer team and deaf director. Deaf film companies such as ASL Films and Rustic Lantern Films are empowering creative deaf cinematographers to pursue their visions. D-PAN (Deaf Professional Artists Network) has worked to organize and provide a platform for deaf artists of all types. Engaging young deaf people in the media revolution is critical to the movements’ long-term success. Camp Mark Seven, a camp in upstate for NY for deaf youths, has started a film program for aspiring filmmakers 13-16.At the Gala, the word of the night was Breakthrough. We were celebrating those who have smashed through the oppressive barriers of perception to demonstrate that differently abled people are limited more by society than their individual “disabilities.” This is not just true of the entertainment industry; we are seeing deaf empowerment in a number of cultural outlets.

Sean Forbes NAD Breakthrough Awards Gala WCSPZuJHHqXl

Sean Forbes, deaf rapper and D-Pan co-founder, closed out the NAD Gala with his signature fully-accessible musical performance. Only a few months ago Derrick Coleman, the first deaf offensive player in the NFL, made headlines all over the country when his team went to the Superbowl. Deaf since birth, Gregory Hlibok became the first disabled head of the Federal Communication Commission’s Disability Rights Office in 2011. And of course let us not forget the incredible Claudia Gordon, the first deaf African American female lawyer, who has become the first deaf individual appointed to the White House as the Public Engagement Advisor for the Disability Community in the Office of Public Engagement.

Claudia Gordon & Lydia Callis at the NAD Awards Gala 2014

These are only a few of the most visible figures smashing through barriers and silencing doubters. There are many more out there, and the numbers grow each day. Still, it is not enough! Deaf kids need deaf role models, and hearing audiences are more than ready for complex deaf characters. Hollywood, and our society at large, need to stop reinforcing a tired status quo. Until we see a deaf Late Night host, or Oscar award winning deaf director, or a proudly Deaf United States president, we can not claim to live in a society of equal representation. As long as ASL is considered a foreign language in America, we still have work to do!

Breaking Barriers

When black seamstress Rosa Parks controversially refused to give up her bus seat, she provided a new face to the burgeoning civil rights movement. When 24 year old Helen Keller became the first deaf-blind individual to earn a college degree, she rewrote the narrative about disability inAmerica. Sometimes, on this big planet of 7 billion people, trying to make a difference can feel overwhelming. But, as Keller and Parks both proved, individuals can be very powerful agents of change.

Each day, we wake up and do what we can to make the world better. While positively impacting humanity might seem like a large task on the outside, it is as simple as taking action. Renowned multi-sport athlete, 3 time Deaflympic medalist, and Clinical Social Worker/ Psychotherapist Dr. Becky Clark tells ambitious youth: the first step to changing the world is saying “I CAN!” Her whole life, Clark says, she was told “you can’t” because she was deaf. Instead of being discouraged, though, Clark accepted the doubters challenge. She broke every single barrier along the road to her dreams, and became an inspiration for young people- deaf and hearing alike. In doing so, she achieved her goals, and paved the way for future generations of Deaf athletes to say “Yes, I can!.”

I recently did an interview at ASL Slam, this great monthly sign language poetry and performance event in NYC, to discuss my advocacy work. The interviewer surprised me when she referred to my televised appearances during Hurricane Sandy as a “tipping point.” She went on to explain that, before the Internet brought mainstream attention to my signing style, there were all these thriving Deaf organizations– D-PAN, NAD, Street Leverage, and so on– which had accumulated membership and were really shaping contemporary Deaf culture. All this internal empowerment was already happening. Then the videos of me signing went viral, and it sparked some really overdue discussion about interpreting, sign language, and deaf access in America. Hearing people were exposed, some for the first time, to the rich expressive nature of ASL, and interest in Deaf culture permeated mainstream media.

I became an agent of change; a new face for an existing movement. My interpretation style and personality felt accessible to hearing individuals, while Deaf citizens were thrilled to see someone so passionate about communicating a message to the community. The circumstances provided an opportunity for hearing people to see the full expression of ASL, and to ask questions about this silent subculture. It turned the spotlight toward Deaf performers, artists, and hardworking individuals. It exposed many to the growing field of ASL interpreting.

Although the Deaf community has come so far in the past 50 years, the struggle for equality is ongoing. Seems like every day, I read a new

story about someone being denied their ADA rights in a hospital, discriminatory hiring practices, or a paying customer being treated poorly for using an American language other than English. Sometimes, it feels like the battle will forever be uphill. It feels like all our work will never be enough. Then I remember how the struggles of everyone before me paved the way, little by little. I look at the career of Claudia Gordon, a Deaf black woman who serves as Public Engagement Advisor for the Disability Community at the White House, and I know change is happening. It’s slow and incremental. But it’s happening.

A catalyst for change is not necessarily a spectacular action on it’s own– like holding the door open for someone, it can be a simple act that makes it easier for the next person to get through. I had to insist I stand close to Bloomberg to ensure I was on camera, as many crisis interpreters are cut off screen during news events. I gave each press conference my full effort, because the Deaf community deserves that. I performed my duty as an advocate and ally, which hopefully makes it easier for others in the future. When you fight for justice, you become an agent of change. No matter how large or small the action, you just need to take it. Tell yourself “I Can!”