Most people know, of course, that a language difference exists between people who are deaf and those who can hear. People who are deaf communicate using a variety of strategies, ranging from lip reading and speaking, to writing notes, using gestures, or communicating via American Sign Language. Deafness can be a different experience for every person, and people come from all backgrounds and walks of life. So when we bridge only the communication gap between a deaf and a hearing person, there is still a lot of room for cultural misunderstanding!In America, many people who are deaf prefer using the visual language of ASL to communicate. These individuals consider themselves members of Deaf Culture, a linguistic minority group that has it’s own unique traditions, jokes, stories, and cultural norms. Deaf culture has no age, gender, race, or religious barriers, and members of Deaf culture frequently exist within several other intersecting cultural identities. To create truly effective communication with the Deaf community, hearing individuals must come to a greater understanding of what it means to be both medically deaf, and culturally Deaf.
It’s become trendy for businesses and organizations to use words like “Diversity” and “Inclusive” without actually taking any steps toward creating diversity or inclusion. Hiring an individual with a disability, but then making no effort to support their success, does not empower anyone, and can create resentments between people in the workplace. When a deaf individual shows up for a medical appointment (or any appointment at any business) and nobody in the organization knows how to accommodate their needs, that business has failed at providing equal access to their goods/services.
If an organization chooses to embrace diversity and multiculturalism, and truly wants to empower people of all abilities, Cultural Competency Training is a great next step. Educating staff from the top level down, and from the bottom levels up, offers a chance for organization-wide professional development and a much greater understanding of what diversity really means.
The first step toward welcoming d/Deaf individuals to connect with an organization is to get a contract on file with a local interpreting agency that offers high quality sign language interpreting services. Look for deaf-owned or ASL interpreter-owned agencies, or ask a deaf individual if they have a preferred agency to contact.
Cultural competency is not a feat, it is an opportunity! This is a chance to strengthen relationships within the organization, as well as relationships with customers, clients, and the community at large. Cultural Competency Training helps to identify the many different perspectives— employer, employee, deaf, hearing, interpreter, customer, consumer — and assists in creating mutual understanding from all sides. By working with deaf trainers to explore the various scenarios where d/Deaf and hearing people interact, everyone
gets an opportunity to ask those awkward cross-cultural questions, or clear up any misconceptions in a safe environment. With proper training, buzzwords like “diversity” become very real and applicable concepts and everyone reaps the benefits.
LC Interpreting Services is thrilled to partner with Innovative Inclusion, LLC offer Cultural Competency Training seminars for businesses and organizations. Working with a set of d/Deaf consultants, employees at all levels can deepen their understanding of deafness, Deaf culture, and d/Deaf communication to effectively bridge the persistent gaps that exist. Deaf and Hearing World: Bridging the Cultural Gap Cultural Competency Training is an excellent solution for progressive companies ready to take it beyond basic communication.
Lately it seems like American Sign Language is everywhere! It’s been making appearances at musical performances and sporting events. It can be seen in news stories, comic books, movies, and TV shows. Pop stars are using it, sports mascots are using it, even President Obama knows a little ASL. With so many people finally embracing this second American language, there has never been a better time to begin learning to sign.
In my opinion, the best reason to learn sign language is that it allows you to communicate with the estimated half million Americans who use ASL as their primary language. This gives you the opportunity to make new friends, connect with deaf classmates and coworkers, or help deaf customers feel welcome at your business. Knowing ASL, even just some basic everyday signs, sends a message to deaf people that you are willing to step outside of your hearing comfort zone to engage with them. Our society is so focused on verbal communication, sound, and noise, that deaf people often feel forgotten. Even learning how to say “hello” or take a simple food order in sign language breaks down a small barrier and can brighten another person’s day.
Knowing how to sign opens up a whole new world — a place where words exist in 3-dimensions. ASL is a beautiful visual communication form which relies on body language and facial cues. It is emotional and highly expressive. If you’re a hearing person who wants to become a better listener, learning sign language can actually help! Sign language requires eye contact and attention to detail, which makes ASL users very perceptive to subtle changes in mood.
Members of Deaf Culture are considered a linguistic minority, with ASL serving as the foundation for this unique subset of American Culture. Discovering ASL can help hearing individuals access a different perspective about the very society they live in. As a person learns the words of another culture, they can come to understand their values. The more one explores ASL, the more opportunity they have to understand the Deaf experience.
Besides breaking through the barriers between deaf and hearing culture, there are a number of other benefits to learning ASL. It makes you bilingual, which looks great on your resume. It allows you to communicate with people across a noisy room. Sometimes, such as the example of this 10 year old girl, knowing ASL can help you save a life. If you’ve never seen an ASL musical performance or ASL poetry, you are definitely missing out. Check out some videos by Peter Cook or the Deaf Jam documentary to get a little taste; but nothing compares to the live experience.
Hearing individuals who are interested in sign language have nothing to lose and everything to gain! ASL is fun to learn, and as American as apple pie. Learning a new language can be challenging, but moving outside our comfort zones encourages personal growth and development. Why limit your possibilities? You never know, maybe the romantic partner of your dreams is deaf. Not knowing sign language could prevent you from ever making that connection.
If you’ve been thinking about discovering the silent world of ASL, just start learning today! You don’t even need to leave your couch.
There are a number of completely free resources for learning sign language on your own time.
In addition to this brief list, there are hundreds of other sign language resources available online at very affordable prices. Of course, it is always best to learn one-on-one when possible. Be sure to look for classes in your community, or connect with an ASL instructor for a few structured lessons. Start today and before you know it, you will find yourself immersed in the fascinating culture of Deaf America!
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.
Last 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.
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.
These 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, 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.
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!
After months of worrying about nursery colors and baby names, the big day has finally arrived! Your healthy bundle of joy is born with 10 fingers and 10 toes; crying and cooing in your arms. The baby is beautiful, your family is complete, everything feels perfect! Fast forward a few months down the road when, during a routine checkup, your pediatrician informs you that your infant can not hear. Suddenly, you’ve become the parent of a deaf child. What now?
Discovering that a child is deaf can stir up a wide range of emotions in new parents. Most commonly, they feel shock, sorrow, and helplessness. Unfortunately, because many doctors deliver this news as a medical “diagnosis,” parents automatically believe that their child is ill. Or, worse, disabled! It causes a chain reaction of guilt, sadness, and fear. How will you raise your deaf child? You wonder if he or she will be able to have a good life. You wonder if you can “fix” them.
This topic is close to my heart because my grandparents learned that my mother was deaf when she was less than a year old. At that time, they didn’t know any deaf people, and had no idea what it would mean to raise a deaf child in a hearing world. My grandparents worried that their daughter would not be able to have a happy childhood, or a normal adolescence. Would she have friends? Would she be able to drive a car? Would she be able to laugh and have fun? There are so many misconceptions. Of course, as time went on, they discovered that deaf kids definitely can do all these things, and excel at them!
Selecting a method of communication for your child majorly influences where he or she will fit into society, and is critical to psychological development. There are several communication options to consider, depending on the child’s degree of hearing loss. Some parents choose to teach their deaf child to speak English using hearing aids and intensive speech training. In this approach, the child does not identify as deaf, and does not learn deaf communication.
Another option is the controversial, and increasingly popular cochlear implant– a fairly invasive surgical procedure where an electronic device is implanted into the baby’s head to simulate the sound-processing of a functioning ear. Modern science has come a long way with these prosthetics and, although the child will never experience hearing the same way as a non-deaf person would, they can technically hear. With many years of language therapy, cochlear implant patients can be nearly indistinguishable from their hearing peers. But communicating in the hearing world will never be simple for them, because science simply has not been able to replicate the subtle and specific nuances of our natural senses. These children are prone to rely on lip-reading and facial cues, and many require a number of educational resources to keep up with their peers in school. Parents are likely to consider this surgical procedure to “remedy” their child’s deafness because they want to make sure their child speaks and understands the same language they do. This is understandable, but is it what is really best for your deaf child?
As any deaf person will proudly tell you, deafness is an identity, not an impairment. They do not consider deafness a problem that needs to be “fixed.” Deaf culture is active, full of positive role models; and ASL is a rich, constantly evolving language. Another option for teaching your deaf child to communicate is to enroll him or her into a residential school. Deaf residential schools are staffed by deaf teachers fluent in ASL, who work with deaf toddlers all the way through high school to educate them in a way that is focused on their individual learning styles. Allowing your child to be deaf, to learn sign language, and to integrate with other deaf people is a great way to promote an atmosphere of equality, independence, and nurturing. The drawback of residential schools, of course, is that deaf children are separated from their parents. Fortunately, many have reported that the atmosphere of deaf culture fosters great mentor relationships at these institutions.
Being that I come from three generations of deafness, there is a high possibility that I may have deaf or HoH children, and I have to be prepared to teach my children both ASL and American English. If you wish to speak the same language as your deaf child, why not learn the language that was created just for them? Total communication strategy focuses on integrating both ASL and speech therapy, to provide opportunity, without altering the child’s identity. Embracing deaf culture as a family seems to me like a great compromise for helping your kids adjust to the world using all the tools available! Spoken communication is important in our audio world, but it is also extremely important for deaf children to be able to sign with their peers so they can communicate freely, and feel connected. If they decide not to speak out loud or sign later in life, that would be their choice. My guess would be they will cherish both hearing and deaf culture, and embrace both for the rest of their lives. Bilingualism is such a fantastic way to see the world through different eyes, and provides a real advantage to your deaf child! Now that I have provided you with the current options the choice is ultimately left in your hands. What will you decide to do?