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This week is International Week of the Deaf, a worldwide celebration of deafness, d/Deaf individuals, Deaf cultures, and signed languages which is held every year at the end of September. This year, the theme of the week is “Full Inclusion with Sign Language.”
To celebrate International Week of the Deaf, I wanted to highlight 5 major civil rights issues that Deaf advocates are actively working to address.
Access to Signed Language
Because 9 out of 10 deaf babies are born to hearing parents with no connection to the d/Deaf community, the first few months of a deaf child’s life can be confusing— for both the parents and the developing child. This is a critical window of time for cognitive development. This is a time when babies are learning so much about the world, and they need a language with which they can begin to frame it.
The National Association for the Deaf (NAD) takes a very strong and clear position on the topic of access to signed language, stating: “Deaf and hard of hearing children like all children have a right to language. Signed language, being a visual language, is the only completely accessible language for these children… Research has shown that thousands of deaf and hard of hearing children are experiencing various levels of language deprivation, many to an extent that constitutes harm in the form of educational, social-emotional and cognitive delays. For this reason, it is the position of the National Association of the Deaf that an all-out effort needs to be made to ensure that all deaf and hard of hearing children have full and meaningful access to language from birth and the benefit of visual language and visual learning.”
Dr. Peter Hauser, a Clinical Neuropsychologist and associate professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has given numerous lectures and conducts ongoing research that makes a strong case for giving deaf children access to signed language. He even wrote book along with his esteemed colleague Dr. Marc Marshark called “How Deaf Children Learn.” Further underlining support of early access to signed language, NTID offers a FAQ on their site about Educating Deaf Children with answers from international experts.
Piggybacking on the problems caused by delayed language acquisition, access to education is one of the biggest issues that the d/Deaf community seeks to address. So many young people who are deaf suffer, often without complaint, through years in an educational system that simply was not designed for them to succeed.
The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) website explains: “Deaf children have the right to expect that their needs and human, linguistic and educational rights are respected and supported … Studies by the WFD reveal that the enrollment rate and literacy achievement of Deaf children is far below the average for the population at large. Illiteracy and semi-literacy are serious problems among Deaf people. Without appropriate education, advancement in society as an independent, employed, contributing citizen becomes problematic…. WFD takes the unequivocal position that there is no excuse for this deplorable situation, since Deaf children have the same innate intellectual, social and emotional capacities, as do all children.”
Access to a curriculum that makes sense for their abilities can determine the course of a deaf student’s future. Schools need to be prepared to offer captioning and high quality interpreting services for students who are deaf, as needed, and these costs need to be built into the budget right from the start.
Although the exact statistics can be a bit fuzzy, the indisputable fact remains: Unemployment is a problem that disproportionately impacts the d/Deaf community. Deaf individuals are unemployed at a significantly higher rate than the hearing population.
From the interview process onward, discriminatory attitudes create barriers to career success. Employers might be afraid to hire a person who is deaf because they don’t understand how to open lines of communications and integrate this person onto the team; they may overlook a perfectly qualified deaf candidate in favor of a less qualified hearing person. Once they have been hired, typically deaf individuals are given little support, encouragement, or room for career advancement. Without satisfactory employment opportunities, the cycle of oppression just continues ad infinitum. It never ends.
Those who are d/Deaf deserve the same opportunities to build a life for themselves as everyone else, without being limited by a language barrier or limited by a lack of cultural awareness. Deaf activist groups have to advocate constantly for the basic human right to earn a livable income. In 2015, there was a march on Washington DC to raise awareness about deaf unemployment, and to demonstrate support for opening up better job opportunities.
To learn more about this topic, check out the following blogs:
Things don’t get easier once people are returned to citizen life, with the combination of a disability and a criminal record it can be nearly impossible to find decent work. Without equal access to justice at every s
tep along the way, the entire system continues to uphold the oppression of marginalized people.
Just turn on the local news with the closed captioning, you will quickly witness how live captioning can be almost hilariously inaccurate (or in the case of an emergency, dangerously inaccurate). And, as the “No More Craptions” campaign points out, accessibility for internet content is even worse. The bottom line here is that people who are deaf— when they actually do receive “access” to the communication services they need— are often still being denied an equal experience.
With regards to interpreting services, unfortunately, some organizations just hire the cheapest interpreting agency they can find, and this agency might not even have anyone who is fluent in ASL screening the interpreters before they are sent out on assignment. These unqualified interpreters serve as yet another communication barrier for the deaf consumer, and they might even dramatically impact or endanger the person’s life. At the end of the day, effective communication is not being offered, which is a violation of the ADA.
In 2004, RID and NAD implemented a joint Code of Professional Ethics for all members and certified interpreters. RID has established an interpreter certification program to to help maintain a high level of excellence, and the organization provides a support network for constant professional development. Although these efforts are slowly improving service for deaf consumers, they have sadly not prevented unqualified interpreters from getting work.
Even now, in the year 2017, there are persistent barriers that people who are deaf must overcome to gain basic access to everyday goods and services. The Americans with Disabilities Act endeavors to protect the civil rights of all Americans, regardless of ability, by requiring businesses and organizations to offer “reasonable accommodations” that allow effective communication. For people who are d/Deaf, this could mean anything from captioning, texting, video relay services, or sign language interpreting services, dependent on the individual.
At the same time, the d/Deaf community is becoming stronger and more cohesive than ever, connecting across countries, languages, religions, genders, races, and disabilities. As this happens, we begin to recognize where these discussions intersect and overlap with other systems of oppression, finding greater strength even still. Deaf issues have seeped into the mainstream consciousness and will continue to find footing in the ongoing public discourse on diversity, chipping away at the cultural ignorance that places a lifetime of limitations on a person just because of their hearing ability.
July 26 marks the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act: a set of laws established to help people with disabilities gain access to society that was simply not designed for them. Since 1990, this landmark piece of legislation has improved the lives of millions of Americans by providing clarification regarding their rights to access— whether that means built-in wheelchair ramps, requesting ASL interpreters, or allowing service animals into buildings— and offering legal recourse for individuals whose rights are violated.
Make no mistake, the ADA has not miraculously leveled the playing field for those with disabilities. It helped lay the foundation for equal access, but the ADA does not guarantee that services will be available for those who need them when they need them.
Deaf Self Advocacy
Without the hard work of determined disability rights activists, the ADA would never have been passed; and without ongoing advocacy efforts, little real change might have come from the legislation. People who do not need to reference the ADA on a regular basis to get their basic needs met are frequently unaware of their obligation to ensure equal access to their establishment / service / business. In the years since the ADA became law, people with disabilities have had to consistently perform the labor of educating people about their disabilities and what it means to be disabled in a world that favors able-bodied individuals. They must also be willing to challenge organizations to go beyond bare minimum compliance, which can sometimes mean taking on large institutions in a public way.
Below you will find links to some recent video blogs by individuals who are d/Deaf/HoH:
Sean Gerlis discusses the definitions of “Reasonable Accommodation” and “Effective communication” specifically within the context of remote video interpreting (VRI) services: https://youtu.be/4m74plfjJuY
These are only a few of the thousands of thoughtful explanations and analyses of the ADA and how these legal provisions actually apply to those who are deaf. There are countless hours of video containing firsthand accounts, experiences, successes and failures available on the Internet for those wishing to gain a deeper insight into the longterm impact of the 1990 Act. Overall we have seen quite a bit of progress yet discrimination remains a fact, due in large part to simple ignorance.
If you are a deaf or hard of hearing individual, it is your responsibility to ensure that your rights are not being violated. Until we live in a world where accessibility is built-in and widely understood, the burden will continue to fall on already disadvantaged minority groups to fight for basic accommodations.
Each time a person takes it upon themselves to challenge the institution that oppresses them, they remove a barrier for the next person— no matter how big or small. This incremental progress adds up over time. If your rights are violated, pursue further action. If your needs are not adequately met, provide feedback and pursue further action. The advocacy and awareness that each person spreads works toward creating a more educated society with advanced views of disability. Pushing back is important work!
Everyone Can Support the ADA
But what about allies? How can people who are not deaf or disabled help, without their position of able-bodied privilege resulting in further oppression? Where to get started?
On a day-to-day basis, allies can look for opportunities to help raise awareness about deaf perspectives and offer support for better access. Examples:
A marketing manager or event coordinator at a company can take it upon themselves to consistently educate about and advocate for inclusive events, emphasizing the importance of providing interpreters and advertising events as deaf-friendly.
Managers and supervisors on a corporate level can suggest cultural competency training for employees, preferably a program created by and/ or led by people who are deaf. This will help create an understanding of diversity, and can open up new possibilities with deaf clients and customers.
Administrators or Human Resource managers can take the time to ensure that their organization has contracts on file with high quality interpreting agencies. They can work to emphasize the importance of being prepared for deaf individuals to access goods and services as they please.
If there are initiatives underway in the community, for example deaf individuals in your area are pushing for captioned showings at theaters, make sure to amplify their concerns and take any actions possible to support their cause.
The ADA in action is more of a tool for people with disabilities than any kind of guarantee. This set of legislation only works when it is enforced, and it is up to each member of our society to help enforce it.
We must maintain our willingness to challenge comfortable but oppressive social norms in everyday situations. We need to keep pushing for what is right, even when it is the more difficult path. Working together, little by little we can help remove the structural roadblocks that limit individuals, thereby collectively creating a truly diverse America.
LCIS is thrilled to offer ADA Compliance Consulting for businesses and organizations. Our ADA Compliance Consulting program works in conjunction with relevant stakeholders and committee of Deaf advisors to assist organizations with reducing legal risk and ensuring that their business has all the tools for success when working with Deaf/ HoH customers, clients, or employees. Contact us Today for more information!