On September 20th, 2019, I stood in front of over a thousand people to talk about fast fashion and offer solutions to reducing its consumption. At the time, I was at the U.S. Climate Strike in Denver, as a speaker representing ThinkOcean. When I got to the microphone, the first thing I heard was a man shouting “leave” and staring straight at me. For a second, I considered fleeing the stage right there and then. But instead, I looked to my right toward a friend, found my bearings, and started to speak and sign.
I started my speech by signing, “Hi, I’m Maya. I’m learning to sign. It’s not perfect, but I’m trying to be more inclusive to the Deaf community.” After concluding my speech and stepping down from the stage, I went to join my friends in the crowd. A woman touched my shoulder as I started to leave with them and signed “thank you.”
Every day, Deaf individuals are excluded, either due to a lack of resources, communication barriers, or a lack of cultural understanding among hearing individuals. Often, Deaf individuals feel isolated even within their families; over 90% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents. Their deafness and sometimes inability to speak isn’t what’s silencing the Deaf community though—it’s our societal structure. The following are three places to practice including the Deaf community.
If an event isn’t accessible to Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, it isn’t inclusive. Since Trump’s inauguration and the galvanization of thousands of young people behind the phrase “the young people will win,” a sea of protests has arisen. Some of these protests, such as the U.S. Climate Strike, take the form of a march with a subsequent rally. These events are often centered on the values of diversity, inclusivity, and intersectionality. Yet environmental and social-justice events like these regularly exclude Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals through a lack of qualified interpreters and open captions for speeches. Failing to accomodate a Deaf audience deprives Deaf individuals of access to education and violates their right to equal access.
When planning an event, it’s important to remember that many eaf people hold multiple identities. One such individual is 9-year-old Ivy Golob, who is both Deaf and transgender. As a member of the Deaf LGBTQ+ community, she advocates for more intersectional activism between the Deaf and the LGBTQ+ community. In September, for Deaf Awareness Month, she shared that one way of accomplishing this is to provide more Deaf-friendly pride events. Although she loves attending pride events, they’re exhausting for her because they aren’t accessible enough. “They should be friendly and have interpreters and more resources for the Deaf LGBTQ+ community,” Golob said on Facebook.
Another component of accessibility is accommodation at events. Accommodating a Deaf audience requires understanding that not all Deaf people sign. When having a mixture of Deaf individuals that sign and ones that don’t, some event planners choose to have both ASL interpreters and Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART), which creates a live transcript of a conversation. The seating setup is also often important. It’s best to avoid seating speakers in front of bright lights because the backlighting makes it difficult to see the speaker and their lips.
Sometimes, event planners claim that accommodating is too expensive—but they have an obligation to the Deaf community, in place by Americans with Disabilities Act, to provide equal access. Nonetheless, there are solutions if money is an issue, one being to find a sponsor for accessibility. Finances aren’t a reason to exclude Deaf individuals.
James Kuhn is a Deaf Japanese individual. At 18 months old, he got a high fever. This is when his deafness started and, from there, got progressively worse. It wasn’t until age three that his parents found out about his deafness, though. Neither signed, but communication wasn’t a problem for Kuhn and his family. Kuhn took speech therapy growing up, but never enjoyed it. “What is the point of learning to talk if you can’t hear your voice?” asks Kuhn.
Today, Kuhn works in the Tolmer building as a manufacturing technician where he handles production and shipping for their medical products. He doesn’t need accommodations because the job requires little communication. But at training meetings, he does require an interpreter and is provided one because of the ADA.
When asked how hearing people can be more inclusive in the workplace, Kuhn responded
that “employers need to hire more Deaf workers and give them the tools they need in order to be promoted.” Kuhn shared with Adolescent that he was a coach for a high school football team for 20 years; in that time, he was never promoted to an offensive or defensive coordinator. “What’s the point of working hard if you’ll never be promoted?” he asked.
Accessibility in school is just as important as in the workplace. This includes accommodations such as visual (flashing) alarms and entry systems that don’t depend on auditory devices such as an intercom. Title II of the ADA addresses the obligation of a school board to remove communication barriers for Deaf individuals. One component is that they’re required to supply appropriate auxiliary aids. Most commonly, this is in the form of qualified ASL interpreters.
Our society is still treating Deaf individuals like they are subhuman, similar to how disabled people are treated. Even the ADA considers deafness a disability. But most Deaf people don’t consider themselves disabled—just different. In order to work toward equality for the Deaf community, accommodations must be made, and the “disabled” label must be removed as it doesn’t line up with the Deaf identity. In doing so, we’ll create an accessible environment and an inclusive community.
Illustration by Derek Abella for The New York Times