While no one holds a grudge against the deaf, the fact is that discrimination happens anyway.
For many people, the thought of living their lives in complete or partial silence is an unimaginable hell. The notion of not fully understanding what is said to you, of not appreciating the fullness of music or even the rustling of the wind reflects a reality that is known to the 36 million American adults who have reported some degree of hearing loss.
For these individuals, many of the issues most people take for granted — being able to hear environmental changes and potential dangers, passive learning and understanding through sound and interpersonal communications, for example — are complicated.
Popular misunderstanding and misconceptions about deafness have created an atmosphere in which both passive and active discrimination against the deaf still exist, despite the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. An example can be seen in a 2012 episode of ABC News’s “What Would You Do?” in which — with the assistance of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a college at the Rochester Institute of Technology that specializes in offering educational support for hard-of-hearing or deaf students and professionals — a deaf woman applied for a kitchen job at a coffeehouse.
The manager told the applicant that he cannot hire her due to her deafness. In this scenario, both the manager and the applicant were actors acting from a prepared script in order to ascertain the public’s reaction to this open act of discrimination. While some were disgusted by the manager’s discrimination, three human resources specialists took issue with the openness of the discrimination, and not the discrimination itself. The advice given by the three amounted to accepting the application, offering the applicant lip service to appease her, and marking the application “not a fit.”
While the video itself is telling, a quick review of the comments for the episode on YouTube suggest the weight of the problem.
From jam122o: “This is just ‘Life is a Bitch’ moments [sic]. Sure disable people need work just like the rest of us but we all know that’s just how businesses work, if there’s something different about you they deem ‘wrong’ they won’t hire you (and you don’t have to be disable for them to do that). Regardless of if it’s right or wrong (I think it’s a neutral subject myself) that’s just the way things work, which just so happens to suck ass.”
From Unintelligentful: “How does one have a ‘bunch of deaf friends?’ I’m 19 years old and i’ve never came into contact with a deaf person in my entire life… I just find it hard to believe you have more than one or two deaf friends. They aren’t that common.”
From IMaximusDMI, in response to another comment suggesting that making the restaurant disabled-accessible would not be expensive: “Well it no expense at all in this case because it will never be considered. The scenario of a deaf person working there will never come to fruition. So in this manager’s eyes, its either spend money or not spend money. And they will choose to not spend money. It truly is a minority group and there’s little reason for this manager to cater to it. Makes more sense to keep the money and just not hire a deaf worker.”
While the vast majority of Americans do not have an objection — implicit or explicit — to deafness, the notion that some find deafness to be an exclusionary factor in modern American society is disturbing.
Kirstin Poston, the Employment Task Force Board liaison for the National Association of the Deaf, became deaf at the age of 5 due to a rare disease. She grew up in an educational environment in which she and her mother had to fight for the sparse resources that were offered to her, such as a translator in high school. Despite this, she graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology and Gallaudet University.
“There is definitely employment discrimination,” Poston told Mint Press News. “Over 70 percent of individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing are without suitable employment. Many of them rely on government programs for survival. In certain parts of the country, there is a Stone Age attitude that remains. One would think 23 years after the passage of a major civil rights law — the amended Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 — ‘Everything’s all good now.’ No, that’s not true.”
“There remains today still more education and outreach than ever that are required for us to seek society’s acceptance,” Poston continued. “Society is slowly but surely accepting us. In many colleges and secondary schools, they have introduced American Sign Language and deaf culture in their curricula; this is a step in the right direction. Wouldn’t it be neat if every single person knew some basic form of American Sign Language? That would for sure knock down many barriers.”
The human animal and the “pack mentality”
Deafness and other sensory impairments, such as blindness, are disabilities that are included in the five discrimination types — race, gender, sexual orientation, age and disability — protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission’s regulations require that “reasonable accommodations” must be provided to disabled employees unless the accommodation causes an “undue hardship” on the employer — that is, unless it would be too expensive or difficult to secure.
In the case of deafness, however, these accommodations are psychological in nature. Humans are social animals and tend to separate from those seen as unrelatable or different. The difficulties that lie in not simply being able to speak to someone forms a mental hurdle many are unwilling to clear.
“In those early years, I was placed in a deaf program within a public school, so it was a mainstream setting,” said Summer Crider, who described her experiences in a program for deaf students for PBS’s “Through Deaf Eyes.” “And then when I started to recognize I was different from everyone else, I started to begin to think what makes me different from them and it was the box [cochlear implant] and this wire that was attached to my head. So, I quit wearing it; I just took it off. And about 10th grade, I decided I needed a better social life, so I started checking things out. And I came across the Florida School for the Deaf. And made the switch to that school, and went back to wearing the implant again. And I began wearing it all the time.
“So, it’s kind of unusual, just the opposite of what you think because my parents were very concerned that once I went to the school for the deaf, that I would stop wearing it entirely, that I wouldn’t speak any longer, that I wouldn’t wear the implant. But the opposite is what happened and it’s because I had confidence in myself. Everybody there was just like I was; everybody else had a problem with their hearing, so it was OK. It gave me the opportunity to wear my implant and to feel like I fit in and really take advantage of everything that it had to offer.”
It is common in society to identify a person based on disability, so that a man who happens to be blind is a blind man — with his blindness being the leading descriptor. It is important that most individuals who are sensory-impaired see themselves as normal and as living normal lives. It is in this that most individuals with hearing impairment find problems with the concept of “accommodation” — most feel it is not necessary.
“As a deaf person for most of my life, I consider myself a very normal and average person — just like everyone else, except I can’t hear,” said Benro Ogunyipe, the president of National Black Deaf Advocates, Inc., in conversation with Mint Press News. “The most challenging part is my ability to communicate with hearing people in a manner that is instant. However, it’s not a major barrier because — as a deaf person — I find different ways to communicate with hearing people; whether it’s written communication, a note app from the smartphone, or basic lip-reading — although, sign language interpreting is the ideal mode of communication for most deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s communication, especially with the emergence of the videophone and video relay service technology.”
“For some deaf people, English is not their first language. American Sign Language (ASL) is,” Ogunyipe continued. “It’s important to point out that not all deaf people has English as their second language. However, some have a low level of English comprehension and have difficulty in understanding written or reading English. A sign language interpreter is better suited to facilitate the communication if the deaf person’s first language is ASL. This does not mean it applies to all deaf and hard-of-hearing people. It’s the most common misconception because the deaf people’s means of communication depends on their education background. Some may attended state-run deaf institution where ASL was taught while some attended the oral or mainstream school where English was taught.”
This raises a very important point. For humans, hearing is a key part of the learning framework. Alvin Boyd is a member of the faculty at the National Technical Institute for the deaf. Boyd told Mint Press News that learning has both an implied and active component. Active learning includes classroom instruction, reading and corrective direction. Implied learning, however, comes from observations that are gathered in everyday life. For example, if a child was to go near a plant — only to hear the adults scream and tell him to get away from it — the child will learn that the plant is off limits and may infer that the plant is dangerous.
In a situation where the child does not have immediate access to needed communication resources — for example, if no one is able to use sign language in the child’s home — there is a risk that the child will not receive the same level of educational development that someone in an implied learning-friendly environment would have received. The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that of the 2 to 3 children out of every 1,000 in the United States that are born deaf or hard-of-hearing, 9 out of every 10 are born to parents that can hear.
This is problematic because, on average, Black deaf individuals have a lower level of educational readiness than their White counterparts, according to Boyd. It may be because the number of Black households that use ASL is lower than that of White households, or it may be because their is a stronger cultural stigma on deafness in African-American society than in White society.
The NIDCD has also stated that only 1 out of 5 people who could benefit from a hearing aid actually wear one. The stigma of being different, a lack of understanding about what resources are available, or an unwillingness or inability to seek help may all be contributing to the compounding of this issue.
Regardless of the rationale, this issue contributes to a situation in which those who could be doubly discriminated against — such as an individual who is Black and deaf — or those who can be triply discriminated against — such as an individual who is Black, female and deaf — may ultimately have a level of education, occupational attainment and personal development below that of the rest of deaf society.
A call for understanding
There are no quick or easy answers in how to resolve this problem. It may be, ultimately, a question of outreach and education.
“I think without the awareness, some of the people may not understand the abilities of people with disabilities,” said Ogunyipe. “The LGBT community became more acceptable through awareness, advocacy and legislation ensuring the rights of LGBT individuals. I think if deaf and hard-of-hearing people receive the same treatment as LGBT individuals did, we may see that the society becomes more tolerant of sensory impairments. The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990 to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities including deaf and hard-of-hearing and ensure they get equal access and opportunities in every aspect of areas. However, many people — including employers — still lack understanding the ADA or are not more complying with the strongest federal law protecting people with disabilities.”
In reality, deafness is a question of communication and the willingness to make the effort to understand and be understood. This question extends beyond deafness toward other pressing issues, such as whether Spanish should be recognized as an official language and whether classes should be taught only in English. A person’s sense of inclusiveness is demonstrated by his or her willingness to make the effort to communicate with someone who does not speak the same language.
It is, in its purest form, just a question of how willing people are to understand their fellow Americans and accept them on their own terms.
“What’s wrong with being deaf?” CJ Jones mused for “Through Deaf Eyes.” “I’m deaf. I’m fine. I function fine. I drive. I have a family. I’ve made a baby. I make people laugh. I travel. What the hell is going on? Like I have to hear that has nothing to do with it. It’s all about knowledge; it’s about the heart. It’s about abilities, about doing something you want and getting what you want out of life… Knowledge is the most powerful vehicle to success — not hearing, not speaking.”
This article originally appeared on July 1, 2013.