Audism, yes that’s real

Listen to this post: 

I’ve written on this blog before many times about ableism, whether I used the word or not. You know, those overt and subtle ways that people and society devalue disability experiences. Everything from “I wouldn’t want to hire someone with a brain injury” to “Why wouldn’t you want to go to rehab and get fixed?” to “Why are you concerned about how people with disabilities are portrayed on the media anyway?” to “I’m not going to sing unless everyone stands up, and I won’t apologize for making you prove your disability status at my concert.” Oh, I could go on!

But one thing I’ve neglected to go on about is audism. Yes, deaf, Deaf, and Hard-of-hearing folks are the subjects of ableist discrimination on a regular basis. But what’s important to recognize is that not everyone who is Deaf identifies as having a disability. The term audism reflects the unique and nuanced ways in which these communities are devalued, marginalized, and stigmatized. For now, you can check out the typed transcript of my podcast interview with with Deaf Jamaican-American filmmaker Jade Bryan. The audio version of that podcast will become available again in October or November.

Read this brief description of audism on the Gallaudet University website. Tom Humphries coined the term and defined it like this: “The notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears.” Behave in the manner of one who hears refers to, among other things, valuing oral and written language above signed language and valuing people who speak and hear more than people who sign. It also refers to people growing out their hair to cover those larger over-the-ear hearing aids out of embarrassment.

Did you see that horrid episode of “Glee” (no, I’m not hyperlinking to the episode) where the McKinley High Glee Club invites the Haverbrook School for the Deaf Glee Club to practice at their school? Before they’re halfway through “Imagine,” performed in sign language with one oral singer, the entire hearing glee club has joined the Deaf glee club on the risers. Miraculously, McKinley’s completely non-deaf club members are all signing the song with complete fluency. Excuse me? I’m not exactly sure of three things, to start:

1. Why did the show writers not give the Deaf club any choreography? This was the first piece in the first season where people didn’t dance. Ugh. It’s a glee club. They’re supposed to be dancing while they sing. But I guess a signed language counts to the show writers as dancing.

2. Why can’t you let that club perform their song without you stepping in and helping them out with some “real” singing?

3. How is it that you became completely fluent in a foreign language within seconds? Oh, you don’t view it as a real language. That’s how. I’ve seen it before. I’ve heard people say that for a fellow performer to shadow me onstage performing my speech simultaneously but in ASL (American Sign Language) would take weeks to rehearse. But I could jump up and shadow her, voicing her ASL speech with only one rehearsal. Um. If ASL were a series of gestures used to perform English, perhaps. But it’s not that. It’s not part of English in the same way that other languages that are not English are not part of English. Because it’s a language. A real one, a full one, a complete one that is just as difficult for a second language learner to learn and master as any other foreign language. (Or easy, if you’re someone who picks up languages easily.)

Cheylla Silva in Miami was repeatedly denied ASL interpretation in her doctors’ and hospital visits. She ended up being taken to a hospital not of her choice by an ambulance when she developed complications with her high-risk pregnancy. The new hospital? Totally unprepared to work with a deaf patient or to even understand and value the situation fully while it was happening.

You could say it’s all OK now because she gave birth safely and has her baby. But before you do that, please read the articles linked above around her pregnancy and birth experiences. Then ask yourself if you would accept so many excuses, technology glitches, delays, and inadequate attempts at access with any other type of person. What about a person who has survived a brain injury? We speak up against discrimination and lack of access in our brain injury community all the time. Will you do that with other communities as well?

All of this reminds me of the “learn to speak English or go home” arguments. It’s often told to people who are, in the United States, already home. And it’s said without recognition of how when English speakers came to this continent there were already well-established cultures of people who spoke many languages but not English. Since we have made this our home, it is only reasonable that we consider whether we will recognize our legacy and use that to motivate toward inclusion and equity.