Let’s talk: Texas’ deaf community wants to dialogue

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Have you ever heard a deaf comedian do standup? If you’re a member of the hearing community, most likely not.

But there are such things as deaf comedians, and when they take the stage in front of deaf crowds and perform, using a combination of American Sign Language and body language, they can bring the house down.

The deaf community is not just a group of people with a shared trait and similar life experiences. It is a culture in and of itself, one that is too often ignored and widely misunderstood, which is why deaf standups are probably not on your radar — or why you may have ideas about the deaf community that simply aren’t true.

This is unsurprising: The primary barrier to exchange and understanding between cultures, including deaf and hearing cultures, is a communication barrier. When two people can’t communicate, relationships can’t be built. That can lead to division and isolation.

That’s why it’s important for all of us to celebrate Deaf Awareness Week, September 24-30. In Texas, there are more than 350,000 hard-of-hearing and deaf individuals between the ages of 18 and 64.

The actress Marlee Matlin once said, “The handicap of deafness is not in the ear; it is in the mind.”

Most folks in the deaf community know this firsthand. Whether it’s the challenging task of making a friend who can’t yet sign or getting closer to family members, inaccessibility can be a drain on energy and emotion.

Some profoundly hard-of-hearing children have not been taught ASL — a language that has liberated the deaf culture — in favor of hearing parents’ belief in the effectiveness of lip reading and assistive technology, such as cochlear implants, which do not reverse deafness but can aid in the hearing of sounds. Yet this approach, we know from experience, often excludes hard-of-hearing children from the deaf culture with which they have much in common socially and emotionally.

These are real problems, but they are surmountable. One solution is to reframe the discussion about the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, both from within and from without.

Too often, those who can hear look upon the deaf community as a group of people to be pitied, as if the inability to hear is a devastating disability. Among the deaf, the focus is not on the inability to hear but on embracing of the intricacies of a complex visual language, which is a source of pride for many, if not most, deaf persons who sign. You will most likely never meet a deaf person who regrets learning sign, but you will meet many who regret not learning it earlier in life and can’t engage fellow deaf community members until much later in life.

Misconceptions about groups of people can fuel frustration, which in turn can fuel more misunderstanding. It would be great if we could speak our minds, but that’s not always immediately possible between the deaf and the hearing.

It’s important to understand that being deaf isn’t a mark of shame. Many deaf people have lived without sound all their lives and wouldn’t change a thing about themselves — much less seek cures for something they don’t consider to be a problem. To many in the deaf community, the push in medical circles to “cure” deafness is anathema — a type of modern colonialism that inherently rejects equality.

Both hearing and hard-of-hearing people can address the situation head-on. If you can hear, don’t be afraid to ask respectful questions — email, texts and even pen and paper are great starting tools. If you are deaf, don’t be afraid to talk about the communication strategies you use. Deafness can be a conversation-starter for gaining cross-cultural understanding.

It’s simple to make a connection. With hundreds of resources available on the web, it’s easier than ever to learn basic signs and deaf culture that can help people communicate and better understand each other’s lives.

Certified American Sign Language interpreters can help, too. One service we offer at Deaf Action Center is interpretation for hearing clients who cannot sign but want to communicate with deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals.

Other programs include employment training services, assistive technology training and youth empowerment and leadership that aim to build new foundations for the next generations of deaf and hard-of-hearing community members.

There’s no better time to reach out to a neighbor, whether you are hearing or deaf and make a connection that destroys misconceptions and affirms identities. Let’s get the conversation started.

Heather Hughes

Executive director, Deaf Action Center

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