The lack of accessibility in everyday life takes a toll on the Deaf community
As a hard of hearing person, I utter the phrase, “I’m sorry, but could you repeat that?” in nearly every conversation. My words usually linger in the air as a glimpse of annoyance brushes across people’s faces. Some are willing to accommodate my constant requests of repetition. Others resort to phrases like, “Never mind,” “It’s not important,” or, “I’ll tell you later” (they never do). This lack of access to information has followed me around my entire life, but I truly realized the impact during my first trip home from college.
The midnight streets of Chicago felt daunting as I awaited my bus back to Nashville, Tennessee. A single orange street light flickered in the distance, offering a small amount of comfort as I contemplated the emotional and mental turmoil I endured that semester. Someone lightly tapped my shoulders, snapping me back to reality. The buses had arrived, but their destination signs were blank. As someone who is hard of hearing, I heavily rely on visual indications to navigate through life. Without those visual cues, I usually feel disoriented and uncertain — as I did that night.
I hesitantly hopped onto the first bus, handed the driver my ticket, and asked him if I boarded the correct bus. He nodded his head and mumbled. I sheepishly replied, “I’m sorry, but could you repeat that?” He simply glared at me, mumbled once again and turned away. By the time I strolled to a random seat and nestled in, the bus had already started moving. In a panic, I glanced around for any visual cue to confirm that I was actually headed to Nashville when a man’s voice announced over the intercom: “Northbound to Detroit, Michigan.” With a flushed face and a dreadful pit in my stomach, I dashed to the front to alert the bus driver that I needed to get off. After several explanations, apologies, phone calls and tears, I eventually made it back home on a flight the next morning.
Inaccessibility has detrimental social, psychological and physical effects on the Deaf community. The expectation for deaf and hard of hearing individuals to conform to hearing society is exhausting and never-ending. That night, the lack of visual indications and unaccommodating nature of the driver resulted in wasted money, lost time, numerous social conflicts and a highly stressful situation for everyone involved. Due to the driver’s dismissive attitude, I avoided asking anybody else where the bus was headed in fear of not hearing them correctly or experiencing another rude interaction. This experience exemplifies the social aspect of inaccessibility, but it’s crucial to note that education and economics are also impacted.
California-based hard of hearing artist Robbie Chanin struggles with the impact of educational inaccessibility on a daily basis and believes there is an accessibility issue in Deaf and hard of hearing culture, “particularly with learning and the quality of learning.” He “relies on auto-computer translated captions that are inaccurate and impact the quality” of how he is “able to learn for free.” This educational inequality can be transformed with modern-day technology, but many people in hearing society are either too oblivious, egocentric or afraid to speak up and take action.
The inaccurate, asynchronous “accessibility” option of automated captions fails to provide equal access to education, especially considering that American Sign Language (ASL) is not an exact interpretation of the English language. The Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids (LEAD-K) bill aims to solve this issue by establishing access to both ASL and English in order to work towards kindergarten readiness. However, this bill needs additional support to be implemented in all 50 states. Until more bills are passed to protect the Deaf community’s right to an education, much more work needs to be done. The educational inequality that the Deaf community faces often results in economic inequality.
Chanin asserts that some of the biggest challenges with accessibility are economic.
“I’m in poverty because my learning style is not favored by higher educational institutions … Recognizing the validity of people with hearing loss who do not use signed languages is part of widening the narrative of hard of hearing people like me who occupy a subculture to bridge the gap in economic survival,” Chanin said.
Acknowledging the significant role of this “in between” space is paramount to ensuring equal access to information for the entire Deaf community and promoting more research on Deaf culture; the power to advocate for the Deaf community comes with this knowledge.
Coming to terms with my identity as a hard of hearing person has been an incredibly difficult, complex journey. Though I learned to embrace this identity, the psychological effects of inaccessibility remain. I’m known for offering answers to the wrong questions because I hear them incorrectly and seen as “spacey” because it takes people two or three tries to catch my attention. Life gets annoying without closed captions assisting me at every turn. Since the proper resources and accessibility options do not exist yet, I am left to my own devices when socializing and networking. I rarely talk to new people because I worry about keeping up with the conversation, and I have difficulties conversing with my friends in settings other than empty, quiet rooms. Due to this inconvenience, people gradually stop telling me things and eventually stop talking to me altogether. This social exclusion causes me to feel like a burden to others, resulting in an all-encompassing fear of judgment and rejection.
Malinda Tran, a Deaf American Sign Language professor at DePaul, also struggles with psychological effects of inaccessibility. Particularly, she finds the need to “constantly prepare herself” to adjust to any given situation “emotionally exhausting.” Though the phrase “deaf and dumb” seems outdated, the harsh reality is that this stereotype continues to influence hearing people’s opinions to this day. Tran encounters numerous hearing individuals who are actually shocked to learn that she has her master’s degree. She emphasizes that “being Deaf has nothing to do with academic intelligence.” Various issues with accessibility for Deaf and hard of hearing individuals reflect this lack of regard.
This inaccessibility can also be life-threatening— depending on the scenario. Chanin emphasizes that audism is a human rights issue.
“In a tornado warning, the right for Deaf individuals to access accurate reporting in a timely fashion could save Deaf and hard of hearing lives.”
Society generally favors hearing people when it comes to accessing information — including life-saving information. Having a sign language interpreter on the TV screen during emergencies and political events and the presentation of time-sensitive information are crucial to ensure that the Deaf community has equal access to safety. In this particular case, including interpreters and/or closed captions with news reports and incorporating a visual element to tornado sirens would truly benefit the Deaf community. These strategies would better inform the Deaf community and potentially save lives.
In the end, it all comes down to value. How much does hearing society value Deaf individuals? Does it value them enough to provide equal access to information and resources? Uplifting deaf perspectives, combatting inaccurate stereotypes and incorporating easy visual access to information are just a few steps that can be taken to provide equality for the Deaf community. As Tran states, “It is not only about teaching students American Sign Language, but also about teaching Deaf culture and Deaf community perspectives.” Hearing society must improve how it considers accessibility for the Deaf community in schools, workplaces, companies and daily life, and also take action to provide Deaf and hard of hearing people with equal opportunities because they are equally capable of contributing brilliant ideas, becoming successful and progressing society.
Header illustration by Magda Wilhelm