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Reorienting the narrative: Deaf accessibility in a hearing-first environment

There are two prevailing models of disability. The first, dubbed the “medical model,” views disability as a fault of the body, while second, dubbed the “social model” views disability as a fault of the environment. For deafness and the Deaf community, I would argue that the only disabling factor is a society strictly constructed around hearing bodies. Similarly, if a society were exclusively catered toward Deaf individuals, hearing people would be the ones rendered disabled. 

It is critical, particularly following a month dedicated to honoring Deaf heritage, for allies to recognize that, while certain variations in the human condition such as deafness may present functional limitations, those limitations do not necessarily lead to disability unless the society surrounding the impacted individual does not orient itself to wholly include people regardless of those differences.

Much of the disablement suffered by individuals with hearing loss on a regular basis disappears when the individual finds themselves navigating an environment that does not present barriers to that person’s functional ability. Examples of such barriers include closed concept interior design that limits the reception of visual information, and modes of communication that rely on the reception of auditory information. Without these external barriers, individuals with hearing loss may experience little to no impairment in their ability to function when compared to those without hearing loss. 

Society pressures those with hearing loss to modify their physiology through adopting technology or undergoing surgical procedures to adapt themselves to the limitations of their environment. Deaf individuals who have lost their hearing after acquiring a spoken language in particular feel as though they need to find a way to adapt themselves to their environment, not the other way around. Many people find themselves feeling alienated from both hearing and Deaf communities, often feeling torn between enduring the challenges posed by navigating a hearing world or immersing themselves in a culture that embraces their natural variation.

It is the job of allies to do their own research, and one thought exercise for readers who aren’t deaf or hard of hearing is to envision a world built around Deafness. To engage in this exercise, let us consider a hypothetical reader in that world. 

As a hearing person, you are limited by noise that distracts you from being more aware of vibrations and your peripheral vision like your Deaf peers. Because of this, your doctor prescribed earplugs to help give you some of the compensatory sensory advantages of hearing loss; they earn you odd stares in public and it is not a true fix, but you manage.

Friends are easy to make due to their initial curiosity about you, but difficult to keep. Their signs are too fast and too sloppy for you to understand, and you find yourself too easily distracted by errant noises to keep up with conversation. Since moving away from your hometown, local hearing communities have been difficult to find, especially since the pandemic

As a child of a multi-generational hearing family, you remember stories of your relatives being beaten when caught using English, and their mouths being taped shut in school to promote their acquisition of American Sign Language (ASL) –– the de facto national language of the United States. Signs and posters are universally displayed in SignWriting, and you struggle to understand the convention of how words are shown, rather than the way you came to acquire language, which was by “sounding out.” Your family has had to isolate itself in pocket communities of English speakers to thrive, and because of that, you benefit from interpretive services in school, at work and in places of entertainment.

However, you struggle in accessing those services, and you have been denied opportunities because of that. After applying for your first post-university job, your interviewer –– who conducts the procedure exclusively in ASL –– decides that your non-grammatical use of facial expression and reliance on English sentence structure while signing makes you an unideal candidate for the position.

You may have the sensory ability to hear in this Deaf-centered world, but it is the structure of your environment and others’ unwillingness to see the value in your hearing experience that renders you a disabled minority. 

Consider the fact that, while this was merely an intellectual exercise for you if you are a hearing individual, it is the lived reality for many in the Deaf community. Do good in the world, and implement this understanding in the ways you contribute to your local communities.  

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