Internalized Audism

Content note: ableism, audism, communication access, disability rights, ADA, institutionalized oppression

Back in February, Congressman Glenn Grothman, R-WI, encouraged his constituents to pry into the lives of citizens on government assistance. From an article in The Northwestern:

Grothman said he hears stories about seemingly able-bodied people receiving disability payments, Social Security payments and Food Share benefits. He told the people in attendance to keep an eye on the types of things people on Food Share buy at the grocery store or ask people for more information if they boast about being on disability.

“I would argue some people are arranging their life to be on Food Share,” Grothman said. “You just look at them and kind of wonder.”

I know that The Undeserving Poor is a standard in the conservative legislative playbook. I know the idea of Proving Disability is something those with both visible and invisible disabilities encounter all the time. I’ve heard it a hundred times, but never before in the context of actually asking constituents to pry into the lives of others. That was a new one.

It reminded me of conversations I’ve had with Deaf friends and colleagues. The internalized ableism against “those deaf” who get benefits expressed by those who do not. It causes me to step back and analyze how my position within a formal institution may perpetuate those perspectives.

You see, years back, I had a group of students who were primarily hard-of-hearing. Down the hall was a group of students who were primarily deaf. They were not grouped by hearing levels, but by academic need. One group worked at a faster pace closer to grade level; the other group required more targeted intervention at a slower pace with more repetition. But do you know how the kids saw this grouping? They saw the deaf students as less intelligent, and the hard-of-hearing students as more academic, as having the superior language access.

Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. And those students would not have been able to verbalize those perceptions and attitudes as fifth-graders. Those students are in high school now. And all of their teachers are Deaf. And we have a serious problem with attitudes rooted in internalized audism among the middle school and high school students, not just toward students, but toward teachers. Refusing to use sign language, insulting their teachers’ language use. Power and privilege of hearing status, loud and clear (literally).

People who are culturally Deaf embrace their language and their heritage and their culture. American Sign Language, growing up in a Deaf school, finding peers with that common experience… these things are crucial for developing that Deaf identity. Growing up with a deficit model of deafness, a deficit model of any disability? The internalized ableism can be damaging, and not just for the individual. I saw a vivid illustration of that this weekend.

Not every deaf person grows up with Deaf (cultural) identity. Many deaf people grow up oral, or with signed English, or in a mainstreamed school setting, or with any number of accommodations or adaptations to their hearing loss that their family decides is the best route for their child at the time. Some of these children grow into adults who find Deaf culture. Some of them do not.

sComm is a communications company with a face-to-face typing device called the UbiDuo that could be sold as an option for accessible communication for the deaf. However, they are marketing it with very dangerous language as a replacement for sign language interpreters in hospitals, emergency rooms, and even in the court systems for child abuse cases. In the process, the deaf business owner, Jason Curry, has repeatedly belittled ASL, interpreters, and the Deaf community by calling ASL a simplistic language and crippled communication (he actually used the word crippled). The language surrounding his marketing, his defense of his remarks, and his YouTube videos dating back to 2012 illustrate a high level of internalized audism (that is, oppression of the deaf). His audism does not only affect himself, though. The marketing of his device would have huge ramifications if hospitals purchased it in lieu of maintaining contracts with trained and certified interpreter services. People would die.

The Deaf community has responded swiftly, with reminders not to belittle Curry’s signing (he uses manually coded English, which some members of the community were belittling when his response video was first released). I am following this pretty closely, and I will pretty much only be posting links to the Deaf business owners and activists doing the leg work on this. This is their show. But it is important for me to listen, and to listen hard. Because this has ramifications for my work and my classroom. Because what I do here with fifth graders impacts what happens in the high school. And our high school students leave and become Deaf adults. And the last thing we want to do is to add more power to the patriarchy.

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