Audism, Language, and Competition

Content note: audism, ableism, in-group discrimination, disability hierarchies 

The Deaf-world controversy surrounding sComm and their marketing of the UbiDuo communication device continues this week. Trudy Suggs (the Deaf business owner and activist who has been the catalyst/gathering place/clearinghouse/springboard/etc. for the pushback against sComm’s dangerous, audist marketing language) shared last week that her hosting company received notice from sComm indicating that she had made unauthorized use of their property, even though the screenshots she used fall under fair use.

The Missouri Association of the Deaf issued an open letter:

There is so much to unpack here, and I am waiting to see what else comes out, specifically from sComm. So far, their attempt to use legal threats by contacting Trudy Suggs’ hosting company directly, instead of addressing her first, is a power play. Is it the male/female power dynamic? Is it the English/ASL power dynamic? Is it competing business owners? Is it (in Jason Curry’s eyes) good deaf/bad deaf? It’s likely an intersection of more than one of those. The more layers intersect, the more complex the power dynamics become.

UPDATE: 6:56 PM 4/7/15
From a former sComm employee, shared on Facebook today.


Here in deaf school land, we have an academic bowl, sponsored by Gallaudet University. Our school has participated for the last 8 or 9 years, but only recently have we really been a competitive team by any definition of the word. Last year was the first time we made it out of the regional competition to go to nationals.

Last week our academic bowl team did a presentation on their trip to the regional competition, as well as a few “mini-bowl” contests with students from the elementary, middle, and high school departments. Two of my kiddos were in the elementary mini-bowl, and they had a really good time. As we got into the middle school and high school groups, though, another teacher and I started to question the underlying assumptions of the entire system. I’m used to questioning systems–that’s how I roll. It was nice to have someone else with whom I could share my eyebrow-furrowing, head-scratching, table-pounding moments:

  • In academic bowl form, answers must be hand-written, spelled correctly, and shown to the judges and spectators. One middle school student got every answer incorrect; while the event was meant to be lighthearted and not a high-pressure situation, how does it benefit a student to have every incorrect answer shown to all and snickered at? Why did the adults laugh? How is that a positive experience?
  • At the national level, the same schools win, or at least make it to the final rounds. It feels like a pecking order, and each year’s competition is an exercise in making sure everyone knows what that pecking order is.
  • States with large populations have larger schools for the deaf; it makes sense. These schools have strong Deaf communities surrounding them, and many of them wind up sending many students to Gallaudet. They have a large pool of students from which to choose their academic bowl teams. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But issues of power and privilege come in to play–they always do. Is this where the idea of good deaf/bad deaf starts? Is this where we start weeding out the successful deaf from those that perpetuate the oft-quoted statistic that the average deaf adult has a fourth-grade reading level? I understand the desire to recognize and applaud academic achievements–but what does it mean when we’re recognizing the same achievements by the same few achievers each year?
  • Why are we still so fixated on competitions, when it’s becoming more and more evident that collaboration is going to be the necessary skill to solve the big problems of the century?
  • I have a friend with two deaf sons. When their first son was identified as deaf over 20 years ago, they moved to be near a deaf school. He attended that school, but he never belonged. Their family never belonged. As autistic deaf child with significant behavior concerns, he wasn’t the right kind of deaf; at least that’s how the message was received. Disability hierarchies were at play. Is that a form of audism, to exclude those deaf and hard-of-hearing who don’t fit in to one’s preferred vision of d/Deafness? To encourage a parent to withdraw their child from the school for the deaf because he doesn’t really belong there? Where does that idea begin?

The students on our academic bowl team are primarily hard-of-hearing, or prefer English over ASL. Why is that? The last few years, we’ve pulled kids from our outreach program to supplement our on-campus team. Why is that? My experience is limited, as I am “grafted on” to the Deaf community. But I have seen audism play out. I have seen unspoken disability hierarchies form the foundation for interactions and decisions and systems around me. And I have seen far too much of it go completely unquestioned.

It’s time to start asking questions.

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