Current Events

Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

This is my third piece triggered by and simultaneously about and not about the most current sexual abuse scandal in the news. This topic grieves me and angers me. Even though I am not from the same faith tradition as the current focus du jour, I have seen this play out across Christian denominations. I have friends who have been abused and friends who have been sexually assaulted, and well meaning church people who have handled the information in ways that perpetuate abusive thinking and center the abuser rather than the victim.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

In Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t, I added

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

One of the most disturbing trends I’ve seen in regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and the conversations surrounding it, is in the same vein as the forgiveness post. But I was so troubled by it I needed to write a whole separate essay and take a few extra days to process.

“A sin is a sin is a sin.”

I am not going to get into a theological discussion about the nature of sin, or why the Catholic tradition has mortal sins and venal sins, or the irony/hypocrisy of the evangelical church putting so much emphasis on sexual sins and purity as though fornication is the ultimate sin until one of their own men is in the spotlight for just that.

Sexual assault is a CRIME.

This is not just a conversation about sin and the church. This has implications beyond our physical church walls, or the arbitrary boundaries between denominations. Molesting children is against the law. Delicate language recasting it as a mistake, a misstep, an indiscretion, a sin is carefully dodging the consequences of acknowledging the criminal nature of sexual abuse.

My pastor is the executive director of a year-long, faith-based recovery home for women. The vast majority of the women who enter the program have broken the law, often multiple times. I have witnessed these women walk out incredible transformations in their lives. When they give their testimonies at the end of their program, they pull no punches as they share their old lives of addiction and pain. They don’t use soft language or try to dodge consequences. In fact, even as they acknowledge their forgiveness, part of their program is to fulfill all consequences, restitution, etc., that is part of their criminal sentences. But as they name it, they do so because it takes away the shame of secrecy, and establishes a habit of accepting the consequences of their actions.

By dismissing the serious, violating nature of sexual abuse by quipping, “A sin is a sin is a sin,” in a misguided invocation of forgiveness, bloggers and supporters of the perpetrator uphold the code of secrecy that allow perpetrators to escape the consequences of their crimes. And completely ignoring the victims.

“Let he among us without sin be the first to cast a stone.”

I read a really awful blog post, based on a really awful tweet, all based on a gross misuse of that concept. All hash-tagged with support to forgive the perpetrator.

I wrote on Thursday: it is not for any of us, the general public to forgive him. We were not wronged, molested, or abused by him. If we repeatedly avoid hard conversations about abuse, assault, and the systems that facilitate the molestation of children–all under the misguided call for “forgiveness”–these crimes will continue unabated and the bodies and lives of children and women will continue to be attacked.

Now, let me tell you what it can be like to be a female victim of a sexual crime in the church. Elizabeth Smart speaks about her captivity, and the lessons she learned about sex a la the “chewed gum” analogy  significantly impacted her perception of herself as a rape victim/survivor. When I attended church camp in middle school and high I went to a small-group lesson on boundaries in dating. We signed True Love Waits cards. I remember learning that once we passed boundaries there was “no going back,” and that it was my responsibility (as a female) to keep the physical side of the relationship in check. During college, a group of friends were talking when someone opened up that she had been raped freshman year. One well-meaning but misguided friend’s first instinct was to ask if her boyfriend knew she wasn’t a virgin.

This pervasive fixation is aimed at girls remaining pure. And in all those lessons I learned–directly and indirectly–there was no grace.

The full context of the casting stones verse involves a woman about to be stoned for adultery. She is about to become a victim of the male-dominated purity code. She is marginalized, just like every person for whom Jesus went to bat. When people trot this verse out, lacking context, in defense of an abuser, they miss the point entirely. When high-profile men lose positions of power and authority because of sexual abuse or sexual assault allegations, they are not victims. Their victims are victims.

On Thursday, I said I feel no nuance about standing on the side of the marginalized. These girls–now in their teens–don’t have hash tags or social media campaigns. But I’m guessing they have a lot of hurt and misunderstanding. Maybe they feel like chewed up gum. Maybe they only now understand the full extent of what happened to them as young children. Maybe they are horrified by the support offered to their abuser while they feel ignored or revictimized.

The church has done a terrible, terrible job of standing up for abuse victims/survivors/overcomers. It rushes “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” and centers the abusers instead of uplifting and surrounding the hurt and abused. Is it any wonder the rest of the country stares back, agog?

Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

Most of the blog posts I’ve read that defend a Christian accused of a sexual crime against another person (or persons) get the concept of forgiveness really, really wrong.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote briefly about the difficulty I experience writing about religion. I currently attend a Christian peace church that turns the mainstream idea of church hierarchy on its head, but I have attended and witnessed churches and church relationships that cause a great deal of hurt to individuals and groups. I am conscious of the contributions the church has made to historical and modern constructions of racism, misogyny and sexism, privilege, power, and the language and action of oppression. I have also seen the church participate in reconciliation and liberation.

It’s safe to say I have a complex relationship with the church. It’s full of wrestling and nuance, which is something that often gets lost as soon as tempers flare and parties start shouting past each other.

Granted, there are some things about which I feel no nuance. Deconstructing power. Sexual abuse. Standing on the side of the marginalized.

And in that vein, I have read some very troubling things over the last week. I am not going to link them, because page hits. Also because I ended up in a very angry rabbit hole last night following the push behind a specific blog post. It was ugly and confounding, and I decided not to go the route of a detailed illustration of the parallels between featuring a blog post on forgiving abusers while simultaneously featuring specific language that has been called out as being sexist and damaging… the more I dug into it the more I realized my emotional health couldn’t handle it. Especially not before bed.

Forgiveness.

Through the lens of power, here are my responses to points of conversation as I have read it to date, and what I assert has been missing from nearly every conversation involving a high-profile sexual assault:

“We should forgive him!” That is not within our power; forgiveness is not ours to give. Unless we are the target or victim or God Himself, it is not our responsibility to forgive.

“He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him.” There are many variations of “The perpetrator did X, so the victims should do Y,” and they are problematic. First, an apology is not an equation. It does not guarantee forgiveness. In my 12-Step group, when we reach Step 9 and make amends we do so with the full understanding that forgiveness may not be proffered in return. When my students get an apology, they say “Thank you;” I have taught them not to say “It’s okay.” Because usually it is not okay. Second, forgiveness cannot be demanded, required, or coerced as part of a conditional agreement or system. “He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him” is an expression of the exact same abuse of power and authority that manifested as the sexual assault. The hierarchy of perpetrator over victim remains in place, and the authority remains in hands of the assaulter.

“Move on.” A lot–and I mean a lot— of blogs and articles and opinion pieces have mentioned and paid lip service to the victims. The amount of ink they get compared to the perpetrator is a dismal ratio, and maybe that’s to ensure they’re privacy. Then again, maybe not. In this specific case, we’re told the victims got counseling. We don’t know what kind. We’re told they moved on. Or, we’re told they should move on. Empty cries to “move on” ignore very real issues that happen in churches and families around us. One woman wrote about her similar molestation, and that she was counseled (by a lay member of the church, a non-professional) that forgiveness was required, and that moving on was the only thing that would glorify God. And a five-year-old child cannot complete counseling. For one, counseling is an ongoing process. Furthermore, if a child cannot fully process what happened to her body, she cannot understand the implications of forgiving that sin against her. It’s distinctly possible that if/when she chooses to forgive her assailant, she will need to re-forgive him every time the memory of abuse reemerges as a power in her life. A victim/survivor of sexual abuse is the only person who can decide when she can move on, forgive, let go of some of the hurt. As far as us moving on? If we do not have real conversations about child sexual abuse, the systems that facilitate its commission, and the barriers to intervention, it will keep happening. We need to have conversations about how to best separate victims from their abusers, how to help victims recover and heal, and how to rehabilitate abusers so they do not abuse again.

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

Abuse and the Use of Power

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

I’ve stared at this blank blog post for a while.

My heart is heavy and more than a little frustrated. I do not want to jump into the fray regarding the latest high-profile abuse scandal to capture our attention. The coverage of such stories bothers me, the way we center the narrative on the perpetrator and fixate on how and why he did it, on whether his consequences were served in the right time and manner, and on whether the appropriate public response should be outrage or forgiveness. Although my heaviness and frustration have been triggered by this latest event, it is by no means limited to this incident, nor is it centered on the tradition or the adherents from which the abuse sprang. There are well-written pieces on that, and that is not my area. Moreover, I have found this happens across traditions.

To date, I have written about the intersections of gender, race, social class, and language. I have written comparatively little on the topic of or intersection with religion. It’s a difficult topic for me. I grew up in the Lutheran tradition, got my B.A. from a liberal Lutheran college, spent a lot of energy not fitting in to the Evangelical circle during college, and currently wrestle at a Brethren church. I know a lot of people who have been hurt in and by the church, regardless of tradition. I have been hurt by the church and by well-meaning church people.

It’s hard to write about something to which I am still so closely tied. But that’s why I attend a church that decides most things by consensus. Where the pastors defer to the congregation, rather than the other way around. Where the pastors are a husband-and-wife team with equally strong voices. It’s not perfect, but once when a pastor said something in a sermon that caused me to become visibly uncomfortable, I got a text message later (because I prefer texts) so we could hash out the intent, how I heard it, and why I was bothered.

It has become abundantly clear when there is an imbalance of power, there exists the potential for abuse. I learned this from the church. My graduate work has confirmed it. And the current media firestorm illustrates this even further.

Allow me to elaborate:

I am currently preparing a manuscript with two additional authors on the abuse of women and girls with disability. The paper covers twenty years of research studies into the topic, and finds that across all age bands and across all categories of abuse, women and girls with disability experience abuse at higher rates than women and girls without disabilities. The single most common theme that emerged? Victims were more vulnerable to abuse as a consequence of power being used inappropriately. We also wrote:

[The] difficulty in achieving justice in the court system for women with disabilities who have been sexually assaulted stems from the failure to recognize the abuses of trust, power, and authority in the relationships of these women.

Further factors that conveyed risk or protective factors were isolation vs. social inclusion; that source indicated the degree to which a woman was socially embedded mitigated the likelihood she would experience partner violence.

So how does this relate to the current news cycle? Everything.

The pieces I’ve read have fit into two categories: those that have used carefully selected language, and those that have called out the careful words for softening and whitewashing what was an act of sexual abuse and violence against the bodies of young girls. But both categories seem to be so caught up in the politicization of the scandal that they miss some really important information.

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

And it is this part of the narrative that bothers me so much, that most conversations are missing: however it was (or wasn’t) handled, after whatever counseling did (or did not) occur, the person in question still went on to achieve positions of power and authority. 

Most of the pieces I’ve read in the Forgiveness camp demonstrate some simplistic and/or disturbing misconceptions of what forgiveness means. I’ll get to that later this week. But the amount of power, authority, and leverage ascribed to his (former) position with the Family Research Council is troubling, snarky and/or frustrated comments about anti-LGBT campaigns aside (those are worth discussion, but not in this blog post).

The way we center our coverage on perpetrators is disturbing. Our concern for victims/survivors’ wellbeing rarely seems to match our morbid curiosity for the details of their violation. We need a new lens: power, and why give it back to the perpetrators.

Curriculum Disputes, Reading Lists, and More Books by White Guys

Last Monday, a committee in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho recommended Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck be removed from the ninth grade general reading list to the small-group reading list.

The four committee members who feel the book should be removed from required reading shared their reasons with the Spokesman-Review:

  • Profanity: use of words like “bastard” and “God damn.” One committee member counted the profanities–102 profanities in its 110 pages.
  • Negativity and darkness: committee members found the story too “negative.” This next bit I’ll just quote directly from the article:

The book is of high literary quality, committee member Eugene Marano said, and he’s not so bothered by the coarse language. But the gloomy tone gives him pause, especially the bleak ending.

“I thought it was too dark for ninth-graders,” said Marano, a retired Kootenai County magistrate judge. “It needs to be in a small group to explain away the dark part of it.”

The Boise Weekly did a little digging and found the approved books for large and small group instruction for ninth grade in the Coeur d’Alene school district:

Current approved titles on the ninth grade whole group reading list are “Romeo & Juliet,” Animal Farm, Great Expectations and The House on Mango Street. Titles on the small group reading list include Go Ask Alice, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Odyssey.

Here’s what I have gleaned from this reporting, the above books that have not been challenged, and my knowledge of those texts: The Great Depression is too bleak, but teen suicide (as told by Shakespeare) and teen drug use and suicide (as told by an LDS Idaho writer in the form of a cautionary tale) are not. While small group novels have more challenging or intense content, the committee appears to be under the assumption that this pedagogical strategy is used to “explain away” the bleakness, negativity, or challenging nature of the text, rather than to dig into, discuss, analyze, synthesize, or reflect upon it. The ad hoc committee and school board need to have this point clarified. Immediately.

That covers my response to the coverage thus far. Now I get to the heart of the matter.

While I appreciate the articles by both the Spokesman-Review and the Boise-Weekly, I am not satisfied by the depth of their research. In thirty minutes of searching, I downloaded Coeur d’Alene School District’s Approved Novels list for grades 6 through 9. The district website says the document was last updated December 2014; the document itself states September 2013. I went through each title for each grade; as an educator, a member of the greater Idaho community, and a part of the growing consciousness of how a “safe” canon has diminished our ability to engage in critical thought, I am very troubled by what I find, both in terms of the content itself, and how our framing of it limits students.

Banning and challenging books is anachronistic and counter-productive. Last year, the Meridian, Idaho, school district banned the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The American Library Association named it the most-challenged book of 2014. The ALA “condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information,” and “promotes the freedom to read.” Banning books does not protect students from ideas. Choosing to challenge a novel, when students have access to the the entire world of information in their pockets, demonstrates an archaic understanding of the purpose of education and the sharing of information. Finally, after the ban of the Alexie novel, interest in the book increased, and instead of it simply appearing on a supplemental reading list, every student was provided a copy of the novel. For free.

The committee does not understand ninth grade students. Fourteen-year-old students, even in conservative northern Idaho, have heard the words “bastard” and “damn.” They have heard the Lord’s name taken in vain. They have used those words, and worse. Reading them, in a piece of literature meant to reflect the experiences of migrant workers during the Great Depression, will not scandalize them. Furthermore, if eighth-grade students can handle the required text of The Diary of Anne Frank, which also has a bleak ending, they can handle Of Mice and Men, provided they have a competent teacher who guides them through the process–which they do. It was the Great Depression; it did not have a happy ending for the nation’s poor, and hiding that is insulting to the history and to the students. Committee: trust your teachers, trust your students.

In 2015, the book list is populated with predominantly white male authors. This begs the question: why are we arguing about a book written by a dead white guy? Of the approved titles on the Whole Group Reading List (and I am including the required titles and choice lists), almost 70% are written by white men. Several of them are repeats of the same author; there are two (TWO!) other novels by Steinbeck on the approved novels list. I’m going to break this down some more, because this is the most problematic piece of the issue.

  • In grade 9, a teacher may elect for the class to read The Miracle Worker, which is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, but is not the autobiography itself. As an educator of the Deaf, I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered individuals whose entire concept of deafness is based not on Keller’s words, but on someone else’s adaptation of them. This is part of a pattern of books that address the topic of disability that are written by able-bodied authors: Freak the Mighty (grade 7), and two books from the grade 9 Small Group list, Stoner and Spaz, and Stuck in Neutral.
  • The Grade 11 list has left me irate. In the entire canon of American Literature, out of the 11 titles selected for the approved novel list, there is one novel written by a woman. ONE. Where are women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Willa Cather, or Louisa May Alcott?
  • Again, Grade 11: Eleven novels, two Authors of Color. Frederick Douglass’ autobiography is on the list, as well as Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. The selection of two biographies on a list that also features classic works of fiction is an easy way to make sure the list pays lip service to diversity without tackling broader systems of inequality. This is unacceptable. On the entire 6th-12th grade list of 73 titles, there are only seven titles written by People of Color: 3 African-American, 1 African, 1 Latina, 1 Chinese-American, 1 Japanese-American. There are other novels that address topics of racism, segregation, and diversity, but these are written by white authors who do not represent the Black (or Latino, or Native) literary community. As I was working on this blog post, a video surfaced of the principal of TNT Academy in Georgia making racially charged remarks at graduation. A Twitter conversation turned toward colorblind pedagogy, and everything clicked about this entire book challenge (tweet embedded with permission):

This is what a legacy of systemic silencing and supremacy looks like. This is where it starts: narrowing our students’ access to books based on our archaic definitions of whether a novel is “a quality story [or] a page turner.” Arguing about the word “bastard” and whether the Great Depression is too depressing, instead of challenging our state’s entrenched biases. The person who successfully challenged Alexie’s novel last spring claimed a semi-autobiographical novel written by a Native American that described his experiences of racism when he left the reservation was, by definition, a racist novel. We are seeing the damage wrought by decades of failing to engage students with literary voices outside the approved canon.

Under the Bus

I’m going to cut right to the chase, for the first time in the history of my overly verbose soul.

sComm press release:

sComm Co-Founder and CEO, Jason Curry Issues Statement Regarding Communication Options for Deaf, hard of Hearing, and Hearing

Raytown, MO, April 9, 2015: sComm today released a statement regarding their commitment of enhancing communication options for the deaf, hard of hearing and hearing.

As CEO and Co-Founder of sComm, I would like to reaffirm our commitment to enhancing the ability of deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people to interact with each other freely without barriers. A heartfelt and sincere apology to both the deaf, hard of hearing, and interpreting community for unapproved posts made by one of our new media staff. We are taking steps to assure it won’t happen again. It was never our intention to offend anyone.

As a part of the deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing community, we are working to ensure that our overall philosophy is properly represented, both internally and externally. We advocate all communication options which utilize the use of VRS, VRI, on-site interpreters and in combination with communication devices like the UbiDuo to maximize communication and timely interaction for everyone. In our 10 years of experience in the communication device field, this combination of communication methods has generated overwhelming success stories from people who are deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing.

We support communication options to maximize communication freedom and to help everyone live a full and satisfying life.

Curry threw a new staffer under the bus. That’s bad PR and bad business. It’s also dishonest, since the “Communicaphobia” video (and the ableist “crippled” language used therein) dates from several years ago. Curry is responsible for that, and when he issued that press release, the video was still active.

Curry threw a staffer under the bus. I don’t condone the action, but I understand the instinct. The minute I read it, my counseling bells dinged. I don’t know Jason Curry. I don’t know his history, his family, his experiences. I do know the heart-stopping panic, the debilitating anxiety, the soul-crushing self-doubt that sets in when I am challenged. When something I believe to be right and true and correct is held up as wrong or incorrect. The depression that looms overhead the instant my eyes are opened to the stark reality that I completely, totally, and in all other ways royally screwed the pooch.

Something I’ve been tackling in counseling is my fear of authority figures, my fear of angry people, and my fear of personal criticism. I also isolate myself when I anticipate one of those things on the horizon. Watching this sComm situation unfold is like watching old Danielle in a tailspin. Criticism –> anger –> silence –> carefully constructed deflection.

It took a lot of energy to keep my brain fired up like that. It takes a lot of energy to for me to step back, breathe, and own my mistakes, too. But my attempts at Shut up and repent quickly seem to cut the cycle off a lot sooner, and it’s amazing how the anxiety and the fear and a doom lift when I just. stop. Stop denying. Stop deflecting. Stop casting blame. Stop making excuses, passing the buck, controlling the narrative. Put on the gosh darn brakes and for the love of mother do not run over whomever it was I just threw under that bus.

Sometimes in business, in activism, in feminism, in relationships, in ally-ship, in recovery… in life… 

just. stop.

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.

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.