“Discrimination against deaf people happens every day, even within the deaf community”
Marie-Andrée Boivin is a Canadian filmmaker who campaigns against audism, discrimination towards deaf people. Here she tells us about her advocacy and shares her experience as a deaf woman.
Audism is unavoidable when you’re a deaf person. It’s an unpleasant experience, too often humiliating and degrading. It’s a power imbalance at the expense of deaf people, and takes so many forms. It’s harmful because it reduces deaf people’s empowerment and autonomy beyond the limits of not being able to hear. Audism can be more disabling than deafness itself.
In the 1980s, the majority of students in schools for deaf people were deprived of communication, either because they went into foster care where many were mistreated, or because their families didn’t learn to sign. Not learning the language to be able to communicate with your deaf child is audism.
Not having access to auditory information – such as conversations, TV and radio – meant that students were falling behind in knowledge and language. Because of this we couldn’t do all the assignments we were supposed to do. We can’t help but wonder: was “because you’re deaf” a form of ableism? Meaning we couldn’t further our knowledge?
Audism also affects our careers. It happens everyday at work, when colleagues are consulted instead of the deaf person who has the skills and was recruited for that job. This lack of recognition, this denial of abilities and competencies, leads to frustration and distress.
And that’s when we manage to get work. Too many deaf people are unemployed or working in jobs below their skills levels. Stereotypes heavily affect our recruitment process.
There are deaf people hired because they are needed in a specific job – or because it looks good to recruit them. But being deaf is not a skill. There are so many deaf persons with exceptional skills experiencing work discrimination, or are underemployed, and this is a huge loss for society.
Is it normal when hearing people are hired in jobs related to deafness, when deaf people who applied didn’t even get an interview? Is this ok, considering the fact that hearing people have more job opportunities? Or that hearing people who need an interpreter to service deaf customers are hired, instead of giving the job to deaf people who know sign language and can do the work?
If hearing people are hired instead of deaf people who are right for the job, we undermine their professional experience and their opportunities to network. We create a vicious circle: deaf people are not employed, and because they aren’t they don’t gain as much experience as hearing people who get jobs. And so we get no work, no salary, and no recognition.
Audist microaggressions are exhausting
One day a service provider I used decided to stop communicating via email, I had to call them, which wouldn’t work for me. I insisted, they still refused. So I complained to the relevant manager who replied: “good morning, please give me your phone number so I can call you back”. I asked a rights organisation for help, and what answer did I get? You guessed it: “call us back”…
Are these people scared of ruining their nails? Too anchored in their hearing privilege to use a phone?
Audist microaggressions can also take the form of attempts at humour and toxic goodwill. Last year, an audiologist [healthcare professional who is trained to evaluate hearing loss and related disorders] told me, while she was testing microphones: “I would like to have microphones too, to better hear what people say during meetings in the cafeteria”. Another one, in a different place, was adjusting a hearing aid to reduce ambient noise and told me: “I would love to have this in our meeting room because it’s full of echo”.
These two people can hear perfectly well and yet, they are comparing imperfect accessories for imperfect hearing to the inconvenience caused to their well-functioning ears. It is absurd. Like when hearing people, from their privileged position, say outrageous things such as “you’re lucky not to hear the silly things people are saying” at a party where the deaf person doesn’t understand a thing and is completely isolated.
Who would dare say, after a long walk, “you’re lucky to be seated” to a person in a wheelchair? No one, because in this case you see the disability. Deafness is not visible and not understood, but it’s not a reason to be offensive.
I went to the doctor one day because I was sick. I spent three hours in the waiting room watching patients entering and leaving, the doctors, the secretaries’ gestures, trying to lip- read everybody in case I would recognise my name. It’s a difficult hyper-vigilance when one is sick, but necessary not to lose my turn. I remember looking elsewhere for a few seconds, exhausted, when suddenly the secretary was shouting at me, the doctor standing next to her, saying it was my responsibility to check the names that were called, and that I was careless to have missed my turn. And yet, she knew I was deaf and stressed about this (I had told her), and she knew where I was seated in the waiting room. An excruciating, humiliating and exhausting reversal of responsibilities.
It happens daily. People who refuse to speak slower in my presence. Cashiers who lose patience because they asked several times if I want a bag or if I have a loyalty card while I am looking at the card reader to pay and don’t answer. Not being able to go to film festivals or to performances because there are no subtitles. Feeling increasingly stressed because I have to go somewhere without an interpreter, and everybody is wearing masks. People who doubt my competencies and abilities. Not being able to understand a thing at parties and celebrations. The list is endless.
Audism within the deaf community
Audism is also present within the deaf community. There is an implicit hierarchy – at one end there are the ‘proper’ deaf people, who perform ‘appropriately’ with their deafness: they don’t use their voice to talk and exclusively use sign language, avoiding hearing aids and implants. On the other end, there are deaf people with implants, ostracised by the deaf community, even though they are also deaf. It can seem weird for those who don’t know this world that some people refuse to hear and talk, and that it is seen as an ideal, but that’s how it is.
Deafness affects communication, so it leads to its own language, community, culture, and identity. To preserve it, the use of visuo-spatial language needs to be maintained, even if it means refusing other means of communication.
Historically, deafness and sign language have been frowned upon. Signing was forbidden or for reprobates, and it’s an act of rebellion and appropriation to use it as much as possible. Understandably, the decades during which children were forced to learn to talk – even if it wouldn’t work for them – are revolting. But to have to hide one’s abilities (to talk or hear) or risk being stigmatised for wearing hearing aids or getting implants, is painful.
Cochlear implants in particular, have been seen as the greatest evil since they appeared in the 1980s.
In 2020 it is still frowned upon to use implants, even if more and more deaf people are doing it. In schools for deaf people there is very strong pressure for young people not to use them anymore. Students would pretend they don’t like to hear but it often is, sadly, the result of pressure or harassment. We all want to be loved and part of a team, don’t we?
Many deaf adults gave up on the implants, tired of being criticised, bullied, and excluded. I understand them: it’s very difficult to endure. But what a sacrifice, and for the wrong reasons.
I understand that this reaction is due to the fear of seeing the deaf community disappear, because children with implants often go to mainstream schools. Implants are considered the medical means to “cure” deafness, and kids in schools for deaf people were forced to learn to talk – all of this is seen as the stranglehold of hearing people on deaf people. But is it a reason to bully deaf people who speak and have cochlear implants? Is it wise to pick on individuals rather than fight the system? No, but it’s easier.
That’s why I fight against audism. For a fulfilling life, because it’s my ears that are disabled, not my brain. Because I have the right to realise my dreams and my ambitions, without facing stereotypes and violence. Because audism is present in my everyday life, and it exhausts and reduces my opportunities. And because it happens to so many people and I don’t accept it.