by Melanie Anderson
September 24, 2018 is the start of Deaf Awareness Week and during the month of September, many organizations hold activities to celebrate and to educate people about deafness. Companies and agencies often mark the event, and schools, colleges, and universities hold awareness events. Amusement parks, such as Six Flags hold special Deaf awareness days.
In addition, the first International Day of Sign Languages will be celebrated on September 23, 2018 as part of the International Week of the Deaf by The United Nations. The Ambassador who launched this campaign stated, “This resolution is an important milestone in our international promise “to leave no one behind”. The choice of September 23rd commemorates the date that the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) was established in 1951. The WFD has as one of its main goals, the preservation of sign languages and deaf culture as pre-requisites to the realization of the human rights of Deaf people.
Did you know that sign language is not the same in all places of the world? No one form of sign language is universal. Different sign languages are used in different countries or regions. For example, British Sign Language (BSL) is a different language from ASL, and Americans who know ASL may not understand BSL. There are perhaps three hundred sign languages in use around the world today.
Events like Deaf Awareness Day and International Day of Sign give greater attention to Deaf culture and the achievements of Deaf people, highlighted in a positive way. This focus also increases solidarity and connection among Deaf people and their supporters and provides an opportunity to stimulate greater efforts to promote the rights of Deaf people.
When I was in college, I took a few American Sign Language classes and ended up getting a job at a group home where all the clients were Deaf or Deaf and Blind. Most of the staff working at the facility were Deaf and I will never forget my very first day. I knocked on the door and stood there waiting for more than 10 minutes. I checked my notes to see if I was there at the right time and I was. I stepped back from the door and noticed a small sign above the doorbell instructing visitors to please use the doorbell. It occurred to me that if everyone was Deaf, they would not hear my knock on the door but I then wondered what difference it would make if I rang the doorbell. I soon learned the doorbell was connected to a light that flashed to alert everyone that someone was at the door. When the door opened, a very nice man opened the door and I said “hello”. He immediately pointed to his ear and started signing wildly at me. I was so scared and in a moment, I forgot everything I had learned in my sign classes. Luckily, he figured it out for the both of us and took my hand, literally, and helped me survive my first day in a completely Deaf environment.
I ended up working with clients who were Deaf in various positions and capacities over the next 17 years and I’m not exaggerating when I say that it changed my life and made me a better communicator and a better person. I had a lot of misconceptions about people who were Deaf and what communication was. I thought I would share a few interesting things I learned and a few suggestions for interacting with people who are Deaf. It is important to share this disclaimer: these are my perspectives and because I am hearing and not Deaf, it is very important that you investigate on your own and whenever possible, get your information directly from someone who is Deaf.
We should probably start with a common understanding of Deafness. Deafwebsites.com provides the following: “Deafness is defined as hearing loss, which relates directly to the volume of sound that a person is capable of perceiving. This also pertains to the frequency of sound a person may or may not hear. While some people have specific difficulties in hearing low- or high-pitched sounds, some people cannot hear anything at all. A loss of hearing is related to the condition of the inner ear and whether there was a problem from birth or the hearing loss occurred much later.”
Deafness is about a lot more than not being able to hear. It is about a vibrant and strong culture. The connection within this community is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed anywhere else.
Deaf people are amazing problem solvers. Deaf people also tend to be highly visual and keen observers. This intense observation can sometimes be misunderstood as displeasure. I remember being at a hair salon with a Deaf friend who was having her hair done. The stylist kept asking me if she was upset and not liking what he was doing because of the intense look on her face. But she was merely taking everything in through her eyes since words were not available to her. She actually loved the cut and style.
Deaf people tend to be very direct and somewhat blunt communicators. Things that are often considered private in the hearing world are readily discussed in the Deaf world. Topics such as money, bodily functions, your weight, personal information, who you know, criticisms and emotion. Being connected with the Deaf community definitely helped me to toughen up and take things a little less personally and realize that sometimes people just make observations and call it as they see it.
Non-verbal communication, especially facial expressions, is just as critical to the conversation as the signs are and is considered to be part of ASL (American Sign Language) grammar.
Technology is a critical piece in Deaf communities and Deaf people tend to be very tech savvy as a result. Deaf people were face timing way before it was a mainstream thing.
Make a connection. Learn sign language. When you are communicating with Deaf people, face them directly and make eye contact. Do not assume they can read your lips as many Deaf people do not. Make sure you have the person’s attention before you start communicating. You can get their attention by waving your hand, tapping their shoulder or arm, banging on the table or flickering the lights. You can always grab a piece of paper or your phone and type out your question or comment. Just give it a try. Your genuine interest to communicate will make up for any inability.
There are a lot of resources available including Center’s on Deafness, sign language classes, websites and foundations. America’s Next Top Model winner, Nyle DiMarco, has a foundation and is very outspoken about the importance of equal access to language and communication. And he’s easy on the eyes!