Rebecca-Anne Withey: The divide between deaf and hearing worlds in the arts and media

Posted on October 31, 2017

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Growing up Deaf, I was warned by hearing friends that “most deaf people have a chip on their shoulder; they don’t like hearing people.”

As I delved further into the Deaf world, I saw another side to this argument. One that said “Hearing people will never understand us. Deaf people are always excluded.”

It’s an interesting thing, witnessing the interplays between the Deaf and hearing worlds. And I’ve noticed the brave pioneers that dare to build bridges between both. But judging by recent debates, I feel the divide between the hearing and deaf world still exists- however subtle it may be.

There are ongoing debates in the media world regarding the casting of deaf roles. Is it okay for hearing actors to play deaf characters? Or should these be for Deaf actors who can use their innate life experience to portray deafness authentically?

In addition to this there have been discussions about hearing professionals taking work that could/should be Deaf-led and how Deaf people are still being made to feel second best when it comes to working alongside hearing professionals.

A director friend of mine, John, contacted me a while ago and we start chatting about some issues that have been on our minds. John is a highly esteemed director, deaf and a sign language user. He works daily alongside hearing professionals, mostly in film and television. He had been upset by attitudes towards him and how he was expected to act ‘continually grateful’ towards his hearing colleagues for what he perceived to be his given right: clear access.

Rather than being valued as someone who is fluent in both sign language and English, John has had to hand over his ASL to English translation work to his hearing co-workers. “It’s because they’re hearing, they’re expected to have a better grasp of the English language than I am.”

In return, John is made to feel overly obliged to express his thanks for any communication support he receives, when this is actually is his right as a sign language user and not “some gift.” Delving into this further, John coined the term ‘hearing fragility’ in response to these conflicting attitudes.

He explained, “I don’t know if ‘hearing fragility’ is an appropriate phrase, since the social justice definition of the word fragility came from the issues of the black community, but it’s a place to start this conversation, at least.”

He continued, “sometimes I come across hearing directors who are not fluent in sign language or knowledgeable about deaf issues, but they’ve directed deaf actors and they feel entitled to say I’ve done all of this for the deaf community, where’s my thanks? Why are deaf people angry with me?”

This defensive response to accusations of oppressiveness is exactly why the term fragility has been used. It implies that the fine line between being supportive of and taking advantage of the deaf community is at risk of being crossed.

For example… The American TV series Switched at Birth won countless awards for featuring Deafness at the heart of its storylines, but there was incredible dissent amongst the American Deaf community who felt the portrayal was inaccurate and, at times, disrespectful.

Whilst the creators of this show may have had an ASL consultant, they did not have any Deaf creatives on their team. Perhaps if they hired someone like John who is a native sign language user and lives, breathes, and eats Deaf issues, they could have handled certain topics differently and maybe (just a thought!) they might have cast more real-life ASL users…

This feeling of being misrepresented can happen in a wide range of settings, not just in television. But as John pointed out, “I feel its important to address the influence arts and media has because this is the area that impacts the entire world. Film and TV are some of the greatest mind changers of the world and I think we need to start there – and see how we can change things in terms of mentalities in this area.”

But how do we know when someone genuinely cares about the deaf community and when they’re just… well, using us? 

John feels “it comes down to their actual reasons for wanting to work with sign language or feature deaf issues.  For example, if I find a theatre director wants to work with sign language merely for its aesthetics without utilising the language or deaf characters, that strikes me as being an audism mindset right away.”

With the increase of music videos featuring harshly edited ‘mumble jumble’ sign language, it is understandable that deaf people are insulted by the misuse of their language. Is sign language just a novelty to the mainstream world?

The trouble is most of the time when a production features a Deaf character or deaf issues, the creative team involved don’t have any deaf experience. They aren’t aware of the cultural implications of creating deaf roles and the huge responsibility that holds. We therefore need more Deaf consultants and creatives who are able to drive this process through.

Usually its sign language interpreters or sign language consultants that get hired to offer insight into deafness but they don’t have deaf perspective. As John agreed, “Deaf people should be valued for what they know better than hearing people – being Deaf or using sign language.”

Even at Edinburgh’s fringe festival, a highly acclaimed show was labelled as ‘accessible to sign language users’ but according to this article on Limping Chicken, the gestures used were incomprehensible. If the producers on that show worked with a Deaf person or a team of deaf people while devising the work, they might have actually produced an accessible piece. Throwing in a few random signs is never going to work.

However, a production in Leicester by theatre company Scuffed Shoes had the initiative to invite a group of Deaf people to an open rehearsal as they were using sign language for the first time. Here the deaf attendees had the chance to say whether or not they understood the piece. Their feedback was incredibly insightful and extremely helpful. Even though the deaf group weren’t artists, their knowledge of Deaf matters and sign language meant their views were invaluable when creating accessible work.

I am in no way implying deaf people are better than hearing people, but we are better at portraying and representing deafness because that is part and parcel of who we are.

I don’t believe all deaf people have a chip on their shoulder. It’s not that we dislike hearing people. We are just incredibly frustrated. We want to be represented truthfully and we yearn – most of all – to have our voices heard.

We don’t want people – who haven’t walked in our Deaf shoes – to speak for us.

One of my bug bears is BSL interpreters or communicators referring to their work as ‘helping’ deaf people. John felt the same, mentioning, “the classic stereotype is that hearing people are supposed to be the ones to help deaf people for their entire lives, and that deaf people are viewed as dependents.”

This hints at the whole power play that Deaf professionals are trying to avoid. We don’t want to feel as though we are inferior to hearing colleagues or – worse still – that we have to justify ourselves. We may work differently and have separate skill sets, that is absolutely fine. The trick is to play to our strengths and use access support where necessary. Access is not a luxury to be thankful for, its a basic right. So less of the helping – its facilitating communication, thank you.

Saying that, I do feel that we can and many of us do work alongside hearing professionals on an equal platform. If we are valued and given the chance to express our opinions, you will find we aren’t just a feisty bunch of signers who are impossible to please. We actually speak sense 😉

The deaf world and the hearing world are undoubtedly different. We cant pretend to play Hearing, just as no hearing person can ever Be Deaf. Let us share with you our valuable insights and the unique perspective that being deaf brings. It is our world, after all. Perhaps when the majority of the mainstream population begin to appreciate that, then the rift between us will begin to heal.

Rebecca-Anne Withey is a freelance writer with a background in Performing Arts & Holistic health. Read more of Rebecca’s articles for us here.

She is also profoundly deaf, a sign language user and pretty great lipreader. 

Her holistic practices and qualifications include Mindfulness, Professional Relaxation Therapy, Crystal Therapy and Reiki. 

She writes on varied topics close to her heart in the hope that they may serve to inspire others.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.  Find out how to write for us by clicking here, how to follow us by clicking here, and read our disclaimer here.

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