Thursday, September 07, 2006

338: breaking down audism

UPDATE: Some links to articles about Gallaudet protests here and here. In the process of looking for this I happened to find this about Gallaudet's volleyball team.

And now back to breaking down audism:

I occasionally have to educate doctors - and clients - about things Deaf people use. Not everyone realizes hearing aids run on batteries, for example; that they need to be cleaned; that walking up to a nervous person and shouting in their face may make the hearing person feel good, but often makes a nervous Deaf patient freak out (or think the hearing person is freaking out.)

But is this Audism? Is ignorance the same as prejudice? I would argue no - and I would argue we need to be very careful about such terms as Audism and "cyber bullying" if we want these terms to have any power.

So what is Audism? A term coined originally by Tom Humphries and later popularized by Harlan Lane. Jamie Berke has a good guide on some of the history and associations of Audism, including a mention of Lightkitchen, a group I'd like to work with one day.
A simple definition would be that it is a negative or oppressive attitude towards deaf people by either deaf or hearing people and organizations, and a failure to accomodate them. People who have audist attutides are considered to be audists. Under this definition, deaf people who will not use sign language and who will not identify with the deaf community and consider themselves to be "better" than others who use sign language and are part of deaf culture, meet the definition of audism.

Berke's definition is a great start, but a little circular. I would clarify. Why? Because when you are a minority living within the majority culture, pretty much everything is negative or oppressive for you as a distinct group. This is not intentional, but this is what laws like the ADA are for. They confront unintentional ignorance and discrimination.

Ignorance is very different from Audism. Ignorance can be excused and taught. Audism, and audist acts, show evidence of chosen and entrenched behaviors. What's a good example?

Ignorance Not putting captions on the TV
Audism Refusing to put captions on the TV
Ignorance Confusion at how to communicate with a Deaf child
Audism Refusal to have a Deaf child in one's classroom

Audism, in other words, is a choice, not simply a reactive or ignorant position but one chosen and maintained by an individual which guides them to active negative attitudes or oppression towards deaf people.

Notice I kept the D small. d. Why? Because, at this point, we're not talking about internal Audism - yet. Internal audism has a very different structure. I have received e-mails saying we should say FUCK YOU to everyone who is not a signing, proud DEAF person. Well, I disagree, based on my own experience.

Suppose you met a Deaf man who did not know ASL? Would you instantly call him an Audist? Suppose this man was raised orally by ignorant parents, which happens like 99 per cent of the time in America. He never met another Deaf person, nor did he have any prejudice about Deaf people. He tries in a friendly way to communicate with other Deaf. Some people today are with a very easy hand throwing people like this into the Audist pot. Same thing with people who use cochlear implants. Their personal choices are perceived to be oppression of the larger community.

Do I think this is so? No. I support the concept of Deafhood which includes the experiences of all Deaf people. Not every Deaf person comes from a position of knowledge instead of ignorance. Also, the experience of every Deaf person is important if we are to really understand American Deafhood. Would the Jews have kicked out Jews who had been through the holocaust? Yet we call cochlear implants our own holocaust, and kick out those who suffer through it, making their situation worse, no matter their own personal choices in the situation. I have friends who were forced to get implants, who chose to get implants... they are all still signing and they certainly don't preach Audist attitudes. But it seems, from what I read around Gallaudet news and other sorts of discussion board, that many people feel that CI users feel superior to them.

When I first went to MSSD, I was not an Audist - I was ignorant. I was raised by a family who was told ASL would poison my mind. They made a big deal out of it, and as a result I did not meet a Deaf adult really for 13 long years. Every once in a while I would be in school with a group of other Deaf people. But most of my childhood was spent alone.

I arrived at MSSD convinced, based on this, that my oral youth somehow made me better. It is true that it gave me wider access to the mainstream hearing cultures. It had left me with a lot of gaps in my knowledge, however, and I did not understand Deaf culture at all. Thanks to the support and education of several teachers who did not reject me despite my ignorance, I now proudly call myself a Deaf person. Why? I think it's better for us all to accept we can be diverse under one banner, instead of to split ourselves apart. Everyone has some Deafhood in their pants.

My conclusion? We must fight Audism and Audist behaviors - while recognizing that some of what feels "bad" to us as Deaf people is also ignorance. We have to work and teach those who don't know. Oh yeah, and some people are just mean little wankers.



Anonymous said...

As a deaf (very deaf) person who grew up not knowing ASL, one of my first experiences with the Deaf culture was when I tried to learn sign language in college -- and got that big FUCK YOU you describe above. What, I was too good for these people to have learned it earlier?

As a consequence, I've pretty much kept away from the Deaf community most of my life. It's only now as I'm older and more interested in what it's like for other deaf folk, that I'm reading blogs and I'm finding interesting stuff like this.

But I'm not really keen on Deaf Culture all capitalized and such. It's going to take some bridge building, I expect, as I see I'm hardly alone.

I still remember going what the hell when I finally figured out why I couldn't seem to get anywhere in that class, but the hearing people got fawned over for making the slightest effort. That sucks.

In the main, I've gotten ignorance from the hearing folks and hatred from Deaf folks. I haven't met nearly enough deaf folk and I would like to...

Anonymous said...

...sorry, I realised it wasn't clear in my first message -- I am born deaf, congenital rubella syndrome with probably 80-90% hearing loss in both ears, wear two hearing aids (one at the moment, it's conked out in this humidity/heat wave)...

Lonamstven said...

actually you didn't say anything new to what I already know but enjoy your writing as usual. I agree we should do away with stratification, labels, divisiveness, etc. Also it may have something to do with being comfortable with others with similar backgrounds while maintaining courtesy toward other deaf with different backgrounds.

Joseph Rainmound said...

I've said that before. But I'm getting lots of angry e-mails lately.

Anonymous, wish you would feel comfortable posting with a name! But yeah, there is a weird feeling I've noticed appears when Deaf meet Deaf who don't know how to sign. I think both people think, ack! That could have been me! And there's always a moment in the beginning where both people are finding their way around each other... not that they ever necessarily do.

Mr. Sandman said...

THANK YOU for a clearer definition of audism than those I've seen elsewhere. Even though I consider myself a part of the Deaf community, graduated from Gallaudet, blah blah blah, I didn't really encounter (or try to understand) the term "audism" until fairly recently. The examples you gave clarified it for me.

As for your post, I agree- the community needs to stop punishing people who, through no fault of their own, don't fit into a preconceived mold. I doubt things will ever fully 100% change, but the more people who speak up, like you, the more others will reconsider the current state of affairs and try to change the paradigm.

In the meantime, keep up the good work. Always enjoy your thoughtful posts.

DE said...


Another knock-out entry. FYI I've been citing the "top" three definitions of audism (Humphries' "systematic", Lane's "power & control", and Bauman's "metaphysical") in my presentations to Deaf and hearing audiences. I'm gonna add yours from now & on! How would you name your definition? BTW, I completely agree with you that everybody has some "Deafhood in their pants".

Joseph Rainmound said...

Thanks for all the compliments, I do feel people get what I'm trying to say. DE, happy to allow you to cite me - send me an email; you can do it by clicking on Joseph Rainmound at the top of the page which is in green.

Rene Visco said...

Hey Joseph,

Thanks for the mention of "LightKitchen".

Enjoyed your blog very much!