What if you walked onto campus today and saw this sign:
What would you think? How would people react? I can tell you one thing: firing the university president wouldn’t be out of the question and students would start well-deserved protests. The sign would be tweeted around the globe.
I know this is an extremely touchy comparison but let’s look at another American cultural minority: Deaf. What if you saw this in your university?
Here’s the thing: many don’t see a problem with this poster. Yet, Deaf have been oppressed for centuries, killed in World War II, punished, sterilized, and had their basic human rights ignored. Their background isn’t all too different from other cultural minorities, Black Americans included.
Universities will sometimes have “deaf awareness days” where hearing put plugs in their ears and walk around unable to communicate. They walk away that day, ready to swear that they know how isolating deafness can be.
First of all, ummmmmm what!?! Deafness is not isolating – anyone who has been crammed into a Deaf club with hands flying knows that. Sign language does wonders, people. Take an ASL class, learn to throw some fingers, and you’ll agree: communication is not an issue in the Deaf world.
Second, what on earth makes you think that a few hours as a deaf person (AKA “ears-stuffed-with-cotton-person”) would help you understand anything? All this does is encourage unwarranted pity.
Third, a university “deaf awareness day” doesn’t focus on ability, it doesn’t focus on the four other senses that work, it just focuses on the ear.
Let me say one thing before I move on. I truly do feel that these awareness days are not done maliciously and that many people think it’s beneficial for “normal” kids. However, it’s time to get it out there that these awareness days do only one thing: exacerbate the division between Deaf and hearing worlds. They encourage people to see what they want to see: that deafness is a “handicap” that limits their ability.
Now, I do want to put in a plug for certain kinds of Deaf Days. I’m not entirely opposed to hearing ASL students, fluent enough in sign to not isolate themselves, taking a day to sharpen their ASL skills. You may ask: “How is this different from Black day?” It’s vastly different because these students use a Deaf Day to appreciate sign, to see how un-extraordinary it is to be Deaf, and to lose any pity they may still feel towards Deaf. It’s like a German student taking a day to only speak German in order to prepare for a study abroad.
My friend and I put on a Deaf Day on Semester at Sea after four months of teaching sign every other day to quite a few students. We had taught them about Deaf culture, sign language communities around the world, and the impact of a Bilingual/Bicultural classroom. Several of the students became pretty dang close to fluent (four months of in-and-out language study can do that). Yeah, Deaf Day was still a bit tough for them: they were a bunch of sign newbies trying to understand each other’s strong English sign “accents”. But the point was, the majority used Deaf Day to see the beauty of sign and view Deaf as just another cultural minority, not a group to be pitied.
You can call me a hypogriff – wait hypocrite? – but I see a Deaf Day for students seeking to learn about a different culture different than “deaf awareness day” where everyone sees how “impossible” it is to function without hearing for a day.
Deaf Awareness Day = Encourages Pity
Deaf Day = Encourages Understanding
P.S. While you’re in the neighborhood, go ahead and cut out “disability awareness days” too – for the same reasons – and any “wheelchair awareness days” or “blind awareness days”. Sometimes it can do more harm than good…
P.S.S. Oh and if you’re (hopefully) agreeing with me – promise me you’ll read No Pity which talks about the unintentional perpetuation of pity in “awareness days”. It’s what got me started on this rant. 🙂