Debunked and explained: Deafness in America

Children sit in a classroom, intently focused on their teacher. They see their teacher’s lips moving yet hear no sound. Expected to read the lips of their teacher in order to follow along with the lesson, the school day was filled with practicing breathing patterns, mouth shapes and vocal exercises in hopes of producing speech.

If they dared to attempt to use their hands in order to communicate, they’d be harshly disciplined, usually by slapping their hands with rulers until they were red and blistered.

This was known as the “oral method,” a product of audism, where Deaf children were discouraged from using sign language and expected to learn how to speak. Audism is defined as “a form of discrimination, prejudice or a general lack of willingness to accommodate those who cannot hear.”

The oral method was made popular by Alexander Graham Bell. He saw deafness as a curse on society and wanted to prevent the birth of deaf children. His two popular ideas to make that wish a reality was to hinder Deaf people marrying other Deaf people and also to eliminate Deaf residential schools. 

Bell believed that these two methods would dissolve the Deaf community and force individuals to be a part of hearing society. The oral method is a somber part of Deaf history. But there are also plenty of more positive events, such as the establishment of the National Association for the Deaf and Gallaudet University.

According to their website, Gallaudet University is the first and only university that was designed to be “barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students.” In 1988, a famous student-led protest took place on the Gallaudet campus called Deaf President Now, demanding the hiring of the first Deaf university president.

All of these events are a part of Deaf history. March, in addition to being Women’s History Month, is also Deaf History Month, a time to acknowledge Deaf individuals living in a hearing world.

Lampra Jones is an American Sign Language professor at Georgia State. She’s been teaching for over ten years and enjoys what she does. As a Deaf woman, she has had several negative experiences in her life due to her inability to hear. 

“A few negative experiences [I’ve had] are with hearing people. I’m constantly getting all the time, ‘You don’t look like a Deaf/HoH person,’ or ‘You’re too pretty to be Deaf/HoH,’ and more,” Jones said, using a short form of hard of hearing. “I’ve been told that I’m disabled, special needs, I have bad genes, I need to be prayed for, I need to be ‘fixed’ and I’ve faced several of discrimination.”

Jones said that Deaf people look like everyone else; there’s no way to magically point someone out as Deaf. 

“Are hearing people expecting a troll or something?” she said.

Jones has also faced adversity when it comes to how people treat her son. Jones’ son has autism and was rejected by the hearing world yet accepted by the Deaf world.

“For two to three years, he didn’t speak and would only sign. The hearing community didn’t accept my son, and he would get bullied by kids,” Jones said. “However, whenever we were around the Deaf community, he was never bullied. He was always accepted.”

People have even thought that her inability to hear would hinder her ability to be a good mother to her son. 

“Many have asked me, ‘How can I be a mom and be Deaf?’ or ask me ‘Am I a good mom since I can’t [speak to] my son?’” Jones said. “Being hearing doesn’t qualify you as being a good parent.”

Despite the hardships she has faced, Jones has experienced plenty of kindness within the Deaf community.

“Not one single time has a Deaf or HoH person told me I need to fix [myself], I need to fit in, I speak too loud, I need to have a CI [cochlear implant], [or] told me that I’m a horrible mother because my child didn’t speak for two to three years,” Jones said.

To Jones, being Deaf is a source of pride, and it means not wanting to change the fact that she can’t hear. 

“[Deaf people] can do anything they want except [to] hear,” Jones said.

She described the Deaf community as a family connected by shared experiences. 

“Just like in all families, there are some jerks and people that you aren’t going to like or get along with. However, at the end of the day, they are family,” Jones said.

There are cultural rules embedded within the Deaf community that are expected to be respected. For example, eye contact is an important aspect of Deaf culture. To not look at someone while they are signing to you is considered extremely rude. 

This is a stark contrast from hearing culture, where it is more acceptable to not maintain constant eye contact during communication. 

Jones explained how technology has helped make life easier for Deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Inventions, such as video relay services, have helped make communication between hearing and Deaf people easier. A Deaf person would sign to an interpreter, who would voice it to the hearing person, and vice-versa. 

But there is still a lot to be done to achieve equal accessibility. An idea Jones had to improve the lives of Deaf and hard of hearing people was making movie theaters more accessible.

“Open captions should be offered in every theater, period. There are so many benefits to open captioning that not having [it] is silly,” Jones said. “The airport is another place that needs to work on accessibility. There should be more signs and instructions that [are] written to navigate traveling.”

Jones also believes that Deaf history and culture should be mentioned and taught in schools. She compared acknowledging Deaf History Month to acknowledging other heritage months.

Another opportunity for students who are interested in learning more about Deaf culture, besides taking American Sign Language classes, is the Clarkston ASL Club. The organization was created to help students “develop [a] strong foundation of American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf culture through by meeting, practicing and socializing.” 

Jones hopes for people to become more accepting of those who are different.   

“Learn to interact with people that are different than you as well as understand the culture before making judgments,” Jones said.