Working in a Socially Sign Language Challenged World

Date: March 19, 2018

  Adam Skelton, DAC Contributor

I am deaf. I come from a deaf family. My wife is deaf. My daughter may become deaf one day. Essentially, my family is deaf and I’ve been bestowed with at birth a visual language. I grew up mainstreamed in school while going through speech and auditory training. My primary language has always been American Sign Language (ASL) regardless of my English proficiency or the ability to utilize speech, which is not a language itself.

I struggle with my identity on a daily basis.

Should I choose to speak because I was conditioned to do so?

Should I choose not to speak, but instead move my lips while using sign language?

Should I choose not to move my lips and keep them minimal while using sign language?

How will I be portrayed when I talk with other people?

Will deaf people accept me as one of their own even though I appear hearing?

Will hearing people accept that I’m deaf and not to expect me to lip-read?

FACT: Lip-reading is an innate skill that not everyone can utilize and it only accounts for 10 - 40 percent of what is seen on the lips.

The Many mis- We Face

When navigating the hearing world as a deaf individual, I and many of us encounter a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings. First, there is the term hearing impaired. It is a political incorrect way of labelling someone who may be deaf or hard of hearing. I don’t see myself as impaired because I have a rich cultural language that my family has passed down to me. I have been deprived of nothing and lost nothing, but gained everything. Next, there needs to be respect to how an individual chooses to identify themselves as. Do they identify themselves as Deaf or Hard of Hearing? If not, are they refusing to admit to their deafness out of systematic or familial embarrassment? Lastly, the political incorrect phrase of hearing impaired was coined by hearing professionals and it is considered rude in Deaf/HOH groups. We’re quite happy with being called Deaf and Hard of Hearing. There’s no need to politicalize a term to make it “more appealing” to the population. If anything we have been impaired by society’s perception that we have a loss. This perceived loss ultimately becomes the focus of who we are for many.

It took a long time for my past employer to stop labelling me as hearing impaired, longer to stop labelling me as hard of hearing (as I identify as deaf and it was disrespectful), and much longer to stop telling people I can lip read. I struggled to financially support my family for years and found myself in deep debt because of the mainstream societal perception of me. I would wonder if being deaf with zero lip-reading skill and auditory comprehension was what prevented me from being promoted to department manager when I found myself training my new supervisor, to whom I eventually became an assistant to – likely to save face.
My previous employers would pull in another Deaf/Hard of Hearing peer to interpret for me in group meetings and this has caused a lot of misunderstandings, though no fault of my own. With the exception of the last two group meetings as they obtained a certified interpreter, there was never effective communication in the fifteen years I was there. This was in part because my employer refused to recognize that I had civil rights as a deaf employee under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) even though it’s been nearly 30 years since the ADA was first signed into law. The lack of effective communication was compounded even further because throughout my years of being mainstreamed in school, I never knew about the ADA nor that I had a civil right protection as a deaf citizen.

In my past experiences working for a predominantly hearing company, the struggle for my hearing colleagues to communicate with me has often left me feeling unequal to them. I spoke verbally to accommodate them, but struggled to understand when being spoken to since they refused to recognize that speech and lip-reading were ineffective. While there are individuals out there who can lip-read effectively, it has never been an effective tool of mine. Often, I found myself nodding in agreement to hide the fact I only understood a word out of seven. I explained to my past colleagues my ability to lip-read is not as what Hollywood makes it out to be. They would either over-enunciate their words and/or talk loudly, made learning basic signs a mockery, or just turned a blind eye out of frustration with me.

Today, I am at where I should be.

If it hadn’t been for the volunteer opportunity that I had at Deaf Action Center (DAC), I would have never known what mutual respect, comradery, and communication access looked like. I was even able to participate in “water cooler” events about the latest television shows and current events without being isolated among the vast majority of people I worked with. Not only that, I saw that hearing people were coming into DAC attempting to learn how to sign and communicate with us.
I can now say I’m happy. I am working for a deaf-run organization. My skill sets are no longer over looked and instead are utilized to benefit the organization. I am finally able to better support my family financially. I can fully communicate with my colleagues (both deaf and hearing) and I get to know deaf individuals from all walks of life from all over the world. I can do anything and I am worthy.
I am the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Access Specialist and I ensure effective communication is being made for Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals in accordance to the ADA Titles I, II, and III.

My desire is to take my past experiences and use the energy to be impactful and make positive change.

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