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Diversity and Deaf

by Sherrie

The deaf community is diverse. 

We’ve been reminded of that since the Deaf episode of ABC’s You Can’t Ask That went live on Friday morning.

Since sharing my thoughts about the episode, I’ve had people notify me that they were hurt by my comments. I’ve had people comment about how they were re-questioning their identity.

When I compiled my thoughts, I forgot about the following:

  • the role language plays in the formation of Deaf identity, particularly for those born to hearing parents;
  • the diversity of deafness;
  • grassroots being given a platform to educate the mainstream community (non-grassroots deaf are often seen on this platform);
  • grassroots finally being given a voice on national television;
  • the true purpose of the program;
  • deaf people born to hearing parents identifying as native signers;
  • and most importantly, how diverse the deaf community is.

I have realised my mistake and I have since made a public apology. I have been thinking about how we can work together to make our community stronger and united. I have had healthy conversations with a number of people who have given me their perspectives.

This has been a huge learning curve, and a very empowering one too.

As a member of the deaf community, I am accountable for my actions and words.

The deaf community is a collective.

The majority of deaf community are deaf people born to hearing parents. Statistics shows that approximately 92% of deaf people are born to hearing parents. The number of deaf people born to deaf parents are getting smaller and smaller as years go by.

Some deaf people have been signing since they were infants. Some deaf people started signing later in their lives after growing up predominantly oral.

Deaf people who discover the deaf community later in their lives might struggle to be accepted. They might feel the deaf community is not inclusive.

That said, we need to start embracing the diversity of deafness and to make our community more inclusive. We have a social responsibility to empower each other. We also have a social responsibility to strengthen the diversity within our community.

The diversity of the deaf community is so much more than just various racial, religious, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.

– Thomas Holcomb (2013)

To work together to strengthen our collective, we need to embrace community accountability. We can work together to do the following things:

  • Affirm the values of our community;
  • Address behaviours that is not tolerated and to educate;
  • Create safe spaces for all;
  • Encourage the community to grow as a whole;
  • Work together to transform the community for the better;
  • Provide support to each other, especially those who are new to the community;
  • Educate the mainstream community about us;
  • Empower each other;
  • Respect all types of deaf people and their experiences.

We need to have a conversation (or twenty) on how we can work together to make our community more united. Please keep in mind that what I’ve suggested isn’t a solution; it’s an opportunity for us to start this conversation about community accountability.

We’re all representatives of the deaf community, and we are accountable for our actions and words.

In a blog post from 2014, I said (and forgot about):

Role models with diverse backgrounds should be prominent for the Deaf community, especially for Deaf teenagers when they’re starting to figure out themselves and their identities.

Diversity is what strengthens us. We learn from each other. We love and accept each other.

The last couple of days has been an incredible learning opportunity for myself and for many others. It’s also forced me to remind myself of the importance of diversity within the deaf community. What I have learnt will be applied to my personal and professional work from this point on, and reflecting on this again in the near future will be a good reminder should my judgement & thoughts become clouded again.

To those who reached out to me, I thank you. To those who allowed me to reach out to them, I thank you. To the Deaf community and everyone else who shared their thoughts and perspectives, I thank you.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank to each one of you for being vocal and passionate about your identity and values, and for educating me about what is important to the deaf community.

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Karen Lloyd April 7, 2019 - 10:43 am

Sherrie, I salute your courage in discussing these issues and your humility in apologizing when people tell you they are hurt. We all unintentionally hurt each other sometimes and misunderstandings are all too common. I absolutely agree that working together for unity and embracing our diversity is so important. You’re doing great work!

Sherrie April 7, 2019 - 8:04 pm

Thank you Karen 🙂 Your comment means a lot, especially coming from one of many Deaf women I look up to.

Mervyn James April 8, 2019 - 4:36 am

there is no community as regards to deafness only a minority elect to be a community because they lack confidence and wherewithall to step outside comfort zones, culture/sign in that respect was/is a useful opt out for many. even using support to try bridging issues is a barrier in itself as it makes no real demand on the deaf person to attempt it by themselves. i am 3 generation with hearing loss deaf problems, none were part of the community or even signed. there was a belief deafness did not define be you.

Shannon Fox April 8, 2019 - 12:33 pm

Great post Sherrie. We are always going to be Olivia’s hearing, oral family. We have tried to learn to sign specifically to enable her to confidently walk in both worlds, so she doesn’t have to feel like she has to choose. Signing means fuller inclusivity, more opportunities for connection across the whole spectrum of the deaf community – Deaf/deaf/HoH. If it’s hard for deaf kids to find community, it’s confronting and sometimes uncomfortable for hearing parents to advocate in the deaf community on their deaf child’s behalf. By that I mean that I have felt uncomfortable insisting on access to the deaf community as a hearing adult even though I advocating on behalf of my deaf daughter. When there aren’t specific programs/opportunities for willing deaf and seeking hearing families to meet, that leaves us randomly talking to every deaf adult with cochlears or hearing aids we can find.

Second thing that I want to comment on is identity and role models. I feel like we started empowering Olivia early enough and finding her community and role models early enough that this has never been an issue for her. First, we accept her. We accept her with hearing aids, we accept her without them when she’s taking a break. We repeat things as many times as we have to, tell her the side discussions going on, every thing. We sign as much as we can with her. It’s been hard lately as she’s mixing in so much ASL with Auslan. (Thank you Switched at Birth).

Second we advocated hard for her at school. From IEPs that included social as well as academic outcomes. Through the ToD her class was educated on how to use the group mic, how to get her attention and how to protect their hearing. She even addressed the class if she wanted to. Though the education system in Tasmania tried to meet our needs, the focus was definitely on either or sign or oral and our girl wasn’t “deaf enough” evidently.

Third we had awesome support through meeting other families of deaf, going to family camps, meeting generous, welcoming deaf in our community. A very good family friend made her a doll with hearing aids – just like her.

My point is, parents need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and demanding equitable access for their family and children. They need to commit to fully accepting their deaf child as a deaf person. That good start, for any kid, before they’re close to being a teen is where a confident sense of owning who they are when they finally get to the teen years comes from. I hope that the Deaf community can find a way to encourage unsure and nervous hearing parents to learn about the lived experience of growing up deaf from actual deaf people, not ENTs, audiologists, ToDs and speech pathologists – where are the role models there?


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