Thoughts on audism

Audism. It’s a relatively new word, only coined in 1975. But it’s been the reality of the Deaf for a long time. What is is?

“The notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or behave in the manner of one who hears.”
Dr Tom L Humphries

Since Dr Humphries coined the word, its meaning has been expanded in the Deaf community. And rightly so. As some Deaf people express in a video (captioned for the sign-impaired), meeting the word for the first time gave them a framework to understand their own experiences:


I am not Deaf. I am hearing. Nonetheless, please allow me to express my views on the word and the concept as someone outside the culture and who does not experience this in his day-to-day life.

Like racism, sexism, homophobia, and other “-isms”, audism is about power and privilege. Over the past few years, I have seen how people with power/privilege have responded to discussions highlighting that very thing. And I have witnessed the same reaction from hearing people.

The sad thing is, we live in a world in which the Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing lack basic access to things that we hearing people take for granted:

In other words: important information that could be important to their lives are not provided for them.

Earlier this year, a Deaf young man I saw almost every week died of illness. It was sudden. He was just gone. The sad fact is that many Deaf people do not attempt to seek medical services in this country, because they know that communication access is a problem. Doctors and nurses don’t know sign language, and medical centres don’t (want to?) spend the money for interpreters.

So, the Deaf often wait it out, hoping their bodies will heal in time. But, sometimes… their bodies don’t heal. RIP, Joseph. We miss you.

There are so many things that the Deaf face in my country. I got 8 CXC, 3 GCE A-Level, and 2 CAPE subjects by the time I left high school. But many a Deaf school-leaver doesn’t even have one CXC subject under their belt. Their teachers can barely sign properly, and use ineffective methods for teaching the Deaf.

And the ones that do manage to get a few CXCs, usually don’t have access to higher education because of lack of access to accessible education; education suited for the Deaf.

Even in locations that are supposed to be Deaf-centred (schools and associations for the Deaf) are rife with inaccessibility. I remember visiting a school for the Deaf a few years ago (2010, to be exact), and the end of a period was marked by a lady walking around ringing a bell. A bell! At a school for the Deaf! And I have witnessed hearing people at such institutions chatting away with their voices, leaving the Deaf completely out of the loop.

Call me crazy, but the Deaf have to live in a world (usually, even in homes) where information is inaccessible to them. Is it so hard to ensure that as much information as possible is directly accessible to them in a place whose supposed purpose to cater to their needs? Without having to rely on the hearing to tell them the bell has rung, or what the person right beside them is talking about?

The thing about audism is that is can happen even among people trying to help the Deaf get what they need. A former classmate contacted me recently, asking for advice on how to set up services for the Deaf. I responded by saying that they were going about this the wrong way. I am not Deaf. I do not speak for or represent the Deaf. So, they should contact Deaf people for that kind of advice.

With all that the Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing face, your response might be: Aw, that’s so sad. We need to fix them. Make it so that they can hear. That right there is an audist thought. First of all, the ways that you might use to “fix” the deaf (hearing aids and cochlear implants) could fail, or provide very limited improvement in hearing. Banking on that may leave you disappointed.

Second, there is nothing wrong with being deaf. The Deaf culture is a beautiful culture. What they need is access to basic things that we hearing people have, so that they can show the world that Deaf can do anything.

They can be lawyers, dancersPhD holders, interpreters, coffee-makers, IT specialists, actors, doctorswhatever they want!

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The phrase “Deaf can” is cliché, but true. It is only when we hearing people get in the way that Deaf can’t.

We just need to stop standing in their way.

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