By Jesse Lewis
Over the last few decades, tireless advocates for the multitude of disabilities in our society have worked to ensure that access to employment, services and public accommodations is equal, regardless of disability. There are constant victories and defeats. The quest for equal access is rather like a rollercoaster ride, though perhaps not a hair-raising and fun-filled attraction. At times, it seems the train of cars begins to stall, and slips backward on the track before it catches and it lurches forward again. Our progress through advocacy may not be always smooth going, but in the long run we can hope that we are ultimately unstoppable.
The members of the deaf community of America may not always agree on whether we are truly disabled, but we do feel that we have just as much right to any other American to equal access. 23 years have passed since the Americans With Disabilities Act became law, yet we are still frequently overlooked.
Imagine a doctor, a hospital, a school, or a lawyer telling someone that is in a wheelchair that they can’t be wheelchair-accessible. Imagine a blind individual being told that their service dog needs to wait outside which they receive services. In all likeliness, this denial of equal access does in fact happen, but in today’s society it is not the norm. For the deaf community, this indeed is a common occurrence.
We see this when a doctor’s office tells a new patient that they will have to bring their own personal American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, even though it is not the patient’s legal obligation to provide one. A deaf patient who relies on ASL to communicate effectively may face having to decide whether to bring a family member to interpret or to go without effective communication. Never mind that the consensus in the Deaf Community and in Deaf-centered organizations is that family members cannot interpret without communication pitfalls like emotions getting in the way or lack of professional training. Skills in casual communication does not an interpreter make.
The ADA defines a qualified interpreter as one who can “interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized
vocabulary.” It should be noted that not all Deaf individuals use American Sign Language. What works for one individual will not work for every deaf or hard of hearing person.
If the patient is empowered to self-advocate or to seek advocacy from a deaf services organization, there is still hope for equal access, but many continue to just accept. Sometimes acceptance of lowered access leads to risks, like the misunderstanding of a medical condition.
We see this denial of equal access when a school provides an interpreter that is not qualified. A child’s access to education is tempered by how well the information is conveyed. A non-qualified interpreter may reduce the content of what is taught in the classroom, due to a limited ASL vocabulary or a lack of formal training. Even with the greatest of intentions, a deaf or hard of hearing child is often forced to settle for what’s available rather than ensured that they are provided with the same access to education that their hearing peers receive. As a result, deaf and hard of hearing children can and do often fall behind, or slip through the cracks. Without a doubt, those of us in the deaf community, especially deaf professionals, know that rather than adding unnecessary barriers to education, we need those barriers dismantled. We are capable of achieving anything we put our minds to in life, except to hear the way our hearing peers do.
Why, then, do we continue to see educational systems settle for less? Certainly, it would shock the average American if a school, whether it is K-12 or a college, were to refuse wheelchair access or refuse to provide materials in braille for the blind. If a class were taught with an abundance of visual materials, and no accommodation was provided to a blind child, certainly we would object to that. Just about any teacher would do whatever they could. Why, then, do we not see the same passion for a deaf child’s education?
The answer, perhaps, lies in society’s understanding of the needs of a deaf or hard of hearing individual. We are at times considered the unseen disability. We look like everyone else, unless we use sign language and you happen to catch us having a conversation, or you notice that we’re able to speech-read.
Some of us talk, some of us don’t. Some of us sign, some of us don’t. Some of us can read lips, some of us don’t. If we have some skills with reading lips, also known as speech-reading, it doesn’t automatically mean we can understand everything a person says. We’re all different. We’re all humans and we are part of this society. We want to be included. We value relationships like anyone else does. We value every bit of access that is given to us, but we hope for the full and equal access that we know we deserve.
As a society, raising awareness about the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing is something that everyone can participate in. Let’s work together to drop double standards and expect that those of us who are deaf and hard of hearing will be given that equal access. We have a lot to offer, with open and hopeful hearts.
If you are interested in learning more about the Deaf Community, about American Sign Language, or about how you can contribute toward making our country more accessible for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, we welcome you to contact your local deaf services agency. In Central California, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center, Inc. provides services to eight counties, including Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Merced, Madera, Mariposa, Monterey, and San Benito Counties. Please visit our website at www.dhhsc.org for more information about our organization, including how you may reach us.