Red hand with blue "D"

Deaf with a capital D

Meeting the Deaf community on its own terms

November 14, 2022

Thanks to mainstream successes of stories like CODA, best picture winner at the 2021 Academy Awards, many people in the hearing world are getting a more robust introduction to the Deaf community. And thanks to the first undergraduate Deaf studies course at UMass, the university community is taking a closer look at the vibrancy of Deaf culture. Taught online through the University Without Walls (UWW) program, the course provides insight into the richness of Deaf culture and history, the challenges the Deaf community has faced, and the many contributions it has made to society.

'A Thriving Community'Orange fist on white background

Course instructor Myles Sanders, also a UWW academic advisor, grew up with a deaf sister, is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), and holds a degree in Deaf studies. “I’m not deaf myself; I am teaching a Deaf studies course so that people are more comfortable and aware of how to interact with and understand the Deaf culture and community,” he explains.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that two to three of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with hearing loss, and about 15% of adults over the age of 18 have some degree of difficulty in hearing. At UMass, there are currently around 50 deaf and hard-of-hearing students, as well as a number of faculty and staff.

Sanders’s course begins with commonly held misconceptions about the Deaf community, then delves into Deaf history, from segregation and oppression to the rise of formal deaf education, the many contributions of deaf people to society, and the gradual change in perception from viewing deafness as an impairment to recognizing Deaf culture as a thriving community with its own language, identity, and societal norms.

Sanders addresses different ways of communicating within the Deaf community, including signed English (signing each word of a spoken sentence), finger spelling (forming individual letter shapes to spell out words), ASL, and dialects such as Black American Sign Language, which developed separately during segregation. A person using ASL may also have a distinct regional accent or style that is reflected in various ways, from signing speed to the specific expressions and gestures used.

Another unique feature of Deaf culture is name signs, which are used to identify individuals and also signify their membership in the Deaf community. A person does not choose his or her own name sign; it is bestowed by others based on the individual’s personal traits or interests.

There are also many deaf people who do not sign, so one thing Sanders emphasizes to his students is the need to get to know people as individuals rather than assuming everyone operates in the same way. The course also addresses assistive devices, from hearing aids and cochlear implants to devices that flash lights to indicate a doorbell or ringing telephone, and why some people might choose to use them while others might not.

Overall, Sanders’s aim is for students to become more confident in interacting with the Deaf community. “Deaf people can do everything you can except hear,” he says. “For the student, I want them to just be more aware. A lot of us naturally have our own implicit biases, so [one goal is] just being more cognizant that how you’re operating may not work for someone else that you interact with.”

The inaugural Deaf studies class of nine students included people working in a variety of fields with different population groups, as well as a blind student and another student who is losing her hearing and wanted to learn more about the Deaf community that she will eventually join. Diannette Marrero ’23, who studies multicultural applied psychology and works for the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, says Sanders’s course has inspired her to begin learning ASL in order to better assist deaf clients. “This course has helped me be more aware of what it means to be someone who is deaf,” she explains. “I also learned about bilingualism within the Deaf community and the difficulties children face in classrooms, which impact how [they] interact with others and their mental health.”

Sanders hopes that the new course will create more interest in and awareness of the Deaf community at UMass and beyond, and in turn lead to more diversity and inclusion, with courses designed in a way that will help deaf students thrive.

'Making Magic Happen'Orange fist on white background

Stephen Weiner ’91 knows firsthand how challenging it can be for deaf students in a hearing setting. Born deaf, he attended mainstream public schools, only obtaining access to interpreters in high school. At UMass he had little contact with other deaf students and limited knowledge of available communication tools. He enjoyed being a member of the varsity rowing team, but found social interactions with his teammates challenging. “It was isolating not being able to communicate effectively,” he says.

Weiner is now in his 24th year of teaching at the Horace Mann School, the country’s oldest public day school for the deaf and hard of hearing. After teaching middle school math for 15 years, he transitioned to teaching high school history, a subject he loves, particularly for the way it sparks engaging discussions with his students.

Although Weiner knew some English-based sign language growing up, he did not become fluent in ASL until he became a teacher and more involved in the Deaf community. He currently also teaches ASL on a part-time basis at Framingham State University, where he was gratified to receive a student evaluation calling him “a born teacher.”

“I’m proud to become the kind of teacher that I never had growing up,” he says. “I use my frustrating experience growing up in a public school mainstream setting to know what deaf students need, because I’ve been in their shoes before.”

Outside the classroom, Weiner has performed regularly as a magician at special events since junior high. “Growing up where no one in my family signed, I sought communication in another way, and that was through performing simple magic tricks at family gatherings,” he says. “I immensely enjoy making magic happen in the eyes of the viewers. Magic is a visual art, and while my acts are intriguing to both the hearing and Deaf world, it’s not common for Deaf spectators to see magic shows in ASL directly from the magician.” For many, that in itself is a kind of magic.

'A Different Perspective'

Being deaf academics, Michele Cooke in geosciences and Ana Caicedo in biology know something about experiencing the world a bit differently. Together, they publish the blog The Mind Hears, in which deaf and hard-of-hearing people in academia share their experiences and the techniques they rely on to succeed in a hearing world. While being deaf in mainstream academia involves many challenges, it also provides a distinctive outlook and skill set that contribute to their success as scientists and teachers.

Hard of hearing since adolescence, Caicedo relies on hearing aids, speech reading, and assistive listening devices. Because she often catches only part of a presentation or discussion, she is accustomed to having to find alternative ways to inform herself. “This requires persistence, observation, flexibility, and self-reliance. I like to think those skills also helped me settle in a foreign country,” says Caicedo, who is originally from Colombia. “They also come into play every time I am frustrated about research that is not progressing as I wish, but that I will keep at until it yields results.” The same abilities also help her “gauge the temperature” of her students and colleagues in various settings—another instance of what her colleague Cooke has referred to as “deaf gain.”

“I think that being hard of hearing has made me empathetic to different ways of learning, helping me, in turn, design better teaching materials,” Caicedo reflects. She will often autocaption lectures or provide slides and recordings in order to make her classes more accessible to students with diverse backgrounds and learning styles.

'An Ongoing Process'Orange hand crossing fingers on white background

For his part, Sanders wants his students to come away from his Deaf studies course with an understanding that the hearing population needs to meet the Deaf community on its own terms. Weiner has seen this shift beginning to happen, albeit gradually. “There’s more awareness that American Sign Language is a language with its own rules, grammar, syntax, separate from American standard English, and more and more universities are accepting ASL as meeting foreign language requirements,” he says.

Compared to a few decades ago, the general public has become more willing to make an effort to facilitate communication by writing things down. The prevalence of text messaging is one example. “Before, they would just yell,” Weiner recalls. “No matter how much you yell, I will still be deaf.”

Sanders expects interest in Deaf studies to grow, and hopes to eventually split the course into two parts in order to be able to delve deeper into the richness of Deaf culture and history. It’s all part of an ongoing process of helping society move toward greater deaf accessibility and a better understanding of the Deaf community and its vibrant, unique culture.

Deaf or deaf? 

While anyone who is unable to hear is deaf, not all deaf people are Deaf.

When capitalized, the word Deaf refers to a specific group of people who share a distinct culture with its own set of beliefs and practices, as well as its own language, American Sign Language (ASL).

There are many reasons why a person who is deaf may not identify as Deaf. For example, not everyone who is deaf learns or communicates primarily through ASL, and people who lose their hearing as a result of age or illness may lack a cultural connection to the Deaf community.

Read on. 

DEAF WITH A CAPITAL D

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