Hearing people have used our access to feign fascination, learn British Sign Language (BSL) from unofficial sources and mock accessibility tools such as interpreters and canes. We’ve seen it recently with people making jokes about the sign language interpreter at the UK Government’s briefings – let’s talk about that.
Access is never just access – most of the time, anyway. For the avoidance of being labelled a defeatist, let me clarify that I mean that accessibility rarely exists in solitude. In addition to opening up communication for deaf and hard of hearing people, it can become an opportunity for hearing people to virtue signal, learn inaccurate signs or mock our access needs. The act of providing access – for the most part, I feel – no longer comes without a philosophical undertone of sorts.
Let me give you an example of all three instances. I’ve seen hearing people pat themselves on the back for providing captions on their content (something many deaf people consider as the bare minimum in terms of online accessibility), I’ve come across people learning signs from in-vision interpreters on TV, and content creators using subtitles and canes to make jokes. In relation to the latter instance, as I said at the time: our access is not your punchline.
With this in mind, I turned to Twitter. “How do we ensure content is accessible with sign language interpretation, without hearing people seeing the terp [short for interpreter] as someone to learn sign from? It’s sad, but I think we’re at a point now where access isn’t just ‘access’ anymore,” I wrote.
Interesting responses followed:
It’s the final comment from my good friend Max (known online as Ouch Mouse) which has got my mind whirring. Awareness sits within a wider structure of keywords which all play a part in constructive engagement with deaf and hard of hearing people. I’ve already talked about action, but there’s also education (and similarly, acknowledgement), uplifting deaf creators (don’t speak for us, and tell us what access measures you think we need) and acceptance. Once again, it comes back to a strategy which recognises that ‘awareness’ is a process – a routine. None of the aforementioned keywords, when used correctly, have a definitive destination.
Currently, awareness and education are viewed as such. How we can teach hearing people about deaf awareness without encouraging the ‘inspiration’, ‘saviour’ or ‘helper’ narrative is tricky, and something to which I don’t yet have the answers. Our identities should not be used as a lesson, but our experiences – provided our consent is given – could.
We need hearing people to accept access as is, until we move to a model which addresses the wider systemic issues.