2021 International Week of Deaf People logo - a circle made of two hands surrounding a rainbow of stars

Without Meaningful Allyship, Hearing People are Doomed to a Never-Ending Cycle of Poor Deaf Awareness

Deaf people exist, and if you’re a hearing person and are aware of that fact, then you win – though I don’t have any stickers left, and there’s no way for me to know that you are aware of my deafness just by looking at you. So instead, it falls to actions and allyship, actual things you can do to uplift and help break down the barriers faced by Deaf and hard of hearing people like me. Awareness is important, of course, but it is only the first step in a move towards inclusion. Hearing people have to go further.

They have to go further than the basic understanding that subtitles are amazing and some Deaf people lipread. These things are worth knowing, but the fact we seem to be rehashing the same points every awareness week or month shows just how ingrained ableism and audism – that’s discrimination against Deaf people – is in our society, and how much work there is left to do to root it out.

This, to many people reading this, may seem obvious, and far from a new argument. After all, we have campaigners, statistics and charities demonstrating how far there is to go to achieve equality every single day. The real irony is that hearing people aren’t aware of just how much they contribute to a negative feedback loop of poor Deaf awareness.

This International Week of Deaf People, it’s about time they knew.

I say this because I’m tired of seeing the same viral tweet every few months or so talking about how great it would be to learn sign language in school. As someone who can hold a conversation in British Sign Language (BSL), but is by no means fluent, I completely agree, and those handful of extra-curricular lessons I had in secondary school certainly helped with that.

But what if I told you that here in the UK, there was already a campaign to introduce a sign language qualification into schools, which began way back in 2018, by a Deaf teenager named Daniel Jillings? Much like their approach to Deaf awareness as a whole, hearing people’s engagement with Deaf issues is very surface level – it lacks meaning, impact or longevity.

As Deaf friends have said to me before: Deaf Awareness Week, for example, is every week, not just one week out of the year. There’s a genuine concern I have that awareness, accessibility and inclusion are merely seen as tick box exercises to meet every year – a ‘checkpoint’ of sorts to go past and check you’re still being Deaf aware and accessible, but you can’t pick-and-mix access, or when you want to be alert to the needs of Deaf people. Both should be constant.

Plus, if it’s not comments about a new qualification in sign language, then it’s a New Year’s Resolution at the start of the year committing themselves to learning a few basic phrases. I struggle to remember many of the resolutions I give myself at the start of the year, and hearing people do too, as these individuals who promised to break down a communication barrier and learn our language end up not doing the work at all.

If pressed, they’ll say it’s because they didn’t have enough time – an excuse often thrown about for other access issues as well, like creators and companies failing to caption their videos on social media.

This issue is made even more significant when you think about the chain reaction this sets off, starting with a failure to break down barriers to everyday conversation. By not knowing simple gestures or alternative communication methods, hearing people and Deaf people are unlikely to interact, given we’re still in the era of disability discourse whereby if a non-disabled person is not as confident in disability issues as they would like, they’ll avoid the conversation entirely. The end result is segregation. Hearing people talk freely amongst themselves whilst Deaf people like me are often forced onto their phones, with online spaces being far more accessible to them. We are then, of course, criticised for being “unsociable”, when actually, it’s something completely different: you’re being inaccessible.

People are yet to realise this, though, and the misconception that Deaf people can’t speak for themselves, or are unwilling to self-advocate continues to spread. When we feel uncomfortable or unable to speak out against inaccessibility, the perfect breeding ground is created for hearing saviourism. You’ll know what I mean when I say that you see it everywhere on Instagram and TikTok. Hearing people posting videos of them signing badly to the latest pop songs. Hearing people creating Deaf awareness content and misinforming their audience. The irony is lost on them as they perpetuate benevolent ableism – discrimination under the guise of trying to ‘help’.

However, when a Deaf person points all of this out to these hearing individuals, accused of being “aggressive” – yet another way that hearing people can push Deaf people apart, rather than bring the two communities together.

It’s time for a new approach to allyship. One with accessibility and equality at its core, which focuses on engagement and uplifting Deaf people, rather than speaking over them. It’s about recognising and tackling their own behaviour and hearing privileges.

This engagement, by the way, should not and must not be exclusive to one week, or one month. It cannot end with the simple sharing of an Instagram post or Twitter thread; connections with Deaf campaigners must be future-proofed.

A harmful combination of inaccessible social environments and benevolent ableism has created a scenario where the public assume Deaf people are quiet individuals, incapable of highlighting injustice themselves when many of us are, in fact, the opposite. It’s rather telling that these creators are rarely ever brought to wider public attention, and it’s about time we changed that.

Only then can we move on from a ‘groundhog day’ of poor Deaf awareness and very little action.

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