Check your biases: Audism in the 21st century

Friends, this week we are lucky to have Caitlin Giammona, fellow SJSU alum, and speech-language pathologist and owner of The Signing SLP. Caitlin provides speech and language support to signing deaf and hard of hearing folks, and like us here at Duncan Lake Speech Therapy, is a firm believer in all practices that promote representation, accessibility, and inclusion. We are so happy to have Caitlin here to tell us more about audism and how we can fight against it.

Audism is not a new term, but it may be unfamiliar to most people. Audism is a term first used in 1977 by Tom Humphres which he defined as “The notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears.” This shows up in our world in a variety of ways:

  • the fact that families are introduced to their child’s differing hearing levels by the phrase “I’m sorry, your child failed the hearing test”
  • the emphasis by some professionals that a deaf child must have listening and spoken language skills, often at the cost of overall language skills
  • denying a deaf child access to American Sign Language at home or in their education
  • the struggle for American Sign Language to become recognized as a language in 1965, despite being a language long before that.
  • having lower academic expectations for deaf and hard of hearing children
  • refusing to provide ASL interpreters for public events

As with many other -ism’s, we need to unpack our own biases and recognize the effect audism has on the world. Here’s how the average hearing person can help fight audism.

Learn sign language (and learn it from Deaf teachers)
American Sign Language (ASL) is a recognized language that is on par with English, Spanish, Mandarin, or any spoken language. With this in mind, the idea would be that anyone fluent in the language should be able to teach classes if they have the knowledge of the language. However, with ASL, there is a long history of less qualified hearing instructors being hired over more qualified Deaf instructors, for whom ASL is their native language.

If you take an ASL class, do your research about the instructor. You can even ask the local Deaf community for their opinion by posting on local Deaf community Facebook groups or go with ASL Connect through Gallaudet University.

Stop placing so much value in a deaf person’s ability to use listening and spoken language
Speech is a skill, it’s a way to communicate language, and it is not a language in and of itself. I like to think of it as a skill like soccer talent. Some kids are naturally pretty good at soccer, some hate soccer and don’t want to try, some kids are forced to go to soccer by their parents even though they’re terrible at it. But, at the end of the day, a child’s worth is not placed in their soccer abilities and no families have ever been berated for not putting their kid in soccer.

This should be the goal for speech skills in deaf and hard of hearing children too. Not every Deaf person uses spoken language or wants to use it and their value as a person has nothing to do with their ability to use spoken language.

Be mindful of the words we use
The words that we use have power and the words we choose to talk about a specific topic can show our biases. Often you will see in an evaluation report “child shows delayed receptive and expressive language due to hearing loss,” which is an untrue statement. Deaf and hard of hearing children who have access to signed language from birth do not automatically show language delays. This means that a child who is deaf or hard of hearing cannot have their delays attributed to their hearing levels, but instead to the level of access they have to language. A child whose parents learn ASL and expose them to other native signers will develop language the same way a hearing child develops theirs.

We must also listen to the Deaf community and their guidance about terms used to describe differing hearing levels. For too long hearing professionals have used the terms “hearing impaired” or “hearing loss.” These terms speak to what is “missing” or “lacking.” Many Deaf people have commented “I didn’t ‘lose’ anything, I was born deaf.”

Have high expectations for deaf and hard of hearing children
There is a famous quote by I. King Jordan: “Deaf people can do anything that hearing people can do, except hear.” This is what needs to be kept in mind when setting expectations for deaf and hard of hearing children at home or in the classroom. With the appropriate classroom accommodations, educators should hold these children to the same expectations as their hearing peers. These children can drive, go to college, become actors, dancers, CEOs, and get PhDs. Their opportunities are limitless.

Listen to Deaf adults’ experiencesApproximately 90% of deaf or hard of hearing children are born to hearing families. Often their child is the first deaf person they’ve ever met. Families are faced with a new challenge: how to raise a child that experiences the world in a different way. This is where Deaf mentors come in. Every deaf child will grow up to be a deaf adult. This is why we should listen to deaf adults and their experiences. Deaf adults have shared their experiences with audism, education, speech therapy, family life, and more. We need to listen and apply that knowledge to the way we support deaf and hard of hearing children.

For more information about the Deaf community and Deaf culture, I encourage you to seek out Deaf social media accounts like the following:

Why I Sign @whyIsign
Adventures in Deaf Ed @adventuresindeafed
National Association of the Deaf @nad1880


Caitlin Giammona is a hearing speech language pathologist and owner of The Signing SLP. Her business focuses on providing language and communication support to signing deaf and hard of hearing children and their families. She lives in the Bay Area, California with her husband.

Instagram: @caitlin.the.signing.slp


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