Room For Space: Deaf Culture & Accessibility

For the purpose of this article that centres around the Deaf community and Deaf Culture, the “mainstream” will refer to those that are hearing.

NOTE: All videos have captions

I strode into class, eyes fixated on my phone, and immediately bumped into something dull and hard. My head shot up in both pain and protest and was unsurprisingly greeted by a desk. What was unusual, however, was the way in which it was positioned. I surveyed the room and realized that instead of being stacked in classic rows, they were arranged in a rounded, semi-circle pattern. The desks were thus pushed out along the perimeter of the classroom, placing them noticeably closer to the entrance.  

It was my first day of my new elective, ASL101, or “Intro to American Sign Language”. On the whiteboard was written in bold black letters, “No Voice” and the name of the instructor, “Nina Winiarczyk”.  Nina, originally from Ottawa, attended a Deaf school in Belleville, Ont. and went on to complete her BA and MA in Washington at Gaulladet University – the world’s only barrier-free university for the education of the Deaf. The “no voice” rule written on the board was not only to help accelerate our learning of ASL, but also a form of respect towards our teacher.

DeafSpace: not just “space”

The horseshoe layout, as I later learned the desk arrangement to be called, was my first encounter with DeafSpace. DeafSpace is the way in which mainstream space – which is largely constructed by and for hearing individuals – is reimagined, redesigned, and rearranged to better fit the needs of Deaf people.

horseshoe.jpg

This horseshoe shape allows for clear sightlines and non-obstructed lines of vision, so that each student has easy access to see and engage in visual communication – no one has to stare at the back of someone’s head. This rearrangement of space does not only serve a practical use, or is just a simple architectural design - it’s an integral part of Deaf culture. Upon my very first moments of entering the classroom, a barrier that I typically wouldn’t have noticed or given second thought to – a regular classroom layout – was made clear to me.

Throughout the last semester, ASL101 taught me not only how to introduce myself, identify people, describe living situations and express likes and dislikes in Sign Language, but also to better understand and appreciate the vibrancy of Deaf culture. Additionally, it opened my eyes to the countless barriers our mainstream society presents to the Deaf community.

As a hearing individual, I simply cannot speak on behalf of a Deaf individual. The two worlds that we live in, while the same, are vastly different in experience and preferred design. Aspects of proximity, light and colour, sensory reach, and much more, all encompass the structure of DeafSpace.

Mainstream space inarguably serves, well, the mainstream. Our design of space and structure reflect our hearing capability. Sharp corners in hallways, bright flashy colours, dim lighting - none take into account the rich interrelationship between the senses that the Deaf community rely on, and from which draw great cultural meaning. Rounded corners in hallways for greater visibility, neutral or muted colours, and proper lighting all play a role in creating an accessible space for the Deaf to communicate without barriers.

The importance of access

The push for greater accessibility - which has arguably begun to penetrate the mainstream - is still one that is often put on the sidelines. It is even more common to see these conversations being spearheaded by the mainstream society, without consultation or invitation for discussion from the community in which they aim to serve.

What’s more, the perception of barriers and even the definition of accessibility can vary widely between individuals. My daily experience of having to give little to no thought to my environment in relation to accessibility is one that is not a reality for all. It is important to remember, as Nina explains, that barriers are not just physical. The effects of stigmatization and its continued proliferation continue to affect the Deaf. The segregation between the Deaf community and the “mainstream” illustrates a form of othering.

This distinction in and of itself is not negative, rather, I believe that efforts should continue to be made to further recognize and celebrate the intricacies of Deaf culture as distinct and different. However, the common misconception that the Deaf community is uneducated and unaccomplished assumes that these individuals are inferior to the mainstream – leading to a form of othering that is demeaning and stifling.

Good advocacy

The continued push for the recognition of both ASL (American Sign Language) and LSQ (Langue des signes Québécoise) as official languages of the Deaf is an ongoing battle. This acknowledgement does not only serve to legitimize Deaf Culture but is integral to granting Deaf people the same rights as other Canadians. As Frank Folino, president of the Canadian Association of the Deaf, recounts in December 2018, the failure to recognize ASL and LSQ as official languages “bars Deaf people from basic civic and social interactions – which include participation in political debate, reading government communications in emergency situations, and having equal access to airport staff when travelling both within and without the country”. The struggle lies not only within this push for official recognition and support, but in the Deaf community’s advocacy on behalf of themselves.

Advocacy, as Nina mentions, sometimes has a negative stigma attributed to it some may view the lack of change or action after countless rallies and protests frustrating and fruitless. But it is important to note that when we speak of advocacy, the Deaf community ensures and emphasizes the importance of good advocacythe kind that benefits all people who use both ASL and LSQ. This advocacy does not only take the form of rallies and protests, but also in the Deaf community’s continued research and contributions of data to the mainstream community.

When asked about the definition of accessibility, and its many forms, Nina describes a shift in its appearance and even culture.

The rhetoric of “fixing”

The rise of technology has greatly changed the way in which Deaf people communicate. The ability to constantly stay connected is made possible through technologies such as Skype, texting, and much more. Today, with the increased availability of cochlear implants, many Deaf children do not have to rely on ASL or LSQ to communicate with their families and friends.

But with the increase in communication technologies has come a decrease in the need for actual communication itself. Nina recounts a time when the Deaf community would regularly gather in one space to communicate and spend time with one another – such as holding regular student meetings in the residence halls at Gallaudet University. This was not only out of necessity – because at the time there was no technology that could facilitate long-distance communication – but also to promote Deaf culture. This physical form of interaction, while not completely lost, has undeniably been minimized since the advent of the smartphone.

With the rise of technology paired with the aforementioned growth in cochlear implants, the notion of “fixing” Deaf people has taken on a new meaning. The assumption that Deaf people want nothing more than to hear fuels the continued negligence towards the true wants and desires of the Deaf community – which include the official recognition of their language, improvements in the education system, and adherence to their research regarding the importance of acquiring ASL or LSQ from birth, to name a few.

Still, the growing exposure to ASL and Deaf culture is one change that has been vastly for the better. Nina notes that she’s definitely seen a much greater awareness and knowledge of ASL in the mainstream. As Ryerson began offering their first ASL courses this school year, she hopes that this area of study will only continue to expand and grow on campuses.

It’s as simple as listening

The importance therein lies in the simple act of listening to this community. Greater accessibility – and proper forms of it – will only come to be if we,  the mainstream, continue to be in conversation and relationship with the community we want to serve. As hearing individuals, we must never assume, or dictate, the needs and wants of Deaf people. Deaf culture is one that is deeply rich in history and vibrancy, and one that does not deserve to be overlooked or attempted to be appropriated into the mainstream – just like any other culture.