For my communities, this day will be remembered as "historic" not because rights were vindicated; but because of just how effortlessly this historic day trumped this historic year—the 25th anniversary of the
July 10, 2013. TL seated at the table presenting during the first-ever FCC workshop presenting testimony with some true allies in the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice including Alex Friedman, Cheryl Leanza and Charlie Sullivan. FCC staff look on from the foreground of the photo & an ASL interpreter can be seen in the background next to a large screen with live captions.
This is a piece I wrote on October 21, 2015, in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission's "historic" vote to cap predatory rates for calls for incarcerated people and their loved ones. This "historic" FCC's vote failed to ensure disability/deaf access, so the rights made available to millions by and through this vote did nothing for thousands of deaf/disabled people behind bars who are still completely disconnected.
Today the FCC voted to reduced predatory phone rates and ban abusive hidden fees on calls from jails and prisons beginning early next year. This is critical for incarcerated individuals and their loved ones--including at least 2.7 million children who have incarcerated parents. This historic order ends decades of abuse by huge private prison telephone companies that make millions by charging excessive rates to families who want to maintain contact with their incarcerated loved ones. This is also a huge victory for prison phone justice advocates who have fought for over a decade to end these excessive rates. Deaf and disabled people affected by mass incarceration, however, are not so fortunate.
Three years ago, I launched HEARD’s Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign to gain support for deaf and disabled people who have been denied access to telecommunications in our jails and prisons for decades. Despite the fact that deaf and disabled people have the least access to legal counsel and programs and services within our jails and prisons; and despite the fact that they are most targeted for physical and sexual abuse in prisons nationwide, they have the least access to telecommunications on the inside. Countless deaf incarcerated people have gone for years without telecommunication access.
To be clear, HEARD is an all-volunteer organization. I am a volunteer with a full-time job. No one who has supported this effort earns income from this advocacy. I cannot speak for others, but I started and continue this Campaign because I dream of one day living in a space where all people are treated with love, decency & dignity. I dream of “one day” being now. Right now. This very moment. We need not wait.
This vote represented an opportunity for our government to right a long-standing, egregious and deadly wrong.
Instead, I have again witnessed the government acknowledge the abuse, neglect and isolation; pat me on the back for reminding them of the existence of this violence; then look away—each federal agency excusing its own inaction by pointing to its own alleged “lack of authority” to make this right.
Their inaction has only emboldened those who are more concerned about profits than people. As a direct result, my communities are needlessly suffering and dying. Indeed, after three years of fighting for free phones (sounds ridiculous right?!?), I have come to the conclusion that our government is very comfortable perpetuating violence against the most vulnerable among us.
I apologize in advance for the disjointed nature of this post, but I need so badly to share these thoughts. Here is a brief look into the sacrifices that incarcerated people, family members of incarcerated individuals, advocates and attorneys have made; some of the lessons I have learned; ire for those who claim to represent deaf/disabled people who actually contributed to this injustice; and sincere gratitude to those who have supported my communities by practicing accountable advocacy during this heartbreaking journey.
CHOICES: LAW SCHOOL VS. LITERAL LIFE
I had just completed my fifth & final law school exam of the semester. It was a few hours before midnight on December 20, 2013, and the Federal Communications Commission’s midnight deadline was fast approaching. I had not even begun drafting HEARD’s comment. Most of my fellow phone justice advocates had submitted their comments hours earlier. As a full-time law student who doubled as the volunteer director of an organization serving hundreds of deaf and CODA incarcerated people (and their loved ones), early comment submission was a far-off dream.
This would be my fourth extensive comment to the FCC in less than a year explaining abuse and exploitation of deaf and disabled prisoners which necessitated telecommunications access and exposing prison telephone companies who continued to charge loved ones, legal counsel and advocates of deaf incarcerated individuals excessive rates for practically no communication.
Exhausted, I cried and cried. Then I cried some more.
I did not cry because I had just completed my fifth grueling law school exam—ending early despite desperately needing more time to work on it (this would end up being my lowest law school grade and I am still upset about that)—and wanted more than anything for my mind, eyes & body to rest;
I did not cry because I was being asked to find more ways to say exactly the same thing as I had in my previous three comments;
I did not cry because it seemed as though each FCC deadline always landed on the worst of days & my peers were taking one to three less courses than me notwithstanding all the work that I was voluntarily undertaking (the injustice of their internships counting as credits while my running an entire organization counted for none...);
I did not cry because a national deaf/disability organization took an interview with a national news outlet attempting to discuss deaf in prison issues mere days before the FCC vote but did not so much as mention this critically important issue or HEARD’s ongoing pathbreaking volunteer advocacy;
Nor did I cry because the disability rights and deaf rights communities continuously failed to even show up for our incarcerated community members whilst HEARD volunteers did all of the heavy lifting.
I cried because I knew that even as I sat and wrote this comment, that deaf people in prisons across the nation were becoming depressed, going insane, and attempting & completing suicide because our government was failing to ensure that they had equal access to something as basic as communication.
How else could I call injustice, injustice?
My partner, gave me much-needed space to grieve and release, then helped still and steel me for the task ahead. I worked for at least another six hours straight.
While all of my peers were off enjoying the “holidays” and the end of our penultimate semester of law school, I could not rest. I sat in the mock courtroom of my law school with tears streaming down my face, exhausted beyond measure, and I dictated and typed, typed and dictated--faster than I’d ever done before. I was deathly afraid that I would not be able to submit a comment by the deadline, so I worked on this comment as if there was no tomorrow--remembering that for many in my community this could very well be true if I did not find the right words.
I had to find the words that would move those who had the power to change this.
MY WORDS & THEIR TORTURE ARE APPARENTLY NOT ENOUGH
Letter is from a Deaf advocate at "Big Deaf Unit Huntsville." The letter came with 22 more surveys from deaf & hard of hearing men (we already had more than forty from this prison). This prison has more than sixty deaf/hh men & no videophones, CapTel, etc. IMAGE DESCRIPTION: half a sheet of college ruled paper is jaggedly torn in half [note: paper is a precious commodity in prisons, and often is hard to come by] with a hand-written letter that reads as follows: Here's more names of the Deaf prisoners who wish to participate in the HEARD's great cause . . . please add their names to the mailing list as well. We discussed about many other things that we believed that the TDCJ shall not fix the system, but shall engage in the improvement of the system, and many of us decided that we thought it would be best if we could focus on getting accessible telecommunications—videophone-first, as it's essential that you and I both establish an effective communication through videophone. Therefore, many of the Deaf prisoners will be able to communicate effectively with you and the other agents from HEARD to tell you more about our real basic needs. We look forward to hearing from you all and witnessing our new endeavors in our new journey to fight for our fair and rights. Thank you very much. [Signature Omitted]
Words fail. Again. And Again. And again.
After years of working on criminal legal system “reform”/dismantling, including several years on this Campaign—which quite simply asks our government to ensure that all people have access to counsel, and their loved ones—I have become ever more disheartened, dismayed and dejected.
And so, I have no more words.
No words adequately convey our government’s treatment of people with disabilities. This abuse, in our names, with our money—at the expense of the most vulnerable, for the benefit of multi-million dollar prison corporations—is ghastly and grotesque. The terrors are so many, that I do not know where to begin . . .
For decades, family members of deaf people, CODAs and disabled prisoners were paying the same—often higher—exorbitant rates for substantially less communication via antiquated and unreliable TTY technology that forced the user to type and communicate through a relay operator or with another person who has a TTY machine.
For example, in June 2015, a Deaf fiancé of a Deaf incarcerated man in Florida sent HEARD several phone bills for intrastate calls from her incarcerated partner. The bill was from CenturyLink, operated by the prison phone giant Securus.
The cost? $720.63 for 120 minutes.
That is $6 per minute for a call from Florida to Florida.
Keep in mind that American Sign Language is the first language for both of these individuals and that this was just one of four bills sent to us for TTY-to-TTY communication. In the outside world, we pay practically nothing for phone and video calls but the unregulated prison phone industry has exponentially increased rates. Moreover, prisons and prison phone companies charge deaf/disabled people additional fees to connect to relay, causing rates for deaf people to be even higher than the rates for hearing people and their loved ones.
All this, while yet other deaf people literally go years or decades with no telecommunication while incarcerated—most often because telephone systems of multi-million dollar telephone companies are not in compliance with federal disability rights laws (and because no federal agency tasked with enforcement of disability rights laws is willing to enforce our laws in prison settings). Instead, these prison telephone companies rely on voice-recognition, the ability to hear and dial specific codes within specific time parameters, the ability to comprehend and type English, and other grossly inaccessible methods of telecommunication.
As of the writing of this post, not one prison telephone company has a system that is compatible with current videophone technology used by the vast majority of the signing Deaf community in the United States.
Instead, prisons and prison phone companies refuse to provide any technology that would enable deaf or disabled incarcerated individuals to access telecommunication. Those that do, only do so after years of costly litigation. These cases are always won by Deaf/CODA incarcerated individuals but taxpayers foot the bill and deaf incarcerated people suffer mercilessly before, during and after the case.
HEARD’s DEAF PRISONER PHONE JUSTICE CAMPAIGN
The Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign illuminated these and other egregious civil and human rights violations by and through comments from HEARD and from hundreds of deaf prisoners and their loved ones who we organized all across the nation. We also mobilized and supported advocates, attorneys and organizations to submit comments on this important issue. The FCC even invited us to share our concerns with the FCC at two separate FCC workshops on reform of inmate calling services.
The heartbreaking comments from deaf incarcerated individuals spoke to the isolating impact of inaccessible technology, sky-high rates, and additional fees being charged to those using relay, that in most cases prevented them from communicating with anyone outside of prison. These comments also illustrated how the absence of videophones and captioned telephones prevent deaf prisoners from connecting to their loved ones. They also highlighted issues related to systemic abuse of deaf prisoners that necessitates communication with advocates and attorneys via sign language—a language that is wholly unique from English.
I have personally written six comments to the FCC on this issue emphasizing that in 2015, equal access to telecommunication for deaf incarcerated people and deaf family members of hearing incarcerated individuals, means, at minimum, access to captioned telephones, voice carry over, TTYs, and, most notably, videophones. I provided exhaustive commentary about Deaf Culture and communication; the egregious conditions of confinement for prisoners with disabilities and deaf prisoners nationwide; information on deaf wrongful convictions that stem from lack of access to counsel; about my inability to work on deaf wrongful conviction cases of my community members who are languishing for decades in our prisons depsite evidence of possible innocence; and about federal disability rights laws which establish clear and comprehensive prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of disability.
In my most recent of six comments on this issue to the FCC, I wrote this:
Before we respond to the Commission’s inquiries, we wish to call the Commission’s attention to the myriad comments on this issue from hundreds of deaf prisoners, and scores of preeminent national civil rights organizations and law firms, including the American Civil Liberties Union; the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice; the Human Rights Defense Center; the National Association of the Deaf; the National Disability Rights Network; the Prison Policy Initiative; Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf; Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld, LLP; the United Church of Christ, OC Inc., and signatories; Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; and several public defender offices, among many others. Most commenters have never met, but the similarities among their comments are staggering and deeply distressing:
Deaf and disabled prisoners can not communicate with loved ones or report abuse, isolation and discrimination; attorneys and advocates can not effectively represent clients who use sign language as a primary or only language, or those who struggle to read or write English; and deaf and disabled prisoners report abuse most often after filing grievances about lack of access at prisons—including lack of access to telecommunications.
The record of manifest injustice is clear. We now make what we hope will be our final appeal to the Commission for justice.
And yet, here I am again, bitterly blogging because that was not my final appeal. Instead, our Federal Communications Commission and the United States Department of Justice have yet to take any meaningful action to protect the safety, sanity and lives of deaf and disabled prisoners.
Of course I am pleased with today’s historic vote that ends discriminatory and predatory business practices that have disproportionately affected incarcerated people with disabilities for decades, but equality demands more.
How can today’s order not address these serious and sweeping accessibility concerns—raised by hundreds of people related to the absence of videophone and other technology in all but one handful of prisons in this nation? How can the FCC and Department of Justice be justified in their failure to ensure that prison telecommunication is affordable and universally accessible?
Notwithstanding today’s vote, countless people with disabilities across this nation are still completely disconnected from loved ones and advocates.
THE HUMAN COSTS OF THESE FAILURES
Federal law protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities proscribes prisons from directly, or through contractual or licensing arrangements, denying people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in or benefit from a prison's activities, programs or services. The same laws require that prisons make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, or procedures when necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability. In the case of a deaf, disabled or blind incarcerated people, equal access does not mean the same access as hearing prisoners.
In sum, prisons and prison phone companies must ensure that deaf prisoners and hearing prisoners with deaf loved ones can benefit from telephone services to the same extent as their hearing peers—and they must not charge more for receipt of this comparable service.
Again, the issue of equal access cannot be dismissed, especially considering the rate of disability found within our nation's incarcerated population. Enforcement of federal disability rights laws and regulations is necessary to reaffirm the right of all people to maintain contact with loved ones. To be quite frank, this telecommunications access issue and the failure to enforce the law is a symptom of a much larger systemic crisis of abuse, isolation and neglect of deaf and disabled prisoners.
Despite increased awareness about the plight of deaf inmates and the wide availability of low- and no-cost measures that can readily eliminate access barriers and provide safety to deaf incarcerated people, inequities and violence persist in jails and prisons nationwide. For instance, in the past year—even as the nation celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act—attorneys have successfully litigated civil rights cases on behalf of deaf prisoners in the District of Columbia, Kentucky & Maryland. This month, a judge in Illinois certified a class of deaf prisoners after a four-year effort by attorneys to gain equal access for deaf incarcerated individuals.
Attorneys should not have to sue for prisons to provide reasonable accommodations—including accessible telecommunication—to be provided for the most vulnerable people under their "care."
These systemic failures are not mere technical violations of federal law. These failures and the failures of government agencies to enforce the law are a direct threat to public health and safety. These failures transform the traditionally grim ordeal of incarceration into a nightmare of extreme language deprivation, physical and sexual abuse, and depressing solitude for deaf individuals. Mental illness, suicide, and an increased likelihood of violence and recidivism are among other unintended consequences of prison phone companies' greed and prisons' failures to ensure communication access for this population. In short, failure to provide equal access for deaf prisoners creates public safety risks for the deaf/disabled individual, other inmates, prison officials, and the public.
LESSONS LEARNED, HEARTFELT GRATITUDE AND KEY TAKEAWAYS
And so it is yet another bittersweet ending. A continuance of an agonizingly painful journey for justice’s sake.
My heart is so exceedingly heavy with the burden of having to carry this message to hundreds of people that I serve who are still completely disconnected from their loved ones despite today's "historic" vote. At the same time, I celebrate what we have been able to accomplish by coming together and working as one for the sake of our communities and our children.
I am forever grateful for the lessons that I have learned and the allyships that have been forged through this journey. It is my sincerest hope that United States Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission can come together to ensure that all people at every prison and jail in this nation have equal access to “just, fair and reasonable rates” that, only now will be experienced by millions of prisoners and their loved ones nationwide.
To the deaf/disability organization that took an interview from the USA Today just days after the FCC announced this upcoming vote but failed to try to tip the scales in our favor or to adequately discuss deaf prisoner justice—the issue for which you were being interviewed but about which you were unprepared to cover (so you should NOT have taken the damn interview!): Thanks for being more committed to your media op than our community; for putting profit over people; for not having done any real work on deaf prisoner justice issues or even having sufficiently followed HEARD’s advocacy to guide journalist into raising the profile of this critically important then-upcoming decision. Thanks for erasing years of all-volunteer community advocacy and struggle from the most marginalized in our communities (including literal life-risking advocacy by our incarcerated community) just so you could plaster the face of one of your several paid attorneys in the paper with inadequate commentary on what truly should be explained as nothing less than a “nationwide crisis of deaf access to justice.” A whole lot of good your photo is doing our community affected by mass incarceration. Consider yourselves responsible for this tragedy. I do not say this lightly: the blood, tears and pain of our community is on your hands.
To any journalist who did not do your due diligence: do diligence next time so you don't have to call me for the story about deaf prisoners going mad and committing suicide in the months and years to come.
To those I serve who have fought along side me from inside of jails and prisons across this nation, risking your life for that which what you know is your human right: I honor you and am so proud to know and love you. Thank you for supporting me. I am not sure how I will explain this situation or the fact that you will have to spend yet more years completely disconnected. Thank you in advance for comforting and encouraging me when I give you this heartbreaking nonsensical news.
To my brilliant phone justice allies who now care so deeply about deaf and disability access: Your active love and support has quite literally carried me through more nights than you know over the past three years. I am inspired by and in awe of your decades-long journey for justice with and for our incarcerated community and their loved ones. I am beyond humbled to call you allies and friends. My deepest gratitude goes to Ki'tay D. Davidson, Malkia Cyril, James Kilgore, Cheryl Leanza, Steven Renderos, Amalia Deloney, Paul Wright, Charlie Sullivan, Galen Baughman, Bernadette Rabuy, Susan Mizner, Lee Petro, Nick Szuberla, Brian Dolinar, Peter Wagner and numerous others.
To Commissioner Mignon Clyburn: Thank you for your steadfast leadership on this issue.
To Jason Tozier: Thank you for showing up to every FCC workshop and vote—including today’s—to practice active love and to demonstrate collective accountability for our incarcerated community and their loved ones.
I will never comprehend the oppression and violence perpetuated against my communities at the whim of our “government.” I will never be able to reconcile how we can be okay with concessions in civil and human rights struggles that always come at the expense of those at the margins of the margins—how on this "historic" day millions of people will rightly gain access to "just, reasonable and fair rates," unless they happen to be disabled or deaf. And I will never understand why a lone student-activist (who has been fighting this manifest injustice so long that they are now a professor-activist) cares more about the safety, sanity, human rights and lives of deaf and disabled incarcerated people than our very own government.
There is, however, one thing I am sure of. For my communities, this day will be remembered as “historic” not because rights were vindicated; but because of just how effortlessly this historic day trumped this historic year—the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Today we post the final part of our response to the Daily Dot article. Please read Part One & Part Two of this three-part series if you have not already. Please join our next Twitter chat on December 8th at 7:30 p.m. EST, where we discuss "Deaf Education in the Age of Mass Incarceration."
Here are our final responses which includes our perspectives on the impact of the #DeafEd Movement, some of our goals for the Movement, and our thoughts on why people should continue to care about & join this Movement.
Q5: Do you feel that you are currently reaching those goals?
MICAH: As for myself, I think it's always going to be a journey to self-analyze and improve/adjust in how to best advocate or provide resources for other students. #DeafEd has helped me in this, in that I have gained a better understanding of my rights to education while I'm still in college as well as how my upbringing plays a significant role in my perspective of life.
In general #DeafEd is taking steps in the right direction, as a tool for anyone and everyone involved to be able to gather and share resources and ideas.
HEIDI: I do. Like I said previously, each month is inconsistent in participation. However, we are getting more new people joining our conversations. Even a few college professors are having their classes tweet and even joining the chat! I don't think we will ever reach the goal because we will never reach every person we hope to reach, but the more awareness of #DeafEd we bring each day, ultimately the more lives of children we are impacting.
TL: We are constantly working toward those goals and many others.
Education is a journey, not a destination—a practice, not a test score, grade, or lecture. #DeafEd is where you learn all of this and so much more. This will be a life-long effort for all involved.
Q6: What next steps would you like to see?
MICAH: I would love to see #DeafEd continue, and continue witnessing teachers/professionals/parents adapt to better suit the current students' needs.
Seeing more people host these chats and what new topics they bring up would be greatly beneficial, because there may be topics or perspectives that I still am not yet aware of.
HEIDI: As a group, we feel it is time to pass the torch on to others who can move #DeafEd forward. We hope to find someone who can enhance what we have started and bring fresh perspectives and ways of attracting more people to Twitter and the chat.
LAUREN: While the #DeafEd movement is still a new concept to many, it is a critical platform to disseminate information on current trends in Deaf Education, and to have an open dialogue on issues in a field that is seemingly controversial to many due to varying perspectives. This platform is one way to tear down walls, and to connect educators throughout the world. Often times, teachers of the Deaf are isolated due to the low incidence population, so coming together for a monthly chat, helps to bridge all of us together and share resources.
TL: I would like to see how we can connect with people who may not have access to the internet or linguistic, economic, or other privileges to be able to effectively participate in these sorts of dialogues. We have done well to ensure that this space is as accessible as possible. I would like to see the physical version of current virtual #DeafEd chats established in communities in accessible spaces and languages.
I also would like to see Youth serve as consultants to administrators and educators in schools and universities across the nation. This should be standard practice.
Q7: Why should readers care about #DeafEd?
LAUREN: Our voices as teachers must not be silent. We must work with the system that has been handed down by those who think they know best for our Deaf students. We may be teachers, but we are also leaders. It is how we raise our voice that matters, not our titles. We do not need a certain position of power to reverse injustices. We know deep down what is best for our students and we cannot be afraid to promote it. We must teach our students to be advocates of their own lives, because if they do not advocate for themselves, they will not be able to navigate their way in this world. #DeafEd is an opportunity to advocate for our students, and to spread awareness on what defines #DeafEd.
MICAH: Access to education plays a significant role in how far people are able to go, as well as how aware they become of their rights.
Students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended (even more so if the student is a person of color) and sucked into the School to Prison Pipeline, a major contributor to #DeafinPrison (another area that I am getting more involved in, as an intern for Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf).
Schools will hold high expectations for "normal" behavior even when the school environment is "abnormal" for the student theirself. As such the student is often set up for failure then due to lack of education, lack of awareness of their rights (due to not having education on this), and the frustrations of being in a world that is not set up for their needs, their culture, their language & tools (whether this is ASL, tactile sign language, cueing, etc).
Almost every person knows someone who was "that kid" in school; problematic, lashing out, aggressive, and/or needing extra attention from the teachers. But have they really taken the time to consider why that is, or whether the negative perceptions of "that kid" are coming from a place of ignorance?
#DeafEd is a great starting point, in getting to learn from actively-engaged advocates of #DeafEd, and the DDBBHH students that are affected, because we are the ones that ARE the source. There is a serious issue of people who need "proof" of how education impacts DDBDDHH students in the form of written research by multi-privileged academic peers, rather than believing marginalized people's stories in the first place. Please note this is common in all areas of injustice, especially racism and ableism.
In conclusion, there needs to be a deliberate inclusion of DDBDDHH people into education to ensure competency amongst everyone as this is an area that often serves as a gateway in/out of prison and/or a better, safer life.
TL: #DeafEd is where we move toward freedom and liberation in education & society.
I have participated in numerous education-centric chats. There are many things that set #DeafEd apart from others. The one that I want to name here is the fact that #DeafEd centers perspectives from multiply-marginalized DDBDDHH Youth like Micah (@MicahzLewis), Alex (@AVHadvocacy ), Tina (@TinaxBanerjee ) and Cortez (@csh7893), just to name a few. This is exceptional—though it absolutely should not be. Perhaps #DeafEd will start a trend in ed chats where we center the voices of those whose education, lives and future are at stake.
Today we post part two of our response to the Daily Dot article. Please read Part One of this three-part series if you have not already.
Q2: Explain some general problems in Deaf Education that readers might not be aware of (i.e. graduations rates, etc). If you had to pick a few, which issues would you like to be highlighted?
LAUREN: Currently, 86% of the Deaf population are being mainstreamed into public schools, trying to make it through the education system, labeled “Deaf education”, or would it be more appropriately called surviving a ‘hearing’ education? Are our deaf students learning about Deaf role models? About important contributions made to society by Deaf people? The landscape of Deaf education has changed dramatically over the years. We now have laws and expectations that now focus on student outcomes rather than student access and growth. In addition, Deaf students are being assimilated into environments that are defined by hearing policy-makers and so-called educational experts as the least restrictive environment (LRE) otherwise known as ‘inclusion.’ We know that the LRE ideology is actually exclusive rather than inclusive. In addition, many of our students come from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. So what exactly defines Deaf education? No longer should we be just focusing on providing direct instruction, derived largely from curricula designated for hearing monolingual students. We must become culturally responsive teachers and to help to raise the voices of not only our students but also ourselves as leaders in Deaf education. We need to be dynamic community teachers in order to model for our students how to reach their full potential, and to empower them to become life-long advocates. As a teacher in a marginalized community, we cannot remain hidden in our classrooms. We cannot teach in isolation. We must be community teachers, and this is why #DeafEd is important.
MICAH: In general, there are still the issues of audism, ableism, and racism in Deaf Education.
For example: Regarding racism, Black American Sign Language is often not acknowledged or taken into account when speaking about variations in ASL. Plus, if someone asks to imagine a Deaf student, the majority of the time one will immediately think of a white person.
With ableism, there's the fact that if a student is Deaf+, resources often are not available for both identities at the same time (ex: DeafBlind students not having access because accessibility would be either hearing-based or vision-based). If there is a mental health issue or a cognitive disability, that is often pushed under the rug or used as further proof that Deaf people are "violent."
For audism, this is often seen when one finds out why a certain person may have decided to be a professional in Deaf Education, or the systemic goals behind certain schools of thoughts such as teachers pitying the DDBDDHH students or helping "for" the Deaf (rather than actually working "with" the Deaf). Audism plays the main role in why oralism is very much a strong influence of Deaf Education, as professionals claim that learning sign language or gestures would only be detrimental to language acquisition (contradictory to studies that show children who learn ASL often pick up on a larger vocabulary faster).
TL: The problems in Deaf Education by in large are problems with the larger more amorphous system we call "education”—and to a much greater degree, problems with society writ large. The fact that we have cemented into the minds and hearts of even the youngest among us that there is a "normal"—that some ways of listening, behaving, communicating, thinking, learning are superior to others—is, in fact, a serious problem. The fact that sign languages are not seen as viable teaching languages that would be a value-added to all students is a terrible shame for all of our students and indicative of ableism and audism in society and education. Similarly, the fact education outcomes for students of color; students who are income, food and housing insecure; LGBTQI students; and students with disabilities indicate an urgent need for transformation of how we allocate resources, support marginalized communities and serve all of our students.
I once had the privilege of serving as an educator to middle school-age students in a low-income neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Though these students happened to be hearing, they connected with course content provided in American Sign Language in ways that they could not when provided in spoken or written English. Sign language was a gift that provided another way of understanding the world and concepts that otherwise may have been missed.
Sadly, our continued insistence on use of subjective measurements of “success,” and our collective failure to ensure that education universally accessible and culturally responsive, leads to students being pushed out of school and into the prison system. Studies indicate that 85% of the youth presently incarcerated in our nation’s prisons have at least one disability.
As an activist working to end mass incarceration and the attendant school to prison pipeline, #DeafEd serves as another way of raising consciousness about the importance of an intersectional framework for education that shifts the educational paradigm from rugged independence to compulsory interdependence; from zero tolerance to nonviolent & restorative justice principles; from race & disability “neutral” to race and disability positive & responsive. This framework centers trauma-informed education, disability justice, and universal access to undermine the root causes of the school to prison pipeline. Not surprisingly, this approach also brings about uncommon success in all students because it centers the whole humanity of your youth, supporting them to each become their best selves.
TAMARA: Growing up, I had always felt like an outsider. I was “between worlds”. I am biracial and grew up with a mix of Norwegian and African-American cultures. I weave between the Deaf and Hearing worlds. So often society forces us to “choose” a side. I see this often with my high school students who are struggling to figure out who they are. Those of us in the education field need to become better advocates for intersectionality. We need teachers and administrators who are willing to unpack their privilege and help students question the world around them. Too often people navigate FOR deaf students. Our students, regardless of disability, need to be able to form their own opinions, develop their own beliefs, and build their own character.
Another issue is the unintentional segregation that often affects students of color. Too often we are seeing students of color relegated to remedial cohorts and rarely are they visible in honors level classes or even student council positions. We are also seeing a drastic need for more teachers and administrators of color. We have to have a serious conversation on what diversity means and how we can combat some of the disparities we are seeing within our schools.
Q4: How would you describe the DeafEd movement currently in your own words? What are the ultimate goals?
TL: #DeafEd means different things for and to different people. Even among our current core team, you will receive vastly different responses to this question. That is the beauty of #DeafEd. The hashtag and the movement—is dynamic and can serve in whatever capacity anyone so chooses. It also changes with time and innovation.
People have used it for networking, professional development, sharing space, debating, being heard, live tweeting education conferences, and much more.
Some of my ultimate goals for #DeafEd include:
MICAH: Monumental. A crucial piece in the movement for accessibility, intersectionality, and for decreasing the marginalization of the DDBDDHH communities. For me, I believe the ultimate goals to be:
-improvement of education standards and accessibility for DDBDDHH students
-wider variety of teaching methods, as there is no one template
-greater involvement of students (because whatever education choices made will impact them directly) as well as the guardians (because learning happens in the home too). This is necessary for teachers and other professionals as well, in that they take the time to listen to feedback and advice due to the fact that many are white, able-bodied, hearing people who do not share the same experience as their students.
TAMARA: To me, the #DeafEd Movement is a platform for open dialogue. The history of deaf education has been one rife with division as well-intentioned people try to answer the question of What is the best way to educate deaf children? Or how do Deaf children learn? The answers to these questions are as diverse as the people who are a part of the Deaf Community. I think with #DeafEd, we are creating a safe space for people to share ideas and resources, connect with others in our field, and develop some common ground to show that we are all dedicated to providing our students with the best educational opportunities possible. The ultimate goal for me would be for educators to feel more open in sharing what works—creating a space that allows us to absolve geographical lines, absolve the “us” vs “them” divisiveness that so often permeates social media, and become a source of true professional development. I think we are getting there. I’d definitely love to see a larger participation that included more students, administrators, policy makers, professionals, and even educators from around the world. I’d like to see our movement lead to real positive change for our students.
HEIDI: I think more people are aware of #DeafEd and use it as they navigate or participate on Twitter. When we changed the schedule for this year's chats (which started in August), people were messaging me asking when the chat was. It is great to know we have people who expect the chat to happen and need the chat to happen. My goals for the chat are to bring teachers closer together. Because the majority of deaf and hard of hearing students are being served in their local school districts and represent a very small percentage of the student population, Teachers of the Deaf are often isolated from their colleagues. They cannot just walk down the hall to ask another Teacher of the Deaf a question. #DeafEd is a way of eliminating that isolation, of getting global perspectives on deaf education.
However, I think there are still too many teachers, parents, community members, etc who are uncomfortable with the platform which hinders the ability to expand as much as we want. HEARD has created ASL videos on Twitter basics to encourage more to participate. I think if there was this type of chat platform on FaceBook, where everyone is comfortable, we would have a larger audience each month.
LAUREN: As teachers in a battlefield of differing ideologies and misconceptions, we must learn to find solutions and educate others what it means to raise a deaf student in the education system. A dream I have is that one day the field of Deaf education will no longer only begin from a hearing, monolingual perspective but rather from a social justice, humanistic perspective. This means acknowledging that we each have the power to utilize our voice and be the voice of others through a variety of mediums such as social media. And this is why I am vested in #DeafEd.
I dream incessantly of justice. Hoping to calm my mind & stir yours through this freedom space.