A photo of a woman being fitted for a hearing aid

Do the Hearing Deserve to Hear from the Deaf?: A Simple Policy Proposal for Common-Sense Access That Still Eludes Us

By Jessica Scott, Stephanie Gardiner-Walsh, and G. Sue Kasun 

Academia has a storied history of denying minoritized perspectives their rightful place in the ivory tower. This continues, despite the individuals and activists who have attempted to shift this imbalance in recent years. Currently, those perspectives are included either through paying lip service to the concept of including minoritized perspectives, or, in a few very lucky places, elevating minoritized perspectives as experts for correcting the problem. However, this has not been the experience of most disabled people, and much comes down to the requirement of legal policy to include disabled people in access to “typical” experiences— not a two-directional experience of access. 

After a blistering experience where all of us felt disgusted after perpetuating harm against deaf communities, we offer this question to the readership of this blog: What if changing only five words in a single policy could be a huge move towards equity?  

Figure 1: Our proposed modified accessibility policy

We argue that with this small-scale change, we can shift the attitude that hearing people have towards sign language interpreters and who they believe sign language interpreters are primarily there to provide access for. The commonplace understanding (among hearing people) is that a sign language interpreter is present to allow a deaf person to access hearing people, spoken communication, and the hearing world, despite national organizations who state otherwise. This can be seen in who is responsible for requesting interpreters, providing interpreters, where funding for interpreters originates, and often in attitudes about whose information is most valuable during interpreted conversations. 

As it turns out, many, perhaps most, institutions do not provide interpreting in the reverse, where the deaf person provides information or tools for a hearing audience through an interpreter. Surely we are beyond the days where we only imagine deaf people need “our help” and understand that deaf communities have much to share with hearing communities.  

In our own lives, we have witnessed how deaf individuals relate through signed language in ways that challenge our assumptions about what it means to create meaning, the possibilities in how it is created, and how we might be limited by spoken language if that is the only language we know. 

Yes, the hearing world represents 99% of the population, yet surely this strong minority has a whole way of understanding the world we can all learn from. Because of this, hearing people should change their attitudes regarding sign language interpreters and who benefits from their presence. 

As coauthors, we suffered through institutional barriers wherein we attempted to provide this very differently conceived directional interpreting from a dear deaf colleague who was leading a webinar on this very topic–how to subvert the notions of access/accessibility for deaf communities in education. The institution hosting the webinar informed us we would have to pay hundreds of dollars no one had in their budgets to provide a service so hearing participants could access this man’s thoughtful work!  

When we pushed back, legal teams were involved, perhaps because they were frightened of litigation, explaining, point-by-point, why access was only available in the reverse (flowing from hearing people to deaf people). We were exasperated, we wrote the long version of this piece. Now we seek your help in a simple yet monumental step toward equity— to reach out to your offices of equity and push for interpreting be provided for the hearing from deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and recognition that sign language interpreting provides access for all, not only access to the hearing community for deaf people. 

In closing, we ask: What does it mean to learn from minoritized communities? How will society as a whole benefit from “flipping the script,” as we describe it, from interpreters as providing deaf people with access to the hearing world, to interpreters facilitating two-way communication and mutually beneficial learning between deaf and hearing communities? 

In light of luminary Dr. Jon Henner’s recent passing, we want to recognize his invaluable contributions to the field. We would like to point the reader to his important contributions to the field such as the revolutionary Crip Linguistics, the illusory nature of access provided by interpreters for deaf children, critique of signing systems, all of which have influenced our work here. 

About the Authors

Jessica Scott is an associate professor in deaf education at Georgia State University who is interested in the role of signed languages in the educational lives of deaf students. She is hearing and a second language user of ASL, which she started learning over 20 years ago. 

Stephanie Gardiner-Walsh is an associate professor in deaf education at Illinois State University. She is hard of hearing and exhausted from the constant need to justify and advocate for the inclusion and value of deaf and hard of hearing perspectives in decision-making processes.  

G. Sue Kasun is an associate professor of language education at Georgia State University. Her research engages ways of knowing, transnationalism, Indigenous knowledges, and education. 

They are the authors of “Flipping the Interpreter Script: Perspectives on Accessibility” in the Winter 2023 issue of Harvard Educational Review.