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Hearing privilege and Deaf disempowerment

by Peter Fogarty

The New Zealand Herald recently published a story reporting that Deaf are being “elbowed out of top spots” in their own organisations. It was timely. Recent events have picked the scab off a climate of fear, anxiety and conflict in the Deaf community. The Deaf culture in our own organisations is on life support.

Hearing privilege and Deaf disempowerment are at the heart of these events. But what is hearing privilege?

By definition, hearing people can hear and usually can speak. This creates systematic and structural barriers for people who cannot hear or speak as hearing people do, i.e., the Deaf community.

Deaf are unlike other disabled groups in that their “disability” is linguistic. Deaf can do everything except hear. Every other disabled group has access to hearing privilege.

Naturally, Deaf, like other linguistic minorities, need interpreters to act as intermediaries between themselves and the hearing world. Deaf need to use hearing people to overcome the systematic barriers put up by hearing privilege.

This is why hearing leaders are hired: because of their hearing privilege – that is, their ability to engage with the hearing world on behalf of their Deaf employers.

Hearing privilege is all-pervasive. Hearing people do not have to constantly explain and defend themselves. Hearing people can expect their parents, doctors, teachers, and community will share the same education, culture and language as themselves. Hearing people can expect that they will be represented accurately and fairly in the media.

Hearing privilege is when hearing people decide what is best for the Deaf community without their input, insight, or consideration.

When a hearing person represents a Deaf issue to the wider community, the optics are terrible. It suggests to the world that Deaf are not capable of representing themselves. It suggests that Deaf need interpreters and hearing intermediaries to interact with the hearing community. Utter nonsense. Deaf are proud to represent ourselves and we do not need any hearing person to speak for us.

Hearing privilege means that we, the Deaf community, cannot go and speak with the CEO of the organisation that represents people like us, and expect to be able to speak with him or her in our own native language without needing a $90-per-hour interpreter.

What does it say about a disabled persons’ organisation (DPO) when its CEO is not a member of the disabled community it represents? This is hardly unique to the disability sector in New Zealand or around the world.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), a DPO is considered “to be those comprised by a majority of persons with disabilities – at least half of its membership – governed, led and directed by persons with disabilities.”

In the Deaf sector, Deaf Aotearoa meets these criteria in all but the top position, with a fully Deaf membership, just over half of staff and managers Deaf, and a fully Deaf Board, with directors of companies that it owns being majority Deaf but including a hearing director. Other Deaf-related organisations in the sector mainly have a medical focus on helping hearing people keep their hearing privilege.

It is unfortunate that the hearing community still maintains significant barriers to the Deaf community in New Zealand and Deaf organisations are not represented by members of the Deaf community, but by another cultural and linguistic group.

For every hearing person in a Deaf organisation, there is a very capable under- or unemployed Deaf person that might acquire valuable experience that is difficult to acquire anywhere else except the Deaf sector because of the systematic barriers of hearing privilege in the wider New Zealand community.

One of the unfortunate consequences of hearing people working within Deaf organisations is that their well-meaning hearing activities sometimes disempower Deaf. Too often, control of organisations is handed to hearing people because of their hearing privilege, i.e., because they may have excellent written English, higher qualifications, and are seen as allies.

The attempts of hearing people to mediate situations for Deaf may result in situational disempowerment, which can lead to economic disempowerment. The goal of hearing people in a Deaf organisation should be to ensure communication access, not disempowerment in any form whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Stating that the appropriately qualified Deaf person for the job could not be found is economic disempowerment, not only for the Deaf candidates who missed out, but also for the Deaf organisation, which must now employ expensive interpreters to facilitate communications with their client base, and which possibly experiences high turnover of Deaf staff who become alienated from their hearing managers who cannot speak fluently in sign language or respect Deaf cultural practices even after several years.

Few other communities need to spend significant amounts of money relative to their basic income to live a normal life. Some Deaf may spend up to $20,000 per year on interpreters to access hearing privilege.

As long as hearing people advocate for Deaf people, the wider community continue to have their perceptions of Deaf shaped by other hearing people, not by Deaf themselves, and hearing people continue to profit off Deaf people.

Under the human rights principles outlined by the UNCRPD, we have the right to represent ourselves in all matters that involve us. We have the right not to have our minds, language, and institutions be colonized by people with hearing privilege. We have the right to protest about matters that involve us. We have the right to have our language and culture respected. We have the right to access and fully participate in society. We are Deaf and proud.

Hearing privilege is blocking us from enjoying our birthright. Please stop hogging the hot seats and check your privilege.

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