Dr. Genie Gertz Gives Lecture on Deaf Community and Audism

“[Deaf children are] human in shape, but only half-human in attributes,” said Lewis Dudley, founder of the Clarke School for the Deaf, in 1867.

You wouldn’t agree with this dated statement nowadays, would you? If you knew someone who was deliberately insulting an entire community of people, you might speak up against them, or at least not join in. But there is another side to privilege and bias that you might not recognize, and you might fall prey to it without even realizing.

From being forbidden to sign in public to being openly mocked and looked down on, Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have faced discrimination from hearing people all their lives. This prejudice can be a blatant statement, such as Dudley’s statement above. It can also be more subtle and unconscious, harboring a belief that the Deaf community as a whole is disabled and that Deaf people cannot properly communicate without subscribing to a spoken language. Although one view is intentionally harmful while the other is an expression of ignorance, both are damaging to the Deaf community.

Hearing people may not even realize they feel this way about Deaf people, which is why Dr. Genie Gertz invited McDaniel students and the Westminster community to open their minds last Tuesday and attend her lecture, “Oppression to Audism.”

Gertz, fluent in both Russian and American sign language, began her lecture by emphasizing that audism is a complicated concept. Although people may have tried to assign a specific sign to audism, she believes the word is too complex for its meaning to fit into one sign, so she fingerspelled it—that is, spelled out the word in the ASL alphabet—throughout her presentation.

The word “audism” was coined by Tom Humphries in 1975. Gertz described it as a type of prejudice that results from people in power not recognizing their own privileges and (consciously or subconsciously) believing that people without those privileges are somehow inferior.

Privileges can open doors for people and close doors for others, and this makes the less privileged group suffer. This leads to “isms”—sexism, ethnocentrism, and racism, to name a few. Gertz emphasized the importance of “isms.”

“Once something has been given a name, that will force us as people to recognize that there’s a problem we need to do something about,” Gertz said. “We can no longer deny something when it has a label.”

In our modern day society, we are becoming more aware of the ‘isms,’ she said, but there are still many.

Once we become conscious of the privileges that we have, we need to understand “how we use our privileges to support other groups that don’t have these privileges,” Gertz stated.

If people do not recognize their own privileges, however, they begin to look down upon those they see as beneath them. When you view a group as incapable of something, you begin discriminating against them.

When these people hold positions of power, this can lead to instances of institutionalized audism. This is an expansion of Humphries’ original term by Harlan Lane in 1992. It is described as a way of “dominating, restructuring, and exercising authority over the deaf communities.”

Schools may see Deaf people as having a medical issue rather than being part of a cultural minority, and may believe spoken language is the normal and superior way to communicate. They may refuse to recognize ASL as a legitimate language, making Deaf students communicate exclusively through speech, forcing them to learn an entirely new language that is extremely difficult for them to use.

Gertz stressed that the notion that spoken language is more valid than visual language is hurtful to the Deaf community because when people are exposed to stereotypes, they themselves begin to believe the stereotypes. These people may not identify with their own deafness or the Deaf community because they feel ashamed.

Deaf people “still struggle to gain respect for their own language and culture,” Gertz said, because the oppression is internalized. You may read this and believe that you would never think these harmful thoughts of Deaf people, but Gertz argues that there is an internalized kind of audism that we do not immediately recognize, called “dysconscious audism.”

According to Gertz, dysconscious audism is “a form of audism that tacitly accepts dominant hearing norms and privileges. It is not the absence of consciousness but an impaired consciousness or distorted way of thinking about Deaf consciousness.”

This is not to say that every hearing person is prejudiced against Deaf people, but that we may harbor beliefs about them that are not true, such as the stereotype that they are disabled.

To avoid dysconscious audism, she recommended being aware of and understanding the extent of the power you possess and to always actively assess situations. Engage in discussion and go through a process of discovery, she said.

“This process can happen when we ask the meaningful question of ‘Why?’” Gertz said.

So—how can you develop an attitude to promote social change?

Awareness of self, awareness of culture and attitudes, and the ability to analyze your own beliefs and behaviors are all important in combatting prejudice. You first have to start by looking at yourself—what attitudes and beliefs do you have?

Developing knowledge about Deaf people is the next step. Building authentic relationships with the Deaf community, building Deaf cultural knowledge, and listening to their stories and interpretations of their culture rather than subscribing to stereotypes are all important.

Gertz concluded her presentation with this message: “The one important thing that I want you to take away from this whole presentation is that, now that you have learned about audism, what can you as individuals do?”