For most people, social media is hardly a darling of the digital age.
The deaf would like to respectfully disagree.
Being able to share a common language – written English – with a world that doesn’t speak a deaf person’s primary language – American Sign Language, or ASL – has opened up possibilities for communicating with hearing society that didn’t exist even just a couple presidents ago.
And, social media platforms, namely Facebook, have also opened the deaf community to itself in ways not seen in decades.
In the Upstate, a Facebook group page minted just within the past few months is already proving what a game-changer social media can be for deaf people. Called “Signing Starbucks,” the page started as a rather basic announcement of an evening get-together for deaf people at the store's Laurens Road location in Greenville. Even before the beans were ground, this brainchild of Jason Hurdich, a Greenville resident and ASL lecturer at Clemson, had caused quite the stir.
“I started signing night because … I felt that the deaf community was, for lack of a better word, hiding,” Hurdich says. “Or just more spread out, and this event would bring everybody together.”
He was expecting maybe a couple dozen people. The first signing night drew about 300.
Hurdich admits that his standing in the deaf community didn’t hurt his getting the word out about signing
night. Google his name and you’ll notice a prevalent nickname for him – “rockstar.” Hurdich is, legitimately, South Carolina’s most famous certified deaf instructor. He earned his nickname as an interpreter for former Gov. Nikki Haley during the Hurricane Matthew news cycle in 2016.
He also puts out a lot of information for the deaf community, including on Twitter and Facebook, and has a respectable following on both. He doesn’t feel that social media is a panacea for deaf people, but he does believe it bridges the gulfs that grow between deaf people, as well as between deaf and hearing people.
“Social media also plays a role in spreading awareness for accessibility and other issues that are important to the deaf community,” he says. “As a hearing person, you have the benefit of incidental information and incidental learning.”
Incidental information refers to audio cues – the rattle of an air conditioner that needs to be fixed or the squeal of door that lets you know someone’s coming in. But it also refers to other situational information that allows hearing people to navigate their world – tone of voice or language nuance, for instance.
“Deaf people are at a disadvantage, or are more limited in how they interact with incidental information,” Hurdich says. “Social media bridges the gap.”
Social media is not, therefore, the goal. It is the overpass to the goal – which is, in part, to let deaf people know where to find each other in person.
Sherry Williams, president of the South Carolina Association of the Deaf, says Facebook in particular is a powerful tool for getting through to often isolated deaf people.
“It gives us a way to publicize events,” Williams says. “[But] even with the social media, deaf people still feel the need to physically get together.”
That used to be the way things actually were for deaf society. Half a century ago, deaf children usually attended deaf schools. They socialized among deaf classmates and deaf adults and, thereby, built a culture around a visual language that has its own nuances, its own slang, and its own sets of dialects – almost, a hearing person would say, its own accents.
This ASL interpretation of the audio story is presented by Heather Knight.
But socializing among other deaf people, who share their life experiences and could stand as role models for deaf youth, took a massive hit by the 1970s. With a trend towards integrating deaf children into public schools – a practice known as “mainstreaming” – deaf children grew far apart from others like them. The use of ASL was often discouraged by hearing parents and educators, on the idea that it was better to assimilate deaf children into the much larger auditory world than to isolate them among themselves, in a language only they, for the most part, spoke.
It didn’t work out quite so nobly as designed.
From Specialized Schools to Special Ed
Specialized residential schools for the deaf were concentrated affairs.
“There would have been one for the whole state and transportation would have been difficult, so they tended to stay there the entire school year,” Williams says. “They would have become immersed into the deaf community and into the deaf culture.”
For the record, schools for the deaf have not gone away. The South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind is one of the oldest such institutions in the country. The School for the Deaf was founded in Spartanburg in 1849. Day and residential students still attend classes there, but the school serves the entire state through its outreach programs.
Things have just been different since 1975. That year, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed. It states: “all children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.”
The idea was to break deaf children out of an ASL-only bubble and socialize them into a world that could hear. The trouble was, kids frequently ended up in schools where no one could relate to them.
“When a [deaf] student is put into a mainstream education situation they are typically the only one and do not have peers who use their same language or have their same experience,” says Amelia England, president of the Upstate Association of the Deaf. “Communication is often lacking and it is incredibly isolating for them.”
England knows this from her own experience. Having spent much of her pre-high school years in a deaf school, she was transferred to a public school in Georgia when her mother (also deaf) got a job with the U.S. Postal Service there in the late 1980s. This was before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which mandates, among other things, that public schools be equipped to handle the special needs of students who attend, including hearing impaired students. In 1989, schools were still under no real obligation to make such accommodations for deaf students.
England was a bright, chatty, athletic girl with ADHD at her original school, she says. When she got to public school, she was placed in special ed – in classes well below what she says were her abilities – because the school did not know what else to do with her.
“I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t in a regular classroom like I had been before,” she says. “I did feel like I was kind of a pariah. Kids thought they maybe would catch deafness from me, like I was diseased in some way.”
These days, with the ADA in effect, deaf children are far more socialized in public school systems, compared to the 1980s. But that mostly applies to their socialization with hearing children. Even at schools that do have more than one deaf student, and even in districts with teachers who can sign, there’s one glaring absence for deaf kids in public schools, Williams says – they don’t meet deaf adults who could share related experiences and acclimate deaf students into both deaf culture and the world in general.
“We want to figure out ways to reach out to that community,” she says. “Many of them are mainstreamed into public schools and they don’t have deaf role models.”
There are, after all, things that a hearing person, no matter how well-intentioned and no matter how fluent in ASL, would likely not stop to think could be problematic for someone who can’t hear.
Think, for example, how easy it is for a person who can hear to call a customer service line when the cable goes out. Even if getting a live person can be next to impossible sometimes, you can usually, eventually, find a human being to walk you through a problem; usually in a couple minutes.
Another deaf person who’s been through something like that, Williams says, could help steer someone through a process hearing people take for granted.
You might be thinking that deaf people could just use online chats and Twitter messages to reach a customer service department. Well, they do. But the above example punctuates the importance of communications technology to deaf people. Without email or Twitter messages or live chats – which really haven’t been around all that long – how does a deaf person reach out and connect with someone they can’t see in person to sign with?
Technology took its first big step towards connecting deaf people to others, deaf and not, in the 1960s. The device was called TTY, a clunky amalgam of telephone and typewriter that allowed users to type out messages that would then be sent as written-word signals through the phone line.
“They were the size of a refrigerator,” says Roger Williams, Sherry’s husband and the ASL interpreter for our in-person conversation. “A small refrigerator. Like a beer fridge.”
He knows because he and Sherry had one when they first married. The problem was, TTYs weren’t just heavy, they were expensive, which meant the ranks of TTY owners were fairly small.
TTYs got less cumbersome over the years, but deaf users were still largely cut off from the hearing world. Even when they were used, TTYs required the written word. In English.
“English not our first language,” England says. “So being able to use video and video relay, we can use ASL, our primary form of communication.”
She’s talking about the development of the videophone in the 1990s.
“That has changed the game communicationwise for us,” she says.
Videophones let deaf people call hearing people and vice versa. They work a lot like a Skype call, except that they involve a third party who serves as an interpreter between those who sign and those who don’t. They were made to be affordable and accessible, and they look like an office landline phone with a small screen attached.
Sherry Williams agrees that the technology that allowed for videophones, texting, and video call programs removed a lot of the isolation for deaf people by allowing them to dial up friends and family and just talk. But, she says, the same tech that bridges the distances, in a way, took away the same things as mainstreaming did – the in-person socialization with other deaf people .
“I think one of the reasons why deaf people may not socialize and get together as much is because they do have videophones,” William says. “They can talk to their friends by video.”
Reaching the Rural Deaf
The solution the deaf community is increasingly turning to in order to find each other in real life is social media – groups like @SigningStarbucks on Facebook that put out information about events and programs and gatherings geared specifically towards deaf people are making it easier for the deaf community to interact with itself.
But for all the reach technology affords, it still has trouble reaching everywhere – namely into rural communities, where access to high-speed internet and tech devices can be thin. In April, the South Carolina House overwhelmingly passed a bill to expand broadband access into poor and rural areas of the state. That bill remains in a Senate Committee.
“We still have people who are very isolated in rural areas and they don’t have that ability to reach out and use the technology the way that we’re able to,” England says. “Especially in the state of South Carolina.”
Despite the limits, the deaf community is reaching out to its most isolated members.
“It is always a scramble to try and reach the people who we know almost need it most,” she says.
The path to follow?
“We start where we are, in this grassroots way of kind of putting out events and putting out information and hoping that through friend of a friend of a friend we can reach the people,” she says.