17 April 2021

D/deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations?

I was contacted by a colleague this morning with a question concerning the use of D/deaf in D/deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations. As you’d imagine the matter is far from straightforward, therefore a simple one-line answer could not do it justice. 


This piece

•       is a provocation on the understanding of privilege and puts forward an articulation of disablism

•       frames audism, lookism and the pathologisation of speech impediments as form of ableism 

•       suggests that matters of self-reference to do with association and community are matters of personal choice 


I would first like to thank Dr Heather Mole*, as I draw on her work – and our many conversations. She has been an outstanding ally, and any lack of clarity is mine, not hers! As I interpret it, the Deaf community differ from other groups, because their culture is defined by languages, with distinct meaning, therefore the rejection they face is more to do with non-verbal speech than any impairment. As Heather writes: ‘small ‘d’ deaf [is used] to denote audiologically deaf people versus capital ‘D’ Deaf to denote culturally ‘Deaf’ signers. Small ‘d’ deaf people are described solely by their condition of hearing impairment whereas culturally ‘Deaf’ people are considered to be a subgroup of deaf people. Capital ‘D’ Deaf people are those who use sign language and are members of the signed language-using community and also understand ‘Deaf’ culture’ (Heather Mole, 2018, p. 29).

I articulate privilege, relative to non-disabled people, as not having to face disablism. This means I think that an individual doesn’t need identify as a disabled person for me to articulate the characteristic discrimination they are subject to – or the inequality imposed on the disabled population more widely. The way I read it, akin to the sexism women often experience, which is often unarticulated by them, but impacts on them negatively, as a characteristic array of disadvantages. In gender terms, there's a difference between ‘misogyny’ and ‘patriarchy’ in the language of feminism, that writers on matters of disability equality have yet to imagine. Currently there is a dearth disability specific terminology to describe identity, environment, discrimination and inequality.  


Disabled people, have an array of choices in terms of identity, groups, networks, associations and community; and therefore huge choice of labels and badges to describe affiliation or belonging.

  • We can identify as disabled or Disabled – or not
  • We can choose our relationships to groups, networks and / or communities 
  • We can disclose impairment, conditions or difference – or not
  • We can align to cause: shared problems, concerns or politics – or none

For those of us who identify as Disabled people, the capital ‘D’ typically indicates a choice of activism, community and/or culture. I tend to use ‘d’ or ‘D’ strategically, very much depending on context. If I am asked specifically, I will state my identity as a Disabled, to acknowledge the community, culture and political voice of the Disabled people’s movement. As an author, it is more difficult, I define my criticality as a sensitivity to feminist and disablist language/culture. However, as a writer, I’m not always an author because I tell the story of others [feminism]. Therefore, I hold myself accountable to both the disabled and women’s population by acknowledging Women and Disabled people as activists within the civil rights movement movement more widely. I disrupt storytelling by holding to a penship that is anti-sexist and anti-ableist in its activism. 


From the perspective of privilege, ableism often refers to the institutional and societal inequality [or skewed narrative] which is characteristic in stories the disabled population. Privilege, thus, has less to do with a choice of identity, and more to do with the disadvantage imposed from beyond us. So as an individual with impairments I am but one of the many millions affected by ableism and sexism. Ableism is sometimes stated as the power held in conversation that are not dominant, the one acknowledged as mainstream. These globe-local conversations have specific distortions, for example, they speak of disabled people as less human, ignoring their contribution or telling of them as less able (Chapman, 2021).  Returning to the d/Deaf question, as both ally and an activist, I understand that disabled people with hearing loss don't view it as an impairment, yet they no doubt face a forms of ableism. One such form has been referred to as audism: 

Audism has been described and applied in different ways… as “[t]he notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or behave in the manner of one who hears” (Humphries 1977, cited by Heather Mole, 2018, p. 29)

People facing audism may identify as deaf to define their hearing, and/or belonging to Deaf culture to define their language – ‘those who use sign language and are members of the signed language-using community’ [Mole, 2018, p.29]. As individuals within the disabled population the choice of identity is theirs.  Heather also says: “for many deaf (as well as Deaf) people accessing spoken English takes work – either by using technologies and/or lipreading or using communication specialists. So whether profoundly deaf, hard of hearing or BSL users from birth it can be difficult to access spoken English (the dominant language)”.


From this perspective, hearing privilege needs articulating in allyship as the characteristic form of ableism imposed on the d/Deaf community. As a person that isn’t hindered by audism, my hearing privilege, I articulate my allyship in the ideas above.  I acknowledged sign language as distinct languages with meanings, equivalent to - not subordinate to - English, French, or Australian.  BSL, AUSLAN and ASL. Sign has communities of language, defined by different meaning  and  culture. I acknowledge many communities with their own culture and sense of identity, based on a shared language. 


In the most simplistic terms you could imagine a Venn diagram with ‘Disabled’ deaf and ‘Deaf’, with the Disabled people’s movement as space of overlap in a wider scattering and clustering of identities; unfortunately reality is far more complex, overwhelming and messier [than theory]. I refer to d/Deaf therefore to encompass all choices, because I believe self reference, association and community are personal choices to be acknowledged in order to be respected.


At the crossroads 

As I understand intersectionality, many disabled individuals face different characters of discrimination on multiple levels. Some face sexism and racism and ableism. Others face homophobia and ableism and audism. My own privilege, as I state above, isn’t about identifying as French, middle class or white, so much as not facing classism, racism or audism in addition to ableism.  


I have come to articulate audism, lookism and prejudice against speech impairment as specific form of ableism. 


As I’ve said before, joining in, aligning to, and developing knowledge are different things entirely. I speak of the disabled population as the estimated number of people facing ableism. Disabled people as those identifying as either having an impairment, conditions or difference that means their in receipt of prejudice, discrimination and inequality in society.


Grassroots organisations as those supporting the interest of the disabled population whether they identify or not charities, largely impairment specific, mostly concerned with a subsection of the disabled population. For example, people with a defined impairment.


I am very much helped by different definitions of community, association and network. Growing literature spells out the difference between them as:

•       community as an association typically defined by space or interest. For example a neighbourhood of a pottery class, where members join on their own terms or with specific activities in mind. 

•       Networks as a more formal group existing with a specific function, aim, problem or interest.


* yes we did have a initial conversation that went: “Mole!... Mole? …Mole!! Mole???” 




Burch, L. (2018). ‘You are a parasite on the productive classes’: online disablist hate speech in austere time. Disability and Society, 33(3), pp. 392-415.

Carastathis, A. (2016). Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons (Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality) [Kindle]. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

McRuer, R. (2006). Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (Cultural Front) [Kindle Edition]. New York : New York University Press.

Michalko, R. (2002). The Difference That Disability Makes [Kindle Edition]. Philadephia: Temple University Press.

Mole, H. (2018). Narratives of power: Critical reflections on signed language interpreting.

Morris, J. (2001). Impairment and Disability: Constructing an Ethics of Care That Promotes Human Rights. Hypathia, 16(4), 1-16.




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