To begin, I want to share the disclaimer that I am NOT d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing. I’d like to honor the Deaf Community and recognize them, but I will not speak over them. If I post something incorrect, I will absolutely correct what I’ve stated.
I want to share some contextual info for some of the language used in this post.
deaf, with a lowercase d, simply describes the medical condition of not being able to hear. It is a general term.
Deaf, capital D, is a cultural identity with a shared language. Most Deaf people do not consider themselves to be “disabled” but different, similar to the concept of Neurodiversity.
d/Deaf is a way to include both generally/medically deaf individuals and culturally Deaf individuals.
Today is April 15. Today is the last day of Deaf History Month (March 13 – April 15) which partially intersects with Autism Acceptance Month (April). Like these months, I’ve found overlap between what the autistic community has gone through and what the Deaf community has gone through.
In college I took ASL 1 and 2. Going into this, I thought I was just learning a language, and that language in my imagination was just a translation of English.
This was incorrect. ASL is far from signed English. It is its own language, with its own grammar, dialects, and inflections. Also there was no way to correctly learn sign language without learning the history and culture surrounding sign language. I felt an emotional connection with what I was learning because of the similar-but-different ways autistic individuals and d/Deaf individuals have been marginalized and fought for rights.
Autistic folks and deaf folks both have a history of being institutionalized, misdiagnosed, and a lack of acceptance of our communication needs.
Both communities have been pushed to fit into a “normal” world instead of being allowed to thrive as who we are. With autistic folks, we have been punished for stimming, for not making eye contact, for not acting neurotypical, and for wanting nonverbal communication methods. Likewise, deaf individuals have historically been punished for not speaking/comprehending, barred access to sign language, and have been misdiagnosed. Many hearing (non-deaf) parents and professionals feared that allowing children to learn sign language would cut them off from society. Instead, these children were tediously taught to read lips and pronounce words.
Our society so often tries to force everyone into a mold. A one-size-fits-all education, communication, and assimilation that ends up “othering” and ostracizing those who could be living more comfortable and accessible lives.
Deaf activists have fought for acceptance in a similar way to autistic activists. Allowing deaf children to learn sign language has not only improved communication, but has allowed for a Deaf community to flourish.
Deaf President Now was a protest that occurred at Gallaudet University (the first Deaf college in the US). Prior to this 1988 movement, the presidents of Gallaudet had all been hearing and students did not feel represented. This hit home as an autistic person not seeing myself represented in major autism organizations. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s phrase “Nothing about us, without us” rings true for many marginalized communities. Harmful treatments for autistic and deaf children is a hot topic in both communities. Those “inspirational” videos about a child getting a cochlear implant and hearing for the first time always make me cringe, both because of the way it treats deaf individuals as “broken” and in the knowledge that many children can’t consent to having a surgical procedure that could cause lifelong complications.
Obviously, the struggles of the Deaf community and autistic community are going to be different, and while there is overlap, it’s important to acknowledge the many differences that exist, including cultural. One thing I think we as an autistic community could learn from the Deaf community is our comradery with other autistic folks. I think the internet and social media have improved our ability to find and connect with one another, but imagine how much more we could achieve with strength in numbers. I’m optimistic, as I see the world shifting and see more neurotypicals listening, and harmful organizations gaining less traction. I hope then that the Deaf community will see more acceptance as sign language becomes more of a norm, and deaf children will stop having access blocked when hearing people are seeing the benefits even for their hearing children.
I can only wonder how the intersection feels to someone who is both d/Deaf and autistic. I posted on multiple platforms to try to find someone to interview for this post, but whether I was in the wrong places or people didn’t want to do that emotional labor (which is valid), I couldn’t find anyone. I can’t fully speak on the matter as someone who can only relate from one side, but if anyone would like to share their thoughts and opinions, I am happy to lift your voices on here and my social medias.
I hope to see more marginalized communities working together and learning from one another. Again, the experiences of different communities will not always overlap, but our own experiences should make us more empathetic to the struggles of others.