Tuesday, April 03, 2001

Deaf and Black in America

Deaf and Black in America
By Pamela Appea


Wednesday, April 3, 2001
Fred Beam says white people see him as black first, deaf second. On the flip side, "In the eyes of Black hearing people, I am deaf first." The life of a black deaf person can seem like a separate, foreign world – isolated from both other deaf folks because of race, and from hearing African Americans.
"It was lonely being a Deaf student attending a mainstream school, while growing up," writes Beam, a graduate student at Gallaudet, the nation's premier Deaf university, and president of the Washington, DC chapter of the National Black Deaf Advocates. (Beam and other deaf people quoted in this article mostly communicated with me via email, a technology increasingly embraced by more and more deaf people.) "I remember the feeling of not finding someone like myself in school."
To deaf blacks, their isolation from hearing blacks can be painfully apparent every day. Fighting for equal access on two fronts makes life a double struggle; worse, most deaf black people say hearing blacks are oblivious to the needs and concerns of the deaf.
Glenn Anderson, a professor at University of Arkansas and a Gallaudet alumnus, points out that while most television networks have improved their efforts at captioning programs following the Federal Communication Center's Telecommunications Act of 1996, one notable exception is Black Entertainment Television.
"Representatives of the National Black Deaf Advocates have for the past several years made contact with BET and encouraged them to caption their programs," Anderson says. Only recently, after years of complaints, has BET begun to show even a small number of captioned programs.
Part of the problem, Anderson believes, is that BET executives don't see the black deaf community as being a broad enough (read important) part of their audience. While no reliable statistics exist, several deaf blacks estimate that they account for roughly 10-13% of the 25 to 26 million total deaf and hard of hearing population. That's a large community – more than 2 million people – and one deaf black advocates say is doubly disadvantaged.
Rates of unemployment and underemployment for deaf blacks are disproportionately high. Anderson, who sits on the Gallaudet board of directors and also serves on the Arkansas chapter of National Black Deaf Advocates, notes that the number of deaf blacks who continue their education beyond high school is "dismal." Every year, he says, when he sits on the stage at Gallaudet commencement, he notices the visibly low number of black graduates as compared with whites.
African Americans comprise 11% of the school's student body of 2,300, says Lindsay Moeletsi Dunn, a special assistant for diversity and community relations at Gallaudet. However, as at other universities with high deaf populations, including the University of California at Northridge and the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, matriculation rates are lower than enrollment rates, particularly for black students.
If black students find themselves in the minority at deaf schools, deaf children are often isolated in black families. Irene, a white teacher of deaf children of all races, says her black students often sign to her about beatings they get at home from their hearing parents, many of whom, Irene notes, do not take the time to learn sign language, or to come in for parent-teacher conferences.
In addition, black deaf students are poorly served by the public school system. "Black deaf high school students are not given many opportunities," Irene says. "They are almost always placed in vocational classes. They are not given the opportunity to take pre-college classes." Many black deaf children are incorrectly identified as learning disabled, Irene adds, and further hampered by low expectations.
But things are getting better for many young black deaf people, especially those fortunate enough to go to college. While the black deaf community is diverse in itself, and while black graduates of Gallaudet often have a wide range of career opportunities, the older generations of deaf blacks aren't so lucky. Joyce Cobbs, an interpreter and member of the Nashville Chapter of Black Deaf Advocates, says the life of a low-income older deaf black person can be scary, confusing and lonely. Educated in substandard Jim Crow schools, often growing up in a world that didn't understand deafness, or equated it with stupidity, many never reached literacy, dooming them to lives on the fringes, marginalized and often ignored.
Cobbs, who has worked as an interpreter for 40 years, says that she's heard countless tales of police harassment, sexual abuse and rape of deaf black individuals. Most go unreported.
Early experiences of isolation and humiliation can set a pattern for life, Cobbs says. The challenge, as she sees it, is to make deaf black seniors aware of how much has changed, how many opportunities now exist for the deaf in America. She adds a caveat: "A deaf person can do whatever they want today – if they have the money." Few older deaf blacks do.
For the younger generation, the challenge is not so much about survival as identity – developing relationships and friendships with hearing blacks, and feeling a part of the larger black community. Teresa Pegram, a computer programmer who lives in Virginia, complains that hearing black men don't want to date deaf black women. A Gallaudet graduate and divorced mother of two, Pegram says that during her school years she began to see how hard it was to find an educated black deaf man. She turned to hearing black men, but most were unreceptive.
"I learned the hard way when communicating with hearing black guys via online messages," Pegram says. "They wanted to know why I couldn't talk on the phone, and once they found out I was deaf, they weren't interested anymore."
There are, however, some marriages that have flourished between deaf black and hearing black individuals. Dunn, the Gallaudet administrator and a native of South Africa, talks of his strong relationship with his black, hearing wife of 11 years, Pauline Heard-Dunn.
"Pauline was able to sign when I met her so courting was not a problem at all. However, her family and friends were another story," Dunn says, adding that his wife's relations warmed up to him once they met him. "Hearing people will be surprised that once the communication barrier is no longer a barrier, they both get to enjoy each others cultures." The couple's three hearing children, Thandi, Jamillah and Mandla, are the epitome of a deaf-hearing partnership: all three began to sign before they started talking, and are, naturally, bilingual.
"Hearing people need to stop the paternalistic attitude towards disabled people and to learn about us," Dunn says. "Deafness to me is the least restrictive disability, especially since it is easier for a hearing person to learn sign that it is for an African American to learn Japanese or even German. Change attitudes and we can break down walls."
Pamela Appea is a freelance writer living in New York.