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Mandy Harvey Got Death Threats From Other Deaf People- Something’s Wrong

November 27, 2017

When the America’s Got Talent finalist Mandy Harvey first appeared on the show, she caused a social media storm. Harvey became deaf due to an illness, but decided to pursue her love of music, feeling the beat of the music through her feet. However, her singing caused a backlash among a very small minority, who sent Harvey death threats for promoting a “hearing” activity.

There is a long history of oppression faced by profoundly deaf individuals of which most hearing people are too little aware. Sign languages have historically been the target of repression, and many who are profoundly deaf have suffered at the hands of hearing people. Oralism – the practice of favouring speech over sign in deaf education – and the assumption that speech is an inherently superior form of communication can be damaging, both to deaf individuals and the deaf community. Even today, organisations will equate speech with potential, ignoring an equally valid language and culture in sign.

Deaf people – those whose preferred language is sign and belong to the capital D “Deaf community” – have had to fight for their rights, language and culture against this oppression. In that context, the strong feelings of an unrepresentative few can be understood, even if their behaviour can’t be condoned.

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Mandy Harvey: Deaf Singer Earns Simon’s Golden Buzzer With Original Song – America’s Got Talent 2017

The Harvey story, however, reopened the binary oralist versus signing argument. A recent segment on BBC’s Newsnight reporting on the story asked whether we should “promote oralism in the deaf community”. That’s such a frustrating way of framing the debate. The focus should be how we can spread awareness and greater accessibility for everyone, not forcing deaf or hard-of-hearing people to declare themselves as belonging to a speaking or signing camp.

Increasing our deaf awareness is a lesson we can all continually learn, even those with the best of intentions. Newsnight’s producers deserve some kudos for attempting to draw attention to an under-represented issue, and for inviting deaf guests on television. Paradoxically, however, the clip was not accessible to many viewers. There were no subtitles for those struggling to follow the British Sign Language interpreter. The camera panned away from signing guests, breaking the flow of conversation for anyone following along.

I’m severely deaf, and was born to a hearing family. Instead of being taught sign, I was taught to lip-read, and went to speech therapy classes. I rely on my hearing aids and I have a well-honed instinct for when to smile and nod during a conversation, if what’s being said escapes me. But the dichotomy between sign and speech can leave people like me feeling stuck between two worlds: too deaf for the hearing, too hearing for the deaf.

It also risks promoting a myth of a militant deaf community, acting as jealous gatekeepers of what it really means to be deaf. A casual observer reading the story about Harvey could be forgiven for thinking that the deaf community, in America or elsewhere, is far more intolerant than it really is.

It would be more productive to ask how we can make things more accessible for deaf people, accounting for their needs and choices. Deafness is a spectrum, and our needs will vary. For some people, signing is a more accessible way of communicating than speaking. For others, speaking and lip-reading work for them.

Hearing people need to play their part in this. Practically, this can be something as small as not turning your back when speaking, or enunciating clearly to make lip-reading easier. But more fundamentally, it means a normative change in how deafness and deaf people are viewed. Deaf people are commonly seen as broken – in need of fixing. But with deafness can come a rich and vibrant language in sign, and a culture and community based on that.

Hearing people need to be sensitive to that fact when thinking about deafness. There are, for instance, endless videos on social media of deaf children given cochlear implants, hearing sounds for the first time, often shared by hearing people as inspirational modern-day miracles. Yet to many signing deaf people, they can represent something far more sinister: the absence of choice and the removal of deaf culture. The implicit message of such videos can be to underscore the supposed superiority of speech over sign.

However, we also need to be careful about how we refer to other people with hearing loss. To refer to someone as “oral” can be an insult – a way of denoting that someone isn’t truly deaf. But being born into a speaking family, and communicating by speaking doesn’t invalidate my deafness.

We don’t need to reductively frame this as a clash of communication. Deaf people, whether they choose to sign, to speak or both ought not be forced to pick sides. In moving beyond the dualism, we can focus on what matters: making a world that is accessible to everyone who is deaf, however they may experience that.

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