Deaf World: essay reflection

This is the second in a series of reflections on essays from the book Deaf World, edited by Lois Bragg. All essays in this text are by d/Deaf authors, meaning it is both a primary resource, and thanks to the scope of essays, a historical reader.

“How to Write Like a Hearing Reporter” by Tom Willard is from 1993. Although a short piece that excoriates, albeit in a humorous fashion, hearing reporters, Willard packs in some key issues in how deaf (I use the lowercase “d” as Willard does) individuals are represented in text media. Writers must be sure to use the most pun-worthy words (“silence,” “signs”) and choose the most predictable “hook” to draw in readers, which is to make a person seem average and them “out” them for their deafness and/or disability. And, at every turn, the hearing writer should make sure to “other” the deaf person by referring to him/her by first name instead of the journalistic standard surname. Then, reporters point out the interpreter, should the reporter choose to communicate with the deaf person at all. Oftentimes, those close to the deaf person are quoted in lieu of a direct conversation with the story’s subject. 

Though the concept is not new to me, Willard’s essay uses an example I hadn’t considered: ways in which hearing people do not “harmlessly” make communication faux pas with deaf people, but demonstrate a willful ignorance. By emphasizing the interpreter, the reporter fails to respect the conversation with the deaf interviewee and reassures the deaf community that the reporter has not bothered to pay attention when an interpreter introduces him/herself and explains how interpreters facilitate communication and cultural access. Willful ignorance is much like plagiarism; we cannot claim we don’t know what we’re doing. Even if a hearing reporter did not know much about the deaf community, he/she could use the expected interview style of asking questions and faithfully reporting answers, to respect and learn about his/her subject, without adding patronizing sentiments. 

A few thoughts on Willard’s critiques of hearing reporters: using puns with the words “silence”/”silent” and “signs” reminds me of the ILY sign. Overused by hearing people, and often disliked by deaf individuals, the ILY sign and the word puns suggest hearing people are quite pleased they reached the low-hanging fruit. While finding themselves clever, they simultaneously turn deaf news subjects into feel-good stories. When I read memories or news stories with a line about “conquering deafness,” I am truly confused. What does it mean, to conquer, in the context of deafness? I read the memoir MEAN Little deaf Queer by Terry Galloway, and she implies successfully avoiding the deaf community, of which she was claimed she was not a part, by getting digital hearing aids while contemplating cochlear implants for the future. Based on my searches for memoirs and texts on deafness, I think there isn’t enough clarity about those born deaf and those late deafened, because late-deafened people appear more likely to view the loss of their hearing as a tragedy and handicap. Thus, all deaf people are conflated into piteous creatures who must overcome their handicap. 

In addition, failing to identify deaf people in news stories by confusing the terms “deaf,” “hard of hearing,” and “hearing impaired” should create a lack of faith in the reporter. Research into a subject before reporting is a common and ethical practice in journalism, not to mention fact checking. On the one hand, readers are likely to encounter the people of Willard’s essay in a small-town newspaper that keeps readership up with local, warm-and-fuzzy stories.

On the other hand, members of small communities, too, deserve respect and proper representation if they are the subject of a news story. Easily, a reporter can ask each subject, hearing or deaf, how they want to be referred to in the media. Poor consideration of a news story about a deaf community member is a harbinger of bias in future stories with minority populations as the subject, and in a democratic society, we should beware all falsehood and bias in the media. 

Published by Grab the Lapels

I'm a graduate of the MFA fiction writing program at the University of Notre Dame, which inspired me to follow along with trends in teaching, publishing, and reviewing. I also have an MA and BS from Central Michigan University. I used to teach composition, creative writing, and literature in higher education, then did a brief stint at a civic theater, followed by two years at a references desk at a public library. I'm now working toward my ASL Interpreter license.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: