Deaf World: essay reflection

I’m starting 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.

In the essay “On Planning a Deaf-Mute Commonwealth,” J.J. Flournoy and Edmond Booth are the main debaters of the need and practicality of a self-run “deaf-mute” community. The claims and responses are published from September 1857 to June 1858 in the American Annals of the Deaf. Interspersed are comments from other readers that address Booth’s and Flournoy’s arguments, and it should be noted all participants in the conversation are deaf. 

The key points of the debate include: the practicality of an all-deaf community when most children of deaf adults are hearing; access to education, especially reading and writing; land ownership, inheriting land, and sale of land; ostracization deaf people experience in hearing communities that leads to loneliness; and whether the government would provide funding based on the history of grants given to underserved populations. 

Firstly, the diction stands out to me because it reflects the language of the time. “Mute” and “deaf-mute” label a community that, today, would be “Deaf,” or maybe “deaf.” Thus, reading a historic text written by d/Deaf authors got me thinking more about how we might describe the d/Deaf population in the late 1800’s while maintaining accurate labels and avoiding unintentional offense. Because Flournoy describes the “deaf-mute” population as scattered across the U.S. and living alone, I wonder if capital-D Deaf is accurate. Can a few people be said to have a culture, even if they use ASL? I do not know the answer to this question—yet. 

Furthermore, the authors present individualistic and collective thinking. Booth argues the “deaf-mute” population is fine scattered around the U.S., and if they want to meet with other deaf people, there is good public transportation (in the Northern U.S., not the Southern). Rather than seeing a deaf collectivist community having the means to raise all people intellectually, he feels the uneducated deaf would repel educated deaf from joining the all-deaf community. I focus on this moment because my understanding is Deaf people today celebrate and support the achievements of all community members, though “crab theory” is an issue in most minority populations, including the d/Deaf. What was happening in the 1850’s that split the deaf community by education, and does that feeling still exist today? 

In contrast, Flournoy’s point that educated deaf people would serve as role models for uneducated citizens rings truer to what I’ve learned about Deaf culture in the last few decades. I am curious as to why Flournoy emphasizes reading as a sign of intelligence. Is this hearing culture intrusion, and does “educated” versus “uneducated” simply mean those who can read and those who cannot? Later, another contributor named Carlin states that deaf people learn to read only so they can communicate with hearing people. While Carlin agrees with Flournoy that deaf Americans are at a disadvantage by being spread out, his ideas further challenge Flournoy by dismissing reading as a sign of intelligence and positing it is a tool of social survival. In reflection, I wonder if reading is today viewed as a requirement to coexist in hearing/English society, or if reading is valued as part of Deaf culture. Carlin and Flournoy imply different relationships between reading and deaf people. 

Lastly, I was intrigued by the debate around land ownership for a few reasons. If you look at a map of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe reservation in central Michigan, my parents’ home is located within the boundaries. However, we are not Native Americans. At one point, that land was sold to our white family, as were many other homes in the area. Therefore, I understand the concern of future residents of the hypothetical deaf commonwealth. At what point is the project moot because so many hearing people live on the “reservation”? I hadn’t thought of a commonwealth as being like a reservation, but I do know it takes a lot of money for the Tribe in my hometown to protect their culture, language, and history. How might a deaf community fund itself to safeguard their culture? 

Previously, I taught Black Lit to college students, and we discussed the pros and cons of a state given by the U.S. government to Black Americans as repayment for slavery and an effort to quell racial tension. In his autobiography, Malcolm X argues that white men will never accept Black men as fully human, so it behooves both races to separate. Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, disagreed and explained in his “I Have a Dream” speech that he supports integration. For me, reading a d/Deaf perspective on integration and segregation was both familiar and new. When Malcolm X theorizes about a Black state, he doesn’t argue about education and home ownership; instead, his focus is on Black-owned businesses, which none of the respondents in “On Planning a Deaf-Mute Commonwealth” discuss. 

Teaching ASL

An interesting moment happened last Halloween. My neighbor, a six-year-old hearing boy, came over for trick ‘r treating and then showed me the ASL alphabet. He’d learned it online, his mother said, by himself. They’re not teaching it in school. The little boy knows I am an ASL-English interpreting student, so he wanted to make a connection. I was surprised, largely because I can’t imagine myself doing anything on the internet at age six, and not only because we didn’t have home internet back then. But his drive to learn something outside of school that his parents were not also learning surprised me.

Jump ahead to this week. I received a text from the boy’s mom saying he wanted to leave me a letter in my mailbox. On the outside of the envelope, it says, “amazing” and “asom,” “cool” and “sooo cool.” Inside, here is what he wrote:

While it might be natural to think, “Awwwww,” my first thought was, “Aaaaaack.” There are a few ethical dilemmas here, and the whole situation is quite unexpected!

Firstly, there is a misconception that knowing “some signs” means that a hearing person is good at the language, which may not only be offensive to Deaf people because “some signs” denies the true linguistic and cultural value of the language, but can lead to an abuse of rights. For example, according to my former interpreting professor, who used to be a classroom interpreter, people who take two semesters of ASL will be put in classrooms to interpret for Deaf children. To compare, I have four semesters, and know my language skills are miles from proficient — and the goal is to be “near native.” In the past, if the lunch lady knew “some signs,” they would throw her into a classroom to interpret to meet the demands after the passage of IDEA.

Secondly, we’re in a place right now when we celebrate, and even think it is cute, that hearing children can sign, but deny Deaf children access to sign language. Parents work with doctors to “fix” their children and are encouraged to expose the Deaf child to English that they can’t hear and stop them from signing that they could use to learn and communicate. Do you remember the baby signing craze from about twenty years ago, sold as a way for parents to communicate with frustrating babies that throw temper tantrums? But how do I explain this to a six-year-old boy who could become an interpreter some day, and an ally? This is a short term vs. longer term dilemma, I think.

And of course, when hearing people teach ASL without the blessing of the Deaf community, they deny a Deaf person not only a job, but the hearing person makes money off of a different, and oppressed, culture.

Hypothetically, if I volunteered my time, that spirals into another ethical dilemma of whether I should volunteer my skills because they are learned and not deemed manual labor (well, yes, ASL is physical but, if you ask the average person what a “physical job” is, they’ll say construction, welding, plumber, etc.). Basically, we value manual labor as something we should pay for, and intellectual labor (for lack of a better term) as “no sweat” and thus able to be shared freely.

Volunteer or not, because I am in a position of privilege, it is ethically wrong for me to teach the neighbor boy simply because I am the first adult he knows who has studied ASL.

So, what to do? In the end I texted the boy’s mother and said that I appreciated his letter, but that it’s very important to have a Deaf teacher. I might have gone overboard explaining about hearing people getting paid to teach a different culture’s language, but it was a response I can live with. I think that’s the ultimate goal of ethics; can you live with the decision you’ve made, because no matter what you do, there are right vs. wrong and right vs. right dilemmas. I asked the mother to please tell her son that I have a Deaf teacher, and he’s very cool! I also gave her the phone number of a local agency that, I think, should be able to put her in touch with members of the Deaf community.

What are your thoughts on this situation? I acknowledge that I have made some generalizations about how Deaf people may feel in regards to hearing people teaching ASL based on interpreting classes I’ve taken, and if my generalizations are incorrect, I would be grateful for any corrections. I also want to remind readers that I am a student in an ASL-English interpreting program.

Volunteer vs. Career Firefighters and Mental Health

For my ASL final exam, we students were tasked with choosing a topic on which to report, something that’s more academic than casual. Over the last few years, a beloved family member has been struggling with PTSD related to his time as a volunteer firefighter. Because he lives near the shore of a Great Lake, much of his time was spent doing water rescues. Well, more truthfully, they were water recoveries, as few people lost to a Great Lake come out alive. As traumatic experiences are repeated, firefighters develop mental health issues with few pathways to recovery. What follows is my (brief) research on the topic, which I presented in ASL for my final exam.

Photo by Ilia Bordiugov on

For my research, I tried to stick to studies that separated career and volunteer firefighters, as most mix the two together. Most of the research I located was about the 2019-2020 “Black Summer” fires in Australia, which required the use of many volunteers, who are now being studied for mental health effects from the intense service they did. Nonetheless, I found enough articles that separated volunteer and career firefighters in the U.S.

There are 1,115,000 firefighters in the U.S., of which 67% are volunteer and 33% are career. 66.4% of the firefighter departments in the U.S. completely volunteer run, typically serving communities of 25,000 or fewer people. People don’t call them just for fires, though. I mentioned water rescue, but there are calls for medical, floods, natural disasters, car accidents, terrorist attacks, even technological disasters.

Career career firefighters struggle with mental health differently than volunteers: they have a high chance of becoming alcoholic, and 56% binge drink, meaning one sitting during which a person consumes 5+ alcoholic beverages. However, if a career firefighter needs access to mental health support, they can get it.

Both career and volunteer firefighters suffer from insomnia and thoughts related to suicide. In addition, volunteer firefighters are more likely to plan their suicide, attempt suicide, and are at a higher risk for suicide. They experience higher levels of depression and stress. 46% binge drink, and 10% have gotten into a car after binge drinking.

Volunteer firefighters also experience higher levels of PTSD, and there are some ideas about why. In addition to volunteering, the people who serve have full-time jobs, making it difficult to complete training. Also, volunteers are less likely to have a mental health screening before being accepted to the department, meaning past trauma and mental health concerns can become exacerbated. Furthermore, the nature of small communities means everyone knows everyone, increasing the likelihood that a volunteer firefighter is responding to a gruesome scene where someone they know is the victim.

For fear of being judged, both volunteer and career firefighters tend to refuse therapy. However, the longer a person has worked in this field, the more likely they are to request therapy. In addition to fear of stigma, volunteer firefighters struggle with the cost and matching their busy schedules with available therapy. One of the more agreeable solutions is peer support groups, in which everyone involved understands the unique culture of firefighters. Telehealth is another option, pairing firefighters with medical staff while the patient remains in their home on their schedule, and without the commute.


Haddock, Christopher Keith, et al. “Alcohol Use among Firefighters in the Central United States.” Occupational Medicine 62.8 (2012): 661-664.

Jahnke, Sara A., et al. “Firefighting and Mental Health: Experiences of Repeated Exposure to Trauma.” Work 53.4 (2016): 737-744.

Johnson, Candice C., et al. “Enhancing Mental Health Treatment for the Firefighter Population: Understanding Fire Culture, Treatment Barriers, Practice Implications, and Research Directions.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, vol. 51, no. 3, June 2020, pp. 304–11.

Pennington, Michelle L., et al. “Career versus Volunteer Firefighters: Differences in Perceived Availability and Barriers to Behavioral Health Care.” Psychological Services 19.3 (2022): 502.

Stanley, Ian H., et al. “Differences in Psychiatric Symptoms and Barriers to Mental Health Care between Volunteer and Career Firefighters.” Psychiatry Research 247 (2017): 236-242.

My Ethics Class: Power, Privilege, and Oppression Discussion

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Currently, I am enrolled in Interpreting Ethics, a class in which we examine models for ethical decision making and practice how we would use the Code of Professional Conduct and core values to respond to real-life situations in the interpreting field. Our last unit was about power, privilege, and oppression, and we were assigned three videos: 1) Dear White Interpreters (a panel of BIPOC CDI), 2) Town Hall with Black Interpreters from 2020, and 3) BIPOC Providers, Part 1. Not all of these videos are made public, but I do want to discuss the content and what I learned. The questions are from my professor:

List at least one thing you learned from each panel we’ve watched in this module (three in total):

In the Town Hall video with Black Interpreters in Alabama, I learned even though Black interpreters are a cultural match with Black History Month topics and plays about experiences of Black life, we also need to consider that the topics discussed may be harmful to a Black interpreter, because the topics are often harrowing. How can we better support the interpreter, make sure they are cared for, and what do they need in terms of allyship? I found this moment in the video interesting because Black interpreters are in high demand in February, despite being skilled individuals all twelve months, and the topics during Black History Month may be triggering.

In the BIPOC Providers/Interpreters video, I learned that interpreters of color believe they should be paid more than white interpreters because they bring cultural competency. After hearing the stories of what BIPOC interpreters face in all three of the videos assigned, I understand better what Benro said, a little tongue in cheek, about there being a need to pay “emotional fees.”

In the Dear White Interpreters video, I learned that there is either laziness or a miscommunication about how different cultures can join together. For example, white interpreters have asked a Black CDI how they can improve their signing skills to better understand Black consumers, but they won’t go to the Black Deaf conference, claiming it’s just for Black people. The Black CDI ensured that everyone is welcome, so either white interpreters feel like they’re intruding on another culture’s space, or they don’t really want to put in the effort to improve their skills.

In the BIPOC Providers video, one panelist noted that white interpreters may hastily label a Black Deaf person as having “low signing competency” because they use a different style or have a different culture, so the need to learn from Black communities that invite everyone in is pivotal.

How will you incorporate what you’ve learned from this module into your practice as an interpreter?

One thing I took away from the BIPOC Providers/Interpreters video is that we tend to team with the same interpreters (white women), possibly because we’re comfortable with a certain person, but should reach out to team with interpreters of color. I think it’s a chance to observe/learn from another culture on the job in a way that doesn’t affect the interpreting situation and consumers. Plus, doing something–reaching out–is allyship, I think. You’re not actually doing something for the other interpreter (advocacy), but you are supporting their goal of showcasing how skilled they are (allyship).

However, teaming with interpreters of color on most jobs is different from the specific example of a white interpreter who took a job teaming with Melva for a Cinco de Mayo festival in Chicago because they wanted to learn Spanish. Everything was in Spanish, so that white interpreter couldn’t provide access or cultural competency.

What could you say to an agency about the importance of providing interpreters that are a good cultural fit?

On the most basic level I could say that according to CPC 4.4 we are required to facilitate communication access and equality, so if I don’t understand cultural nuances or idioms, I’m not truly providing access OR equality. On a deeper level, allyship is an important tool to give other communities and cultures the space to be at the forefront. How so? Sometimes stepping aside and providing the contact information of a BIPOC interpreter or BIPOC-owned agency is the easiest way to be an ally. Otherwise, if I say it’s not my responsibility to get out of the way, I’m contributing to a racist system that oppresses, discourages, and chases off skilled interpreters of color.

Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman’s Story of Identity, Love, and Adoption By Brandi Rarus and Gail Harris

Finding Zoe is very much a feel-good book about stars aligning. Brandi and Tim Rarus find the daughter they want in Jess and BJ’s baby girl not only because she needs a home, but because they are the right home for a deaf infant.

— thoughts by Melanie Page, originally published at Grab the Lapels

On the Beat of Truth: A Hearing Daughter’s Stories of Her Black Deaf Parents by Maxine Childress Brown

Childress Brown chooses anecdotes that allow the reader to see how being black, Deaf, poor, educated, and living before the Civil Rights Movement are all intersections where her parents exist.

— thoughts by Melanie Page, originally published at Grab the Lapels