When referring to diversity, the SPJ uses a broad-stroke definition; meaning ethnic minorities, Gays and the disabled.
But, when we speak of the disabled, the public often thinks only of those who are in wheelchairs or are otherwise, physically impaired. However, the word can also refer to the deaf community, though many deaf persons do not consider themselves to be disabled.
Indeed, their lives are far from the classic description of a disabled person. This blog will offer tips on how a journalist might cover a story involving a deaf person, or an event in the deaf communithy.
Having already worked over 11 years as a photo-journalist, while I was earning my undergraduate degree at the private Westminhster College in Fulton, MO; I worked my way through college by teaching photography at the nearby Missouri School for the Deaf.
It was an exhilerating experience. I loved it!
I literally lived in the deaf community, and found the deaf to be an exciting, diverse population. By deaf, I do not mean the hard-of-hearing, those who can restore their ability to functionally hear with a hearing aid. I refer to those who have little or no hearing cognition.
Many of the high-school teenagers in my classes became deaf as a result of having German measles at birth, a comon cause of deafness. These deaf persons may most easily develop the unusual skill of lip reading, a talent which those who became deaf later as an adult may find difficult to acquire.
All of my students used the American Sign Language for communicating with each other, a skill I quickly learned out of necessity and fervent desire to more easily “chat’ with my students, who quickly became close friends.
Other than the inability to comprehend sound, deaf individuals are just as diverse in their skills and personalities as those of us in the hearing world. To think that they are mentally retarded simply because they are deaf is a major mistake of many hearing people.
Many of my sharper students went on to earn their college degrees at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.; a private institution of higher learning designed primarily to serve deaf students. It’s an amazing university!
Covering Stories of the Deaf
While an untrained journalist might be apprehensive at first about working a story involving a deaf person, or the deaf community; particularly if they don’t know the sign language, they should approach their assignment exactly the same way they would any story where the principals involved speak a foreign language.
You get an interpreter.
Usually, the deaf person or group will quickly provide an interpreter for you. If that person is a lip reader, when communicating with you, they may try to also speak.
If they have been deaf most of their life, the sound of their voice may sound artifically high pitched when they speak to you. They have been trained to use their vocal chords, even though they cannot heard their own speech. It may sound as if they are straining their voice to speak, but they may not be.
When speaking to a deaf interviewee, or interpreter, who can read lips, do NOT overemphasize your lips movements. Speak natually and the lip reader will be able to understand you.
And, do NOT shout when speaking to the lip-reading person. Shouting will not help them understand what you are saying. Indeed, speak naturally and the lip reader will comprehenend.
If there is any difficulty in communication between you, feel comfortable in writing out what you want to say to your deaf interpreter. And, be comfotable if that person sends you a written note. It’s all within the ”normal” communications experience for the deaf.
Try an Experiment – and Find a Story
For a great feature story, go out with 4 or 5 deaf personhs to a nice restaurant where good service and food is expected. But, say NOTHING aloud. Communicate entirely with your friends by writing notes.
Communicate also with the waiter/waitress with written notes. Let that person think that you are also deaf and cannot understand what he/she says.
Notice how the waiter may treat your table quite differently than might be expected from a professional.
Several times I have gone out with my deaf friends in Fulton, Missouri and went to a quality restaurant.
I said nothing, communicating only in sign language or by writing messages with my deaf friends at the table.
But, in plain view and right in front of me, I had a small tape recorder recording everything the waiter said.
You would be amazed at the insulting, rude remarks the waiter would make when he thought nobody at the table understood what he was saying.
Service would be horrible. Orders were incorrect and the food was not cooked properly.
In such situations, after all of the above bad service occurred, I walked over to the head waiter and spoke, asking to speak with the owner/manager.
When the owner/manager heard the tape recording of the dismal and unprofessional service, I reminded him that such conduct was also a violation of state and federal laws.
In negotiating a quick, on-the-spot settlement, the managment on several occassions agreed to provide all meals (freshly and properly cooked) on the house. They also agreed to meet with my school’s principal to determine how the swanky restaurant could help the deaf school financially in the future.
Any journalist with questions about covering a story involving a deaf person or the deaf community, is invited to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (619) 757-4909.