The arrival of October and spooky season means we’ve reached the end of Deaf Awareness Month, which took place in September and recognizes and celebrates those in the Deaf or Hard of Hearing (D/HH) community.
“Deaf culture and awareness is really taking a step into the light. The Deaf community has always been there and we have done all we can to make our culture and community known,” says LeeLee Sedlacek of Sign Disney.
“We are ever-growing and proud of our language, culture and rich history that we want people to understand.”
Sedlacek, who posts regularly on her Instagram @sign_disney, teaches American Sign Language (ASL) to Disney cast members and raises recognition throughout the parks. (FYI, she, like all of us, is excited for the arrival of Disney’s streaming service, Disney+.)
“I wanted to teach any and all cast members just a little bit of sign language so they could be more inclusive and extra magical,” she shared.
Fun adventures like Sedlacek’s, though, make me wonder how inclusive my own field of psychology is for the D/HH community and remind me that we have a lot of work to do.
Sharon Duchesneau, LCPC, clinical services director of the Deaf Counseling Center, says that she and Dr. Candace McCullough started the practice in 2001 to address the need for counseling services that are accessible and available to the Deaf community. Sometimes this means in-person sessions—sometimes it means teletherapy to overcome accessibility barriers or connect clients with a counselor who is a good fit.
“More than 80-90% of Deaf people with chronic mental health issues don’t have access to services,” particularly those delivered in ASL, Duchesneau says.
“Using interpreters to provide counseling and other mental health services to Deaf people does not equate to full accessibility. In the majority of cases, hearing professionals providing interpreter-based treatment do not typically have any knowledge or expertise in working with Deaf clients.
The lack of understanding of culture, language and Deaf issues impedes effective treatment, as does the often awkward and uncomfortable presence of a third-party interpreter in sessions or appointments.”
There’s also helpful start in a directory of accessible mental health providers hosted online by Gallaudet University, which describes itself as “the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students.”
On their Instagram and Twitter accounts, the Deaf Counseling Center shares many resources and visuals that you might find on any page featuring mental health, but their page stands out with videos that share information about anxiety, neurodiversity, and other topics in ASL.
For all of us, though, the end of Deaf Awareness Month doesn’t mean the end of opportunities to learn about and celebrate the D/HH community, and increasing knowledge of cultures and mental health resources is totally a year-round thing!
To support the D/HH community, here are a few tips:
3 Ways You Can Support the Deaf or Hard of Hearing Community:
1. Know That You Might Not Know
Many hearing people may miss the rich culture that surrounds the D/HH community and make outdated or incorrect assumptions about topics like cochlear implants and lip-reading. It’s often useful to approach these discussions with an open mind and ready to learn before making judgments.
“Our Deafness or hearing loss doesn’t define us. We are proud, so don’t belittle or pity us. Respect how we wish to identify, don’t go around speaking on our behalf,” Sedlacek says. “The words Deaf and Hard of Hearing are not ugly words; they are words used to describe us. Ask your questions, because when you ask, you learn, and when you learn, you are becoming aware. Awareness is our goal, so go immerse yourself and learn!”
This goes for mental health professionals, too! As Duchesneau notes, it’s “not a great idea for providers who took a few ASL classes to check off the ‘fluent in ASL’ box when joining insurance panels.
No English-speaking provider would claim to be fluent in Mandarin or Farsi after taking just a few classes, but it is alarming how many hearing people think they are qualified to provide mental health treatment to Deaf clients with a few ASL classes under their belt.
If anything, that shows a major lack of understanding of the complexities and nuances of ASL and Deaf culture… Without a full understanding of issues regarding audism, oppression, and trauma that are experienced by many Deaf people, no provider can be effective.”
2. Learn Some Signs!
As Duchesneau points out, “ASL is NOT English – it’s a language with its own unique grammatical structure. Facial expressions do convey emotions, but they are often grammatical markers as well.” This means that there is a lot of space to learn and grow!
“Fingerspelling is the fundamental base of learning signs,” Sedlacek says. “If you can fingerspell, you can essentially spell any word and get assistance in learning what sign it is.” She also recommends learning to sign the phrase “Hi, my name is…” and some common words like “thank you,” “again,” and “like/dislike.”
She noted that it’s important to be honest about how fluent you are in ASL, and to be aware of signs that can be culturally important, like the signs for “hearing,” “Deaf,” “hard of hearing,” and “interpreter.”
Courses in ASL are also offered in many community centers and places of education, and many of Sedlacek’s Instagram recommendations include some instruction in these signs and others:
3. Keep an Eye out for Deaf/Hard of Hearing Representation in the Culture Around You
Representation of the D/HH community is limited, especially in pop culture such as movies and television. However, Sedlacek has a few favorites, like A Quiet Place, and I’ll bet that many of Laura Dunson’s suggestions for improving portrayals of mental illness (through strategies like challenging tropes and seeking consultation) might be useful for other diverse populations, like the D/HH community.
But even better, you can enjoy the mix of local Deaf culture in person. “Try heading over to a Deaf-owned or staffed business if you happen to be lucky enough to live near one, or attend an ASL play at a Deaf school for a taste of Deaf culture and exposure to ASL,” Duchesneau suggests. “Google your city and ‘Deaf’ and see what comes up!”
And let us know what you find! Where are you seeing great D/HH community representation in your area and favorite shows?