This week from Sept. 20 to Sept. 26 is 2021’s International Week of Deaf People (IWDP). IWDP is a celebration of Deaf culture. This initiative of the World Federation of the Deaf originally began in Rome, Italy in 1958. Every year during the last full week of September, the global deaf community celebrates IWDP through various activities. This year many of these activities are virtual webinars due to COVID-19, however, the celebration is still important. IWDP additionally welcomes the participation of all members of Deaf communities, including families of Deaf people, peers, sign language interpreters and various stakeholders, such as governments and human rights organizations. The focus of IWDP for 2021 is highlighting thriving deaf communities, which makes this week the perfect opportunity to discuss the importance of IWDP and embracing accessibility in all settings.
Initiatives like this are vital in a world that is largely inaccessible for many people. IWDP aims to teach people a greater understanding of the Deaf and hard of hearing communities in America, while also promoting accessibility for Deaf people as a human right. Moreover, IWDP highlights resources for Deaf and hard of hearing people (and allies) within local communities. Spreading awareness about the realities of being deaf in a largely hearing world is one of the best ways to remove some of the stigma surrounding deafness.
While some Deaf people may qualify for legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act and additional government benefits, not all Deaf people consider themselves as having a disability. While every Deaf individual is unique and will likely have their own thoughts on the subject, the most important thing is that everyone is entitled to respect. Words and labels can have a powerful effect on people. The National Association of the Deaf suggests showing respect for Deaf people as you would any other person. This includes refusing to use outdated or offensive terms such as “deaf-mute,” “deaf and dumb” and “hearing-impaired.” This can seem tricky, as the term “hearing-impaired” was a well-meaning term once thought of as politically correct. However, the term focuses too heavily on what Deaf people cannot do, establishing “hearing” as the “norm” and anything else as less-than. Terminology is important when it comes to accessibility. Most Deaf people today generally prefer the term “deaf” or “hard of hearing” (when referring to someone with mild or moderate hearing loss) because these terms have neutral connotations behind them. Nevertheless if you are uncertain, it’s never harmful to respectfully ask someone how they personally prefer to identify themselves.
Deafness should not be a taboo subject; IWDP aims to minimize this. Thus, everyone has a role to play in embracing accessibility. Making it your own responsibility to be aware of and to understand other cultures, including Deaf culture, is the easiest way to support a previously discriminated community. You don’t have to be an expert, but reframing your thinking regarding what is “normal” is important. Acknowledge that other people can be “normal” even if they navigate the world differently than you do. At the University of Connecticut specifically, this may look like taking courses in American Sign Language or joining the ASL club. Generally, we’ve made great strides in making the world a more accessible place for all people, but there is still plenty of room for improvement, including that which can occur on an individual level.