Hayden Kristal is a senior at Mizzou and is very active in the social justice community on campus. Recently, Kristal participated in a TedX talk in Columbia, Missouri and has given speeches on deaf culture around the country. He is deaf, grew up in a English-speaking home and later learned American Sign Language. He sat down and talked with me last week about for our project. After graduation, he plans to become a comedy writer in New York City.
JW: How do you consume news?
HK: I like to read it. If there’s something I’m interested in, I’ll just Google it. I don’t own a TV because I get my fictional media from Netflix, and the news for me isn’t accessible enough to have a TV … I like to listen to things with a transcript because I like the noise in the background. But it’s too much work for me just to listen to something.
JW: What do you watch then?
HK: The cool thing is that representation has changed a lot in the last five years. There’s a TV show “Switched at Birth” (which premiered in June 2011) on ABC Family that did an episode entirely in sign language. It was the first time ever on television. Before that, you had sporadic one episode guest stars on other TV shows or Marlee Matlin (who is deaf). That was it for deaf representation. Then, Nyle DiMarco (who doesn’t voice and uses interpreters) won America’s Next Top model, and now he’s on Dancing with the Stars.
JW: But before that?
HK: I can not recall anyone who was deaf and featured prominently in the media. Except maybe Helen Keller, but she didn’t identify as deaf. She didn’t use American Sign Language. She identified as a blind woman who couldn’t hear.
JW: Why that gap?
HK: I think it’s because of the language barrier. That’s not necessarily an excuse. It’s also people not wanting to create accessibility to bridge that gap. I think as accessibility and knowledge have gotten better in other avenues, we’ve allowed people to step into bigger roles (in the media). I don’t think it was malicious necessarily.
JW: So you went from a period of deaf people not being portrayed to being somewhat portrayed in media. What’s that portrayal been like?
HK: Well, it’s still really limited. Like Nyle (DiMarco) and “Switched at Birth” and that’s really it. For news, once a year there’s a sign language interpreter behind someone giving a press release, and they go viral. It’ll be like “This Sign Language Interpreter Stole the Show.” I just saw one posted today. It’s interesting because I think the most mainstream representation of deaf culture tend to be interpreters.
Those interpreters go viral. The Mandela interpreter went viral … Yeah it’s not so much that (deaf people) are portrayed it’s that they’re not portrayed. Really, until “Switched at Birth.” Deaf people watch it like crazy because it’s the only representation of completely deaf life. People who go to school and have friends and have sex and relationships and get in trouble and are real people.
JW: Are you caught up on “Switched at Birth?”
HK: No, I’m not. It’s something I binge watch and then feel ashamed for binge watching for a few days (laughter).
JW: You have to think these shows bring in a new audience outside the deaf community, too.
HK: Yeah, and it’s been really cool for me, as someone who teaches sign language, to see how many of my students come into my class and say they’ve seen “Switched at Birth.” Or they become interested after watching Nyle DiMarco on TV. They think, “Wow, he’s really cool” or “wow, he’s really cute” and they get a crush on him and want to learn ASL. That’s why I started learning Spanish — I had a crush on a guy who knew Spanish. Even if it’s silly, that’s why that representation is important. It’s not necessarily beating you over the head in a classroom. A TV show can spark that interest with something that people don’t necessarily know about.
JW: Switching mediums, how does YouTube portray deaf people?
HK: I think YouTube has been a great avenue for deaf people to connect with one another. People post videos for each other and you can respond in ASL which is really cool. But there’s a huge legal battle to determine if YouTube is a place of public access. Right now, YouTube doesn’t require captioning and their automatic captioning isn’t great. So, platforms like YouTube can be frustrating because I don’t have access to a lot of those videos. But, on the other hand, I use YouTube to post videos of signed songs. Or, if I have a question for the deaf community, I’ll post it on YouTube and cross-post on Facebook. And that’s cool and, in that way, it’s been a good connector for the deaf community.
JW: I’m guessing Snapchat isn’t great for the deaf community.
HK: I personally don’t use Snapchat. The deaf community uses Glide. It’s a video messaging app. It’s sort of like Snapchat but you can save the video. You can video message back and forth and it doesn’t use data or take up a huge amount of space on your phone. You sign one handed or you prop it up while take video.
JW: How much do you trust or distrust the media?
HK: You know, it’s so click baity now. You’ve heard the term “inspiration porn.” Like the people hearing for the first time video. People are super into that. I’m not distrustful. I’m not a conspiracy theory believer. But I am critical.
JW: The inspirational hear-for-the-first-time videos are pretty problematic for the deaf community.
HK: Yes, people in the deaf community don’t see themselves as deficient. Like I don’t think my life would be so much better if I could hear. But the media sees those videos as beautiful, inspirational and moving and they don’t really address some of those issues. They put people who don’t qualify for those hearing devices in a weird situation. If you have a calcified cochlea or a cochlea that doesn’t work, it puts you in this before state. We become the before picture in the before-and-after scenario. No one wants to be the before picture.
When I was doing a speech once, someone asked, “What’s wrong with videos like that? The only disability is a bad attitude.” But when we look at it like that, it kind of neglects the ablest structures that make disability something to overcome. So, I explain it like this: What if I walked up to you, punched you in the face and you stood back up. Then, I said, “You are so strong for standing up.” You would think I was a deranged lunatic. But that’s what I see some of those videos as.
JW: It seems like those videos lack context.
HK: That’s a huge issue that they lack context. That’s the problem with media in general — it lacks context.