Interviewing the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

I travelled down to Jefferson City to visit with the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. I sat down for a roundtable discussion with Dee Sanfilippo, a sign language certification specialist, Chris Ludvigsen, a community outreach specialist who is deaf, Crystal Anderson, an interpreter and Emily Fry, the group’s spokeswoman. We discussed best tips and practices for the media, the deaf community’s representation in the media and the visually-rich, storytelling medium that is sign language. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Jack Witthaus: What’s some good general advice for the media when interacting with the deaf community?

Chris Ludvigsen: Look them in the eye, and take turns having to talk.

Crystal Anderson: Talk to the person directly. A lot of times people say (to the interpreter), “Tell him or ask her.” Just ask! There could be people who do not prefer interpreters. Use whatever communication mode they want. I think for (larger deaf protests) events, we’ll see a stronger ASL community who is going to want to use interpreters.

Emily Fry: I’d say, too, as far as identifying the person, the AP Stylebook says to use “hearing impaired.” That term is rejected by the (deaf) community. I know the stylebook is the Bible — it’s kind of hard to convince a journalist to say “deaf” or “hard of hearing.” Just say what that person identifies themselves to be. A near equivalent is like if someone said, “I am bisexual” and then in the article you (the journalist) wrote “they have an alternative sexuality.” (Laughter) That’s not accurate or culturally sensitive to that person.

Dee Sanfilippo: It’s like asking what pronoun you prefer … Another word that could be almost pejorative is “hearing loss.”

CL: I’m fine with that.

EF: It’s more accepted than “hearing impaired,” but it’s still a lazy term to say “hearing loss.” Some people are born deaf, so they never had hearing to lose.

DS: Also, there’s a feeling in the deaf community that deafness gives you something that you wouldn’t have if you hear. There are videos out of deaf people saying, “I didn’t lose anything.” The deaf community is a strong community with lots of different types of people in it. Ninety percent of deaf people are born to hearing parents, and so they find their community as they grow up. It’s important for journalists to know the culture of anyone you’re covering.

JW: So, Chris, how do you consume news?

CL: I prefer to watch TV news because deaf people are more visual. I don’t know of many deaf people who read the newspaper.

CA: Having interpreters at big events — announcements of a state of emergency, for example — pretty much on the stage next to the speaker (is important). A lot of times we (at MCDHH) work hard to get interpreters at those events, and the media cuts them off. Deaf people are then forced to read the closed captions.

CL: And many of them don’t really understand English.

CA: English is probably their second language, so it’s (closed captions) not the most effective way to communicate something. Having the interpreter on the screen (is important). I’ve been seeing a lot (of interpreters) nationally in big states like New York and in Washington D.C. But I’m not seeing a lot in the Midwest.

EF: We’ve recently been working with the Department of Labor to put together some videos in ASL for some of their forms. Their communications department said to us, “We’ll have someone reading and someone signing.” We said, “No, this is not for hearing people.” I understood where they were coming from — I’m new to this community, too. But (we told them) that they didn’t have to put in music or make it comfortable (for hearing people).

JW: You would think during this political season candidates should have someone signing at their big events. The deaf community votes, you know?

CA: Recently Bernie Sanders was in St. Louis —

CL: Oh, that’s right.

CA: — and there was an interpreter there. That was fantastic.

JW: Is that what you saw with other political candidates?

CL: I haven’t. Bernie Sanders’ (interpreter signing) video was all over Facebook. Deaf people tend to be strongly Democratic. They loved (having the interpreter). They loved that they could finally shake (Sanders’) hand after knowing what he was talking about.

DS: Think how powerful it would be if a candidate had a deaf person sign one of their ads and posted it on Facebook. It would speak directly to that community.

JW: Chris, for you personally, is TV news the only way you get the news?

CL: I use Facebook. And on smart phones, we have an app called Glide. We sign with the app and then the other person can respond. We have video phone services, Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts.

EF: I would say YouTube is a pretty big platform for the deaf community as a whole. Less on Vine because it’s a shorter amount of time to say a whole message.

JW: We talked about how you consume media, but how does the media cover the deaf community?

CA: I would say actors like Nyle DiMarco show that the deaf community is getting more coverage in the media. He’s bringing a lot of attention to sign language. I think the hearing community — who has never had exposure to the deaf community — is seeing some of that now. That’s a great educational tool.

JW: Why do you think for so long there weren’t a lot of deaf people featured in the media? Why is it that we’re seeing more deaf people in the media now?

CL: I think we’re becoming more vocal.

CA: No pun intended.

CL: Oh, I get it! (laughter) We want some changes. We want more equal access. We want more people like us in everyone’s view.

CA: I think (deaf people) were viewed as being disabled. You don’t see a lot of people who are disabled in the media, movies and TV shows. A lack of knowledge of hiring interpreters or setting up a deaf-friendly set has been a big thing.

EF: Even now if you were casting for a major film, you wouldn’t pick a deaf actor necessarily because there aren’t too many well-known deaf actors out there.

DS: It’s interesting because deaf culture is to be visual and to express themselves with their bodies, faces, hands. When you see a deaf person describe a car wreck, if they’re using ASL, you see the car wreck! You see the position of everything on the road, trees, houses and the other cars. You see the dog run out in the street. Who would be a better actor, really, than a deaf person? … Culturally, understanding the depth of a language. (ASL) has the same amount of inflection as English does — probably more.