Op Ed: Hearing Instructors in Sign-Language Classes Is ‘Cultural Appropriation’

(Photo: Jovanmandic/Dreamstime)
If you’re concerned about ‘audism,’ then you should be delighted that these people have chosen to devote themselves to helping deaf people.

The president of the Quad-Cities Deaf Club, which serves northwestern Illinois and southeastern Iowa, penned an op-ed claiming that hearing people teaching American Sign Language classes amounts to a form of “cultural appropriation.”

Dirk Hillard wrote the op-ed in response to learning that Scott Community College in Iowa is offering ASL classes and an ASL summer camp taught by teachers who can hear.

“This is concerning because hearing people are being hired for these positions instead of deaf instructors, which is oppressive and discriminatory,” Hillard wrote in the article, which was published Tuesday. “Whenever possible, deaf people should be sought out to teach ASL classes”

Hillard continued:

ASL is the language of the deaf community and only exists because of deaf people. It is cultural appropriation to use the language of the deaf community to make money for your institution without including deaf people in the instruction and provision of those classes. When hearing people are chosen to teach ASL, it is a form of ableism and audism. We must emphasize, hearing people teaching ASL classes when there are deaf people who are willing and able to teach contributes to the systematic oppression of deaf people.

Yep. Apparently, hearing people getting involved in something that helps the deaf community is not only “concerning,” it’s also “cultural appropriation,” “oppression,” “ableism,” and “audism.”

Now, to be fair, Hillard’s contention is that this college is hiring people who can hear instead of deaf people. And some of the accusations in his piece certainly do sound messed up: For example: That deaf people aren’t included in the instruction process, and worse, that deaf people need a four-year degree to teach these courses but hearing people can teach them with a simple associate’s degree or license. Here’s the thing about those claims, though: A spokesman from the college says that they’re actually not true.

“I do not know where this person received his information from, but it is simply not true,” the spokesman, Alan Campbell, told Heat Street.

According to Campbell, although it is true that some some of the school’s ASL instructors can hear (the horror!) every single one of its ASL class includes either a deaf adjunct instructor or tutor. As for the claim that hearing people can get instructing jobs with less education? Well, Campbell said that that’s not true, either — the school has the same rules for everyone.

“Campbell said Scott Community College follows state guidelines, which require sign-language instructors to have either a relevant bachelor’s degree or both an associate’s degree and 6,000 hours of work experience,” Heat Street explains.

“We are extremely proud of our ASL program,” Campbell said. “While other programs in the state of Iowa have closed, we have continued to work to maintain our program, and it is now the only program remaining in the state.” Got that? Scott Community College’s is “the only program remaining in the state,” and Hillard is choosing to complain about who is teaching the classes. Regardless of the instructors, this is still a program that is teaching sign language and training people to become sign-language instructors, both of which objectively benefit deaf people. Are hearing people taking something from deaf culture? Yes, absolutely! But what they are “taking” is the ability to more easily communicate with the people in that culture, and the ability to teach others to be able to do the same thing.

Yes, it’s true that there are hearing people who make money from teaching these classes. But if you’re concerned about “audism,” then you should be delighted that these people have chosen to devote themselves to helping the exact same community that you’re concerned is being discriminated against. After all, do you really think that anyone is going into ASL instruction to become rich? They’d have to be pretty stupid; I haven’t seen a single sign-language instructor on any millionaires or billionaires list ever in my life.

Do you really think that anyone is going into ASL instruction to become rich?

No doubt, part of the reason that this school is still open is because there are so many people, including hearing people, who care enough about the deaf community to keep it going — and rhetoric like Hillard’s could easily discourage a hearing person who had wanted to help from ultimately deciding to do so. And if the school closes for a lack of support? Well, then that objectively means that there will be missed opportunities for more deaf people to have had the opportunity to more easily communicate with more people than they would have had this school not stayed open.

People often debate the differences between “cultural appropriation” and “cultural appreciation,” but I really didn’t think anyone could consider someone taking the time to learn and appreciate a crucial aspect of a culture — for that culture’s own benefit — to be anything but the former. But apparently, I was wrong.

– Katherine Timpf is a reporter for National Review Online.


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