What the U.S. Civil Rights Fight and Deaf History Have in Common

Image depicts Black Lives Matter protestors and police in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 2020. Photo courtesy of Koshu Kunii via Unsplash.

Police brutality and civil rights issues sparked mass protests in June following George Floyd’s death. Demonstrations quickly spread nationwide throughout the summer, and they continue in cities like Portland to this day.

The current unrest springs from Black communities’ anger, sorrow, and frustration. According to a Gallup poll released yesterday, more than 50-percent of people in all age groups believe the U.S. needs new civil rights laws. It highlights a problem that may only take center stage now but has persisted for generations; injustice hides in plain sight, even in 2020.

The Deaf community also faces injustice in the United States. Mark Sorenson, a Deaf leader based in Minnesota working with DOOR International, discussed current and historical events with MNN.  Through an interpreter, Sorenson describes various ways Deaf people have encountered injustice.

Sorenson does not claim to be an expert on racism or to speak on behalf of Black members of the Deaf community. As a whole, the Deaf community’s challenges are not the same as what Black communities face. However, there are important lessons to learn from similarities between both groups’ experiences with systemic mistreatment.

Discrimination can creep into the Body of Christ, Sorenson warns, describing “audism” and other unintended consequences. Ask God to open your eyes to the Deaf community. Mark your calendar for the International Week of the Deaf, and seek to raise Deaf awareness in the coming days.

The following is a lightly-edited transcript of this interpreted interview between MNN’s Katey Hearth and Mark Sorenson of DOOR International:

MNNHistorically, how have racism and civil rights movements in the wider community affected the Deaf community?

SORENSON: The Black struggle for civil rights has really had an impact on the Deaf community in many ways throughout the years. Actually, the push for Black freedom and equality began America’s journey towards becoming a true democracy. They fought for rights for Black people initially, and then that had an impact on the women’s rights movement, and eventually on disability rights efforts as well.

In 1988, at Gallaudet University, which is the only Deaf liberal arts university in the world, the board was preparing to select the next president of the university. The board had a Deaf candidate, yet they chose a hearing candidate to be the president of Gallaudet. The student body and the faculty began a protest. It was known as ‘Deaf President Now’ and it was a powerful moment in Deaf history.

They closed down the entire university because they wanted a Deaf president – someone who would accurately represent the student body, faculty, and staff. They were successful; the board changed its decision. A Deaf person was appointed as president. So, we understand that desire to fight for representation and leadership of our own people. Black people understood that as well and were particularly supportive of the Deaf community during that time.

Another thing is to look at the 13th Amendment. When it was first enacted, there was a clause in that amendment that said people could still be imprisoned or forced into labor if they were criminals. That law was actually misused then to continue to effectively enslave Black people. That’s what I’ve learned from Black community sources. While Deaf people have not been enslaved because they were Deaf, this reminds me of a situation in the Deaf community and in Deaf history.

There was a congress called the Milan International Congress on the Education of the Deaf, and the participants were almost all hearing people. They made a decision for Deaf people that sign language should no longer be used in the context of Deaf education. Sign language had been a very significant part of the Deaf community and allowed us to experience a good quality of life and education. The lives of the Deaf community declined in so many ways after that decision was made about us, but without us, and we have since fought for sign language rights in order to have full access to education and information. We have learned from Black people’s activism in the area of civil rights and benefited from it as well.

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SOURCE: Mission Network News, Katey Hearth

CALL TO ACTION

  • Ask God to open your eyes to the Deaf community.
  • Mark your calendar for the upcoming International Week of the Deaf, and seek to raise Deaf awareness in the coming days.