Signs of the Revolution: Deaf Justice and Anarchist Praxis

by Tristan Wright

The Deaf community is a sociolinguistic minority in the United States. While most people are familiar with terms like “racism,” “sexism,” “white supremacy,” or “patriarchy,” they are unlikely to have heard the word used to describe oppression of d/Deaf people: “audism.”  The oppression faced by d/Deaf and hard of hearing people in the larger hearing society is often totally overlooked or even perpetuated not only by the average hearing person, but by those in anarchist and social justice circles. When is the last time you saw an interpreter at a rally? When’s the last time the rally had a Deaf speaker? When thinking about an issue like police brutality, how many activists include the experiences of d/Deaf and hard of hearing people alongside our critiques of law enforcement? 

A broader understanding of oppression is necessary if we are interested in creating a truly just and equitable world. A major aspect of accessibility for d/Deaf and hard of hearing people is the work of interpreters. Anarchists interested in combatting oppression on all its fronts will need to make connections with Deaf activists and organizers, and to challenge our own assumptions and biases about language, access, and communication. Some of that effort will involve connecting with interpreters, and some will involve learning new ways of interacting. In the end, it may demand of hearing anarchists that we re-envision our revolutionary activity to be not only inclusive, but equitable. After all, what revolution is it if not everyone can participate?

Language, Audiology and Politics

For more than a century, use of American Sign Language, or ASL, has been suppressed by hearing people who have argued that Deaf individuals must use spoken and written English ­– in other words, to act as if they are hearing ­– to survive in society at large. Yet Deaf people throughout the years have continued to use their native language and share it with d/Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing children, regardless of what the hearing mainstream believed “best” for them. They knew that the linguistic access of a visuo-gestural language was paramount, the most effective means for communication and sharing cultural history. Unlike many spoken languages, therefore, using ASL can be understood in a resistance context when used by Deaf people, an assertion of legitimacy in the face of ongoing oppression.

Before jumping into a discussion of d/Deaf oppression and interpreting in social justice organizing, the distinction between “deaf” and “Deaf” should be clarified. The use of the term “Deaf” describes a social, cultural, and political identity that is most often represented through the use of ASL.   By contrast, “deaf” with a small d is the term used for those who do not hear. In other words, my 93-year-old grandmother who doesn’t hear well any longer is “deaf.” She knows no sign language, has no connection with the Deaf community, and still interacts with the world as a hearing person. My friend Erin, on the other hand, has about the same capacity to hear but is “Deaf” because of her use of ASL and her self-identification with the Deaf community.

ASL is not English

As important as clarifying the differences between “deaf” and “Deaf” is explaining to unfamiliar readers American Sign Language and how it differs from other spoken and signed languages. ASL, is commonly misunderstood by hearing people to be a modified version of English, or a kind of “English on the hands.” American Sign Language is a natural language that evolved though its use by the Deaf community, just as spoken languages have evolved through use over time by hearing people. The signs used today are not always the same as those used a century ago, reflecting the ways languages develop over the generations. For example, the sign for “telephone” once looked like using the sort of old-fashioned phone with a separate ear and mouth piece. Today there are two ways to sign “telephone”, one is to make the hand into the shape of a phone (a fist with the thumb and pinky out, much like how a hearing person would mime a phone) or to make the hand into the shape of holding a rectangular smart phone. Even more recently, signs for “Android” and “iPhone” have come into being, as the language grows alongside the culture.

The myth that ASL is a gestural version of English is bolstered by the presence and use of forms of signed English like Signed Exact English (SEE). These artificial sign languages were invented by hearing educators looking for a means of teaching spoken and written English to Deaf and hard of hearing students. These educators took signs from ASL and combined them with signs for verb endings, prepositions, and articles (which are unnecessary in ASL) to create a way to use signs to show English. It is often thought that while Deaf children benefit from visual language, using ASL in the classroom will prevent them from fully developing their English skills. This is presented as an alternative to teaching English as a second language after the students have fully developed their abilities in ASL. The result is a cumbersome and clunky means of communication that is often still challenging for students unfamiliar with English.

Like other non-English speaking minorities, Deaf people in the United States face linguistic oppression on a number of levels. Many Deaf people use ASL as their native language, and may or may not be fluent in written English. As with all non-native English users, this can pose difficulties in reading and understanding things like medical forms, government documents, newspapers, and so forth, all presented in written English. As ASL has no written form, there is no simple option for providing a translated document. In some cases, an interpreter is brought in to render the form into ASL, but in most instances Deaf people are left without meaningful access to the information.

American Sign Language is thus both a means of communication and a form of political resistance. Hearing people in the US have long wielded language as a tool of oppression against Deaf people, demanding that they use spoken and written English and considering it superior to the natural language of Deaf people. As anarchists it is important for us to understand what ASL is, the role that ASL plays in Deaf organizing efforts, and its value to the Deaf populations of the US. Our analyses of oppressed groups should include not only an understanding of Deaf people as a minority, but also an understanding of the significance of linguistic access. It should further highlight for us the necessity for literary resources to be created in ASL through collaboration with Deaf organizers and Deaf translators. ASL is an integral part of Deaf social justice organizing and should be part of the overall efforts of anarchists to advance a more just and egalitarian society.

What is ASL Interpreting?

Put simply, ASL interpreting is the act of taking in a message in either ASL or English and then rendering it in the opposite language. ASL interpreters work in a wide array of environments, ranging from classrooms to doctors’ offices, driving lessons to job trainings, and courtrooms to hospitals. Basically any place where a Deaf and hearing person need to exchange information there may be an interpreter. Not all situations call for an ASL interpreter, and not all Deaf people always want an interpreter present. Some deaf people never learn ASL and therefore don’t make use of interpreters. But when information needs to be conveyed between two people who don’t share a language, an interpreter is often brought in to facilitate communication between them. This is as true for spoken language interpreting as it is for ASL interpreting.

The field of ASL interpreting dates back to the 1960’s and the passage of legislation mandating the use of sign language interpreters in certain settings. Over the years, the profession has gone through four main “models” to describe and make sense of the work.(1) These began with the idea of interpreting as a charity done for helpless Deaf people, evolving to today’s “bilingual-bicultural” model, which contends that hearing interpreters are members of both cultures and languages. Of interest to anarchists and other social justice activists is that none of the various interpretive models take into account the challenging dynamic of privilege and oppression at play in any interpreted interaction. Deaf people are an oppressed minority in the US (and elsewhere) whose right to use their native language and to access services and resources has often been limited at best. In any interaction between a Deaf and hearing person, there is imbalance of social privilege. The very presence of a hearing ASL interpreter simultaneously manifests the struggles Deaf activists have endured to achieve even a modicum of access and while reminding all participants of the imbalance of social power.

Interpreters make thousands of choices in every interpretation, all of which have an impact on the ways in which participants are able to advocate for themselves and their rights. For example, a hearing person may use the outdated and often offensive term “hearing impaired” and the interpreter may sign this as ‘DEAF’ (Becuase ASL has no written form, when an ASL sign is represented in written English it is typically capitalized. This is called a “gloss”). This prevents the Deaf participant from potentially correcting the hearing person directly because they may not be aware of the original word choice. The interpreter may not have thought at all about what to sign, or may have made a choice to use ‘DEAF’ rather than the sign for ‘HEARING IMPAIRED.’ Regardless, in so doing, they are disempowering the Deaf participant to a degree by altering the content of the original utterance. While small and seemingly insignificant, this example serves to illustrate the ways in which ASL interpreters are engaged in a dynamic of privilege and oppression that has yet to be fully acknowledged in the parlance of the field.

Some interpreters and authors, including myself, have brought forth a potential fifth model for interpreting, the “allyship” model. This model takes into account the social justice implications of ASL interpreting work and the functions of privilege and oppression at play in any interpreted interaction. While imperfect, it poses a new form of discourse for understanding the field and its relationship to the Deaf community. Deaf theorist and author MJ Bienvenue defines the concept as a process, rather than a destination, the acknowledging of privilege in how interpreters negotiate their boundaries and decisions in our work. It emphasizes partnership and collaboration with the Deaf community.(2) Of particular significance is the simple fact that all hearing ASL interpreters are, of necessity, hearing people and thus have hearing privilege. Like other forms of privilege, this means that we bring to the table our own assumptions, habits, and biases that may play out through our work. An “allyship” model attempts to account for such things in the field and make room for a more in depth discussion for the role of social justice thinking in ASL interpreting.

I have intentionally specified “hearing interpreters” in this text because, in addition to hearing people like myself who interpret between spoken English and ASL, there are Deaf interpreters who work alongside hearing interpreters to make interactions more equitable to a wider range of Deaf communicators. They often work with Deaf people who have limited language abilities perhaps due to an intellectual disability or because they come from another country that uses a different sign language. Deaf interpreters can have an important impact on the power imbalance of an interpreted situation. For example, imagine a Deaf patient meeting with a hearing therapist and a hearing interpreter. The Deaf patient is necessarily outnumbered. The fact that they are literally in the minority can leave them feeling less safe or open, potentially impacting the effectiveness of the therapy. When a Deaf interpreter is brought in, the ratio of Deaf to hearing people is balanced. One Deaf interpreter I work with said once that the Deaf interpreter is there for the Deaf person, while the hearing interpreter is there for the hearing person. The two interpreters are working together to make effective and equitable communication happen. Not only does the presence of a Deaf interpreter often improve the communication happening, it evens the scales and can create more comfort for the Deaf patient. I would argue that from a social justice vantage point Deaf interpreters are a critical aspect of re-centering Deaf people in the work and creating more equitable outcomes.

Audism & Social Justice

The word that is used to describe the oppression faced by members of the Deaf and hard of hearing populations is “audism.” This term is likely to be unfamiliar to hearing people. It was coined in 1975 by author and researcher Tom Humphries.(3) Audism is defined as a system of privilege and oppression based on the ability or inability to hear or act as one who hears. In short, audism is to Deaf people as racism is to people of color. This may seem like a forced analogy, given the history of colonialism and imperialism in the US and abroad. Some may contend that Deaf people, especially white Deaf people, have not been “colonized” in either a literal or figurative sense. But authors like Harlan Lane have made strong arguments describing the colonization of Deaf people. Deaf people and have long been subjugated to hearing norms and standards, forced into categories like “disabled” and deprived of their native language and culture. Even the language used to describe Deaf and hard of hearing people echoes the language used by colonists, being at best condescending and at worst outright derisive. Thus the analogy is more apt than it may seem, as will become clearer in the following paragraphs.

In “The Mask of Benevolence” author Harlan Lane draws a connection between European colonization of Africa with the relationship between hearing and Deaf people here in the United States. He notes that “Whenever a more powerful group undertakes to assist a less powerful one, whenever benefactors create institutions to aid beneficiaries, the relationship is fraught with peril.”(4) Lane reviewed over three hundred books and articles on Deaf and hard of hearing people to gather a list of words used to describe the community by the professionals who serve them, including doctors, teachers, social workers, etc. His list found that the terms were almost entirely negative, making it clear that much of the literature is dealing more in stereotypes than actual realities, quite similarly to literature describing the colonized people of Africa. His list highlights the inherent paternalism of the hearing people who see themselves as “civilizing” Deaf people. Lane draws a connection with Foucault’s notion of the “colonization of the body” by the state, an idea that should be of great interest to anarchists. Lane defines “audism” as “… the corporate institution for dealing with Deaf people […] the hearing way of dominating, restructuring, and exercising authority over the Deaf community.”(5) He makes a clear connection between audism and the state: “The oppressive structural relations are the result of historical forces such as the appropriation of the body by the state […]; ethnocentrism and the formation of new states; the unequal distribution of wealth and power.”(6)

Given that we live in a hearing world, it is easy to overlook the role of audism and audist thinking in our lives. Like racism, sexism, cissexism, and so on, audism manifests on a number of levels. It can be internalized, like when a Deaf person believes themselves to be innately less intelligent than a hearing person simply by virtue of being Deaf. Interpersonal audism occurs when a hearing person believes a Deaf person to be unintelligent because they don’t use spoken English or don’t write English well. It can be institutional, for example when a business refuses to interview a Deaf job candidate on the grounds that they don’t want to pay for an interpreter. It can also be structural, for example when necessary information for advancement in one’s job is accessed through hearing and therefore unavailable to a Deaf employee, like “water cooler” information gathered by chatting with fellow employees.

Audism is even further entrenched in philosophical notions of humanity, when the assumed definition of “human” includes the ability to use speech to communicate and the assumption that language must be spoken to be legitimate.(7)  These ideas inform a host of services provided to Deaf and hard of hearing people, like when members of medical professions emphasize the use of hearing aids or cochlear implants for Deaf children or discourage hearing parents from using sign language at home.(8) Audism can even show up in how things are designed: in your home, your doorbell and smoke detector probably don’t flash a light when they go off. Deaf people often pay to have such devices specially installed in their homes rather than the flashing light being the standard design of a doorbell or smoke detector. As another example, in my car, when I leave the headlights on a bell chimes to remind me to turn them off. This means that the designer did not have Deaf and hard of hearing people in mind when they designed their product. On more than one occasion a Deaf person with whom I was supposed to have a meeting had to reschedule because they mistakenly left their lights on overnight and had to wait for AAA.

While some of the examples above may seem minor, the prevalent audism in our society can- and often does- have life-or-death consequences for Deaf people. For example, Deaf people are routinely shot and killed for failing to respond to a verbal command by police. A recent- but certainly not unique- example is illustrative of this issue: In September 2017 a Deaf man in Oklahoma City was shot and killed by police officers who were looking for a vehicle involved in a hit and run. They approached him while he was on his porch holding a metal pipe and when he didn’t comply with their request to drop it, which he couldn’t hear, they shot him. Throughout the encounter his neighbors were repeatedly shouting “He can’t hear! He can’t hear!”. He was known to carry the pipe around to deal with the feral dogs in the neighborhood. He had nothing to do with the hit and run. He was murdered by police because they failed to listen to his neighbors and jumped to the use of force rather than finding a means of communicating with him.(9)

Once arrested, Deaf people spend longer periods of time in detention prior to sentencing. For example, the organization Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf, or HEARD, has found that Deaf people detained at Rikers Island in New York state are typically held longer than hearing peers with the same or similar charges.(10) Deaf suspects are routinely denied full communication access, including qualified ASL interpreters, leaving them unaware of the charges they face.(11) The Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act mandate the provision of ASL “interpreters” for Deaf people who are arrested, but, significantly, leave the definition of “qualified” to hearing law enforcement. “Interpreters” in these situations are not required to have any form of certification or education in interpreting.(12)  This can lead to situations where a family member is asked to interpret for a Deaf suspect or witness, or worse, that a law enforcement professional who happens to know some ASL is called upon to interpret. Undoubtedly these are hardly unbiased people to interpret in these situations, even if they are fluent ASL users.

Once sentenced, Deaf people behind bars are routinely denied ASL interpreters for services including medical appointments and programs, despite these being violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.(13) Furthermore, few prisons in the US provide videophones permitting Deaf sign language users to communicate with loved ones or attorneys, further isolating them and preventing them from accessing critical information about their case.(14)  Worse still, Deaf incarcerated people may be punished for failing to respond to orders they didn’t hear or not reporting to counts of which they were unaware.(15) Solitary confinement is often used instead of providing accommodations and protections, resulting in Deaf people spending long periods of time completely isolated, to devastating effects.(16) In general, the criminal justice system is rife with audism and audist practices. These situations can be life and death, leaving Deaf people unaware of the reasons for their arrest or their rights and, possibly, dead. Deaf activists and organizations have worked hard to improve their access to equitable justice but the gains are slow to come by. The hearing state is unwilling to adjust itself to be even minimally inclusive of Deaf and hard of hearing people.

Deaf Organizing

In the early eighteenth century, schools for the Deaf that provided instruction in ASL began to emerge, providing Deaf people with far better access to education and in turn job opportunities.(17) Classrooms were often led by Deaf teachers, providing a significant source of employment for Deaf and hard of hearing people. But, in the later decades of the nineteenth century, hearing people decided that Deaf students should be instructed in spoken languages and that signing should be prohibited in schools.  Schools for the Deaf had been an important site for the transmission of linguistic and cultural knowledge from Deaf adults to Deaf children. In response, Deaf people resisted, shifting the spaces in which signed languages were transmitted out of the public sphere and into the private sphere at Deaf gatherings and clubs.(18)

As a consequence of the hearing push to eliminate the use of ASL, over the course of the twentieth century schools for the Deaf began to decline. Deaf people had long been locked out of a number of fields and the loss of job opportunities provided through schools for the Deaf further diminished employment options for Deaf and hard of hearing people. Deaf activists didn’t take this sitting down, however. They fought hard to gain access in the workplace and in larger society. During the 1960’s and 1970’s they worked with disability rights activists to improve accessibility in state-funded settings through the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973.(19) The VR Act was the first to mandate that interpreters be provided in some situations where an organization received state money. As interpreters became increasingly available Deaf organizers pushed for their use in a wider variety of spaces, leading to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, which requires accessibility in all public accommodations, not just those receiving funds from the state.

With the advent of film in the early 20th century Deaf people began to document their stories and language in order to preserve them in the face of a larger society that seemed set on eliminating them. George Veditz, a Deaf man, famously launched a project to gather up as much video as possible of sign language aiming to preserve it for posterity. Using the then-new technology of motion pictures, Veditz even suggested to Alexander Graham Bell, who was a staunch advocate for Deaf people learning to speak and becoming integrated into hearing society, that he create a device like the telephone using the new video technology. Nearly a century before the invention of the modern videophone, Veditz was pushing for its creation. Upon Veditz’s efforts, the National Association of the Deaf raised money to create a number of films in the early twentieth century intended to preserve what Veditz saw as a deteriorating language. He described the hearing people trying to remove the use of signed language from the Deaf community as “Enemies of the sign language, they are enemies of the true welfare of the Deaf.” He is well known for having signed in a recorded message in 1913: “We must use our films to pass on the beauty of the signs we have now. As long as we have Deaf people on earth, we will have signs. And as long as we have our films, we can preserve signs in their old purity. It is my hope that we will all love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to Deaf people.”(20)

A survey of Deaf organizing must include the uprising that took place at Gallaudet University in the 1980s, commonly known as Deaf President Now. Gallaudet University is the world’s only liberal arts university for the Deaf. It was founded in 1863 through a land grant and has grown ever since. Instruction is in ASL, and the university offers a wide array of programs for Deaf and hard of hearing students, ranging from associates to doctoral degrees. Despite having been in existence for over one hundred years at the time of Deaf President Now, the university had always been led by hearing people. In the 1980s when it came time for the university to select a new president, another hearing person, a non-ASL user, was chosen by the board. The students and faculty rose up in resistance. They demanded that a Deaf person be named president and drew attention from around the world as they blockaded the campus until the board met their demands. They were successful, and a Deaf man was selected to lead the university. Two decades later a new uprising took place, this time pushing for a female Deaf president. Students, faculty, and staff demanded a Deaf person at the helm of this critical Deaf institution, and LGBTQ students and students of color rallied to make the university more inclusive of a wide array of Deaf identities.

Deaf people have long had organizations focused on advocating for their civil and economic rights. The most prominent and longest standing is the National Association of the Deaf or NAD. Founded in the late nineteenth century, the NAD has played an important role in promoting the rights of Deaf and hard of hearing people. It has been involved in a number of campaigns for legislation and amendments to legislation to improve accessibility of resources and services to those who use ASL as their native language. In addition, the NAD was the first organization to provide certification for interpreters. This particular function was later merged with the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, the national professional organization for ASL interpreters like myself. Today, both bodies collaborate to provide certification exams and credentials for professional ASL interpreters.

A more recent Deaf advocacy organization is Deaf People United, fighting for social justice issues from a Deaf perspective. They often work with a new movement called We the Deaf People on lobbying for legislation and other actions to serve the needs of the Deaf and hard of hearing populations. HEARD, or Helping Advocate for the Rights of the Deaf, is a newer organization working with Deaf and hard of hearing people behind bars. HEARD is a volunteer organization whose accomplishments include successful advocacy for the installation of videophones in a number of state prisons. HEARD also tends to the more radical side, for example engaging in collaboration with abolitionist organizations like the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee in Rochester, New York, on a rally and noise demonstration in commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the Attica Uprising in September 2016.

In more recent years, Deaf and hard of hearing students on college campuses have been engaged in organizing work advocating for greater educational and language access in higher education. At the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, NTID, for example, students started a movement called Communication Access Now to improve their ability to fully engage with professors and staff. NTID is a college at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in western New York, and instruction is given in ASL. Many instructors, however, are not fluent signers. Deaf and hard of hearing students whose primary language is ASL have been frustrated by professors who are unable to lecture and interact in their native language. Although the university has a large Department of Access services providing interpreters for those students in non-NTID classes around the campus, they do not typically provide interpreters in NTID classes where instruction is ostensibly in ASL. On the other hand, Deaf and hard of hearing students who prefer spoken English have struggled to find interpreters to effectively work with them ensuring full access to their education. In 2016 these students rallied together to bring these issues to the attention of the administration of the college and make meaningful changes to how communication happens at NTID, successfully engaging with the president of the college and leading to a task force on the subject.

As Harlan Lane so clearly articulated, the state has played a central role in the perpetuation of audism in society, and its manifestations share common forms with other oppressions prevalent in US society. The hearing state has colonized Deaf people, or at least has continuously attempted to. Hearing anarchists would do well to develop our understanding of audism in our own lives and in our organizing, because it is yet another facet of how the state creates structures designed to maintain oppressive hierarchies upon its citizens.

(Art by Thea Gahr,

Deaf anarchists?

What is missing from this survey of Deaf organizing is the lineage of Deaf anarchist efforts. This lack is likely not a reflection of a dearth of such work being done by Deaf people so much as a reflection of its lack of publicity and visibility. As a hearing anarchist interpreter I have yet to encounter Deaf anarchists. Some of the Deaf people with whom I work on social justice projects are certainly far-left in their politics and are receptive to anarchist thought, but none explicitly consider themselves anarchists. This is presumably a function of who I, the author, happen to know rather than a function of there being no Deaf anarchists. Searching the internet for “Deaf anarchist” has been fairly unfruitful.  But it speaks to the need for hearing anarchists to open more lines of communication with Deaf organizers and revolutionaries and to cultivate real relationships with Deaf people who are engaged in movement work. It is clear from the survey above that there is a great deal of opportunity for hearing anarchists to connect with Deaf people and broaden the scope of our efforts. It is likely that there is a whole subset of the US Deaf population who is engaged in work that hearing anarchists would label “anarchist” but who don’t call it such. By building ties with those doing the grassroots organizing we can expand our notion of social justice and connect with a whole new community and perspective.

Interpreting and the State

In the US, and elsewhere for that matter, accessibility has had to be won through hard fought legal battles by Deaf activists working with disability rights activists to persuade the state to mandate the accessibility of resources and employment. Prior to legislation like the VR act and the ADA, there was no profession of interpreting as we know it today. Interpreting was a skill offered by hearing people who knew at least some sign, often a family member of a Deaf person, a teacher, or a priest/pastor.(21)  These people were vetted by Deaf people, who shared information among themselves about who was a good choice to interpret. This centered Deaf people in the process of “training” and selecting interpreters, but there were few instances in which an interpreter was brought in. There was no funding or guarantee of services, meaning that interpreting happened far less often. With the heavy role the state has played in fostering even rudimentary accessibility, it is difficult to imagine accessible services in the modern context without state intervention. 

The state’s role in the provision of accessibility services poses a challenge to the notion of anarchist interpreting. It is arguable that without state intervention Deaf and hard of hearing people would have far less access to resources, jobs, education, and so forth. The fact that the state has, in this instance, been helpful does not mean it is the only way to ensure communication access. Nor does it mean it is the best way. To begin with, the state is run largely by hearing people. Few Deaf and hard of hearing people are involved in the state apparatus that provides for such services. Even if we consider the case of the nonprofits that work alongside the state, like the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf or many interpreting agencies, we see a prevalence of hearing people in the position to make these important decisions.

Moreover, the shift away from the Deaf community having control over who is doing the work of interpreting, and towards hearing organizations and hearing people deprives Deaf people of a great deal of agency. It reinforces the Deaf-hearing oppression-privilege dynamic wherein Deaf people have limited control over the institutions within which they work and through which they receive services. When hearing people select other hearing people for interpreting work, they are less likely to have an intuitive sense of what is necessary contextually and linguistically. The hearing dominance of the field maintains a lesser status of Deaf people in the larger hearing world.

Additionally, the rights to accessible services have been won through legislation that considers Deaf people “disabled,” despite the fact that many Deaf and hard of hearing people do not think of themselves as having a disability. The legislation that mandates the provision of ASL interpreters and other accessible communication lumps those rights in with the rights of people with disabilities to things like wheelchair ramps, wider doorways, etc. Furthermore, in order to receive any sort of state financial support like Social Security Deaf people must accept the label “disabled.” The hearing state imposes onto them an identity in order to justify the most modest of benefits to compensate for the lack of income resulting from discrimination and limited opportunities. Deaf people have fought for and won the rights they have under the mantle of disability rights, whether or not they actually self-identify as people with disabilities. The state does not consider Deaf people members of a linguistic and cultural minority, rather, it classes them as people lacking in a normative bodily function, the ability to hear. This perspective shapes the way those rights are satisfied, and the legal arguments Deaf people can make when they contend they have been denied adequate accessibility.

To illustrate the above: I often interpret in classrooms at a local community college. The Deaf students with whom I am working arrange for interpreting services and receive advisement through the office Services for Students with Disabilities. When they are looking for help with reading and writing in English- which is logical given that English isn’t their native language- rather than being connected with ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) resources, they are placed in remedial reading and writing classes. They can’t access the same kind of tutoring or other help available to their fellow non-native English users because all of the services for Deaf students come under the heading of “disability services” and are funded through different streams. Students with whom I have worked have expressed frustration at the inability to get the help they need. The assumption is that, because they’re from the US, they are fluent users of English. The infrastructure and funding available to the college to cover the cost of interpreters and so forth is all channeled through disability services; were these students to be logically labeled as “ESOL” they wouldn’t be able to get the other resources they might need or want to succeed in a hearing college environment like notetakers or captionists.

Alternative Approaches

Being opposed to any sort of state apparatus anarchists should be interested in new models for ensuring accessibility. In terms of the provision of services, we see simple examples of “anarchist interpreting” when interpreters either volunteer (work “pro bono”, in the parlance of the field) or work in exchange for things other than money. For example, an interpreter may exchange interpreting services for other goods or resources, like help preparing taxes. Alternatively, they may offer it as a community contribution. For example, in Rochester, home to the largest per capita Deaf population in the country, all of the Pride Week events are interpreted by a team of volunteer professionals who are either LGBTQ or allies. In such cases, interpreters are willing to donate their time in the interest of making an event accessible to Deaf and hard of hearing community members. The fact is that for many organizations the cost of providing interpreting, particularly through an agency, is prohibitive, so the options are either volunteers or none.

But a trade or volunteer services aren’t always feasible, and can’t cover the wide array of situations in which an interpreter may be necessary.  Some interpreters today work in informal collectives, groups of interpreters who network with each other and share jobs with one another. This brings us to an idea that is slowly coming into being: the interpreting cooperative. According to the International Cooperative Association, “Co-operatives are businesses owned and run by and for their members. Whether the members are the customers, employees or residents they have an equal say in what the business does and a share in the profits.”(22)  There are already a handful of ASL and spoken language interpreter cooperatives in existence with a variety of structures. These challenge the typical business approach used by interpreting agencies by utilizing a democratic decision making structure and shared governance model.

The sort of cooperative I might envision is akin to a grocery cooperative. Interpreters and the organizations using services would be members.  Member organizations would pay monthly dues in exchange for a fixed number of hours of services. Dues would be sliding scale, allowing organizations with limited funds to still make use of services.  This would make it possible for groups that otherwise aren’t able to afford interpreters to better serve and connect with Deaf community members. Member interpreters would contribute a fixed number of hours to the co-op and the revenue from dues would be paid out equally. Deaf users of services would participate in the process of securing interpreters and be integral in the assessment of interpreter members. Any leftover dues funds not allocated to the interpreters or operating expenses would be shared with Deaf community organizations. 

However, the co-op model only resolves some of the most obvious problems with the for-profit interpreting industry, and would itself be a non-profit, thus facing the same critiques of other non-profit entities. It also works within a capitalist system, operating as a business dealing in revenue, paying taxes, and so forth. Interpreter-members would expect a pay rate that is commensurate with their training, qualifications, and competitive with other payment options. Why would a highly experienced and certified interpreter take a potentially large pay cut with only the moral benefit to compensate for it? While many might agree that the model is ethically better, it doesn’t make sense to expect interpreters to collectively decide that a potential decrease in pay is acceptable because it seems ethically better. This is especially true given that the RID Code of Professional Conduct, the document describing ethical behavior for its members, frames ethics as largely an issue of individual interpreters, rather than with regards to the field at large. In my experience, much of today’s interpreter culture is intensely individualist and capitalist. The interpreting cooperative would thus need to fit itself into the capitalist expectations of current working interpreters and into the broader financial system, making it only a step in the direction of interpreting services returning to their more collectivist Deaf community roots.

Furthermore, the co-op model doesn’t address the larger question of the state’s involvement in services. After all, the reason the member organizations bring in interpreters would still often be because they are required to do so by law. It would be unreasonable to expect organizations and institutions to suddenly begin caring about Deaf accessibility simply because equitable access to resources is a good thing to do. Even if they do see the ethical and even anti-oppression value in accessible services, they may not be able to afford quality interpreters without financial support from the state to cover the cost of those services. Looking beyond the state requires us to employ our anarchist imaginations and envision a totally different society, one in which accessibility is understood to be an important part of how we organize our lives together.

Accessibility in Anarchist Society

In a non-hierarchical society committed to egalitarianism, we know that all voices would be important to the functioning of communities. There would still be a need for people to do the work of interpreting when Deaf and hard of hearing ASL users come together with hearing people who don’t know ASL. In such a society, interpreting work would be one of the many contributions made by community members. Individuals fluent in ASL would share their skills as part of the functions necessary for community life.

Interpreting would not be the only way in which such a society would ensure full community engagement.  For example, “writing” no longer needs to be in print. In our 21st century world it is increasingly possible to create documents in video formats, permitting Deaf people to compose and share texts in their native language. Among Deaf people the app Glide, for example, has become incredibly popular because it allows individuals to send video “text” messages easily and without storing large numbers of videos to their smartphones and eating up memory. Websites like YouTube and Vimeo have made it much easier for groups and individuals to post documents in video formats, and several Deaf news organizations have sprung up in recent years providing information and commentary in ASL and distributed via these sites and other social media platforms.

Work environments could be designed to best suit hearing and Deaf workers alike, something increasingly possible with technologies like videophones. Simple adjustments can be made to work environments like the elimination of cubicles and placing workspaces in a visually accessible set-up to improve Deaf and hard of hearing people’s capacity to participate in group conversation and discourse. As a simple example, ASL using classrooms are typically arranged in a circle so students can see each other. A similar approach can be applied to various work spaces. Services and resources would intentionally include the needs of Deaf and hard of hearing people, like ensuring that all smoke detectors and doorbells- not just the ones in places covered by the ADA- had flashing lights in addition to sounds. Broadly speaking, Deaf and hard of hearing ASL users would be seen as linguistic and cultural minorities who are part of the larger diversity of the community.

Education could be multilingual, with classrooms where instruction is provided in ASL for Deaf and hard of hearing signing students, rather than forcing them into mainstreamed classrooms where they access the information only through an interpreter. These classrooms would include hearing students who also use ASL, creating communities where more people can communicate in multiple modalities. As a result, in many situations where contemporary western society brings in an interpreter, there would be no need because more non-Deaf people would be able to use ASL. With more people knowing how to sign at least reasonably well, more of the interactions that today require an interpreter to be accessible would no longer need one. This would provide more opportunities for Deaf people, both in terms of spreading ASL throughout the community as well as more room for them to be involved in a wide array of community activities as regular participants. Imagine a workplace where all workers know ASL, whether they’re Deaf or hearing. The Deaf worker would be able to go to any meeting, participate in any chit chat, get any training, all without special arrangements or state oversight.

There is precedence for this: from the mid-1600s into the 1900s, Martha’s Vineyard was home to an extensive Deaf population and its own flourishing sign language that pre-dated ASL. Nearly all the people who lived on the island, Deaf or otherwise, were able to use the native sign language. Deaf islanders were independent and full citizens of the island.(23) This is significant, because it demonstrates that a more accessible community, one wherein accessibility is part and parcel of how life is organized, is not only possible but has already been done.

Post-revolutionary society doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, we simply need to know our history and share our knowledge to create the accessible world that we envision for ourselves. Culturally and linguistically diverse communities can exist, indeed they already have. More people knowing basic ASL in communities with Deaf populations is as useful as more people being able to speak everyday Spanish. An anarchist society would still have interpreters who offer their skills to the community, but wouldn’t need them in the simpler situations because visual language and communication strategies would be normalized. A radical commitment to accessibility means reconsidering our whole understanding of what it is to be “human” and adjusting our interactions accordingly. Crafting the society we envision just means thinking more broadly about how we connect with each other and challenging ourselves to get more creative.


On a very basic level, the takeaway here is that when anarchists organize events, rallies, and so forth, there should be interpreters. But it is about far more than that: Deaf people have been organizing for centuries, often using their native languages to subvert the narrative of “defective” or “impaired” imposed on them by the larger hearing world. From an anarchist vantage point, it is necessary to reframe our understandings of Deaf people and ASL such that they are in line with the language used by Deaf people themselves to describe who they are and their own efforts towards liberation.

This is not about hearing people taking on the work of liberating Deaf people. Like white people involved in social justice efforts of people of color, or men involved in combating patriarchy, this is about hearing people recognizing our privilege, recognizing how the world in which we live and organize has been designed both intentionally and unintentionally assuming a hearing norm, and actively making changes. Working with Deaf people always involves hearing people checking in on our assumptions and pushing ourselves to learn more, to step back, and to expand our frame of reference for what “accessible” means. Working with Deaf people often- but not always- involves interpreters. For hearing anarchists new to what is often called the Deaf World interpreters are a necessary component of developing relationships with Deaf people. But they are only a part of the equation.

At its core, this essay isn’t simply about how to get an interpreter for your next info session. It’s about how to rethink accessibility such that it is woven into every event, every meeting, every interaction. It is about developing an anarchist praxis that understands radical accessibility as a necessary component of the larger revolutionary project. A revolution that leaves anyone behind is no revolution at all, and to leave out the decades of efforts made by Deaf people themselves towards their own liberation is not only ignorant, it would be cheating ourselves of new dimensions of what revolution could look like. This essay is only a beginning, intended to introduce a series of ideas and to foster thought. Real revolutionary activity will happen when we, anarchists, are able to effectively engage with and support the liberation of Deaf and hearing people alike to create the truly egalitarian society we seek.

This article was made possible by a generous grant from the Institute for Anarchist Studies and the wonderful Deaf community members who have guided me in my development as an interpreter and as an organizer. 

Tristan Wright is a nationally certified professional ASL interpreter in Rochester, New York. He holds a bachelor’s degree in ASL-English Interpretation from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf where he was awarded Outstanding Graduate for the class of 2014. He is also a member of the Black Rose Anarchist Federation and a prison organizer. His writing has been published in the Empty Closet Newspaper and the Genesee River Rebellion

This essay is from Perspectives on Anarchist Theory‘s “Beyond the Crisis” issue, available here from AK Press:

(“You Are Not Alone” graphic by Kevin Caplicki,

1. Janice H. Humphrey and Bob J Alcorn, So You Want to Be an Interpreter: An Introduction to Sign Language Interpreting (Seattle, WA: H&H Publishing Company, 2007), 171-185.

2. MJ Bienvenue, “Bridge to Allyship: Understanding Accountability as Sign Language Interpreters,” Street Leverage, May 2017, available at (accessed April 2017).

3. H-Dirksen L. Bauman, “Audism: Exploring the Metaphysics of Oppression,” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 9, no. 2 (2004):239-46.

4. Harlan L Lane, The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community, (San Diego, CA: Dawn Sign Press, 1999), 33.

5. Lane, 43.

6. Lane, 87.

7. Bauman, 241.

8. Bauman, 244.

9. James Doubek, “Oklahoma City Police Fatally Shoot Deaf Man Despite Yells of ‘He Can’t Hear,’” NPR The Two Way 9/21/17 available at (accessed October 2017).

10. T.L. Lewis, “In the Fight to Close Rikers, Don’t Forget Deaf and Disabled People,” Truthout, April 6, 2017, available at (accessed April 2017).

11. Lewis. 

12. Sy Dubow, Legal Rights: The Guide for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People, (Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2000), 171-172.

13. Heyer V, US Bureau of Prisons Fourth Circuit, March 24th 2017; James C McKinley, “Judge Orders State to Provide Special Help to Deaf Prisoners,” The New York Times (New York, NY) June 19, 1995.

14. McKinley, “Judge Orders State to Provide Special Help to Deaf Prisoners.”

15. Lewis.

16. Lewis.

17. Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 7.

18. Padden and Humphries, Deaf in America, 31.

19. Sy Dubow, Legal Rights: The Guide for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People (Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2000), 37.

20. George W. Veditz, “The Preservation of the Sign Language,” Deaf World: A Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook, edited by Lois Bragg, (New York: New York University Press,1913), 83-85.

21. Humphrey and Alcorn, So You Want to Be an Interpreter: An Introduction to Sign Language Interpreting, (Seattle WA: H&H Publishing Company, 2007), 262.

22. “What Is a Cooperative?” International Cooperative Alliance, available at (accessed October 2017).

23. Oliver W Sacks, Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989), 28-29.