Deaf studies

Systems of oppression: from audism to linguicism

Writing "systems of oppression" on the whiteboard one class every year, I asked my ASL beginners students, who had recently watched the 45-minute video "Unveiled Audism", to name as many forms of oppression as possible.

Sexism, racism, audism, heterosexism. These are usually the first ones that came to one's mind. More? Gradually, the students added some more: ageism, ableism, classism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia...

And, I added, when the students hadn't mentioned: linguicism, ethnocentrism, and phonocentrism.

What is oppression?

"Oppression" refers to a combination of prejudice and institutional power that creates a system that regularly and severely discriminates against some groups and benefits other groups. Ref

Simply put: prejudice + power = oppression.

Oppression is defined in Merriam-Webster dictionary as "Unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power; a sense of being weighed down in body or mind".

Like other oppressed groups, Deaf people have experienced inequalities and social injustice.

Expressions of oppression

Oppression can be expressed on the personal/individual level and institution level. Examples of personal expressions of oppression are: attitude, behavior. And institutional level of oppression can be experienced through employment, education, court system, housing, organizations, etc.

Oppression: intersectionality

Social identities are overlapped that one experiences some degrees of systemic oppression (e.g. audism, sexism, racism, xenophobia, heterosexism, etc.).

While other systems of oppression exist in Deaf community such as sexism and racism like everywhere, Deaf people unite through universal Deaf experiences of oppression -- audism and its related systems of oppression, where audism, phonocentrism, linguicism, and ethnocentrism are closely woven together. Deaf people also share universal experiences through Deafhood, sign language, and visual-tactile culture.

"It has often been said that if you want to destroy a people, first destroy its language." -- Mark Tully, No Full Stops in India.

Audism: a form of oppression

Below highlights some common forms of audism. Many of them were practiced in the old days that are no longer allowed today; however, some of them are still practiced.

Genocide. E.g. euthanasia and sterilization of deaf people during the Nazi war and sterilization after WW2. Cochlear implants in deaf babies as a form of "soft" modern genocide.

Linguicism. E.g. forbidding signed languages for deaf students in schools; cochlear implants in deaf babies who are deprived of languages through eye in name of "speech".

Violence. E.g. slapping a deaf child's little hand with a ruler for using sign language in schools.

Exploitation: E.g. physical abuses and sexual assaults in schools and homes, especially with deaf children who have language delay or deprivation due to speech-only enforcement.

Medical experimentation. E.g. cochlear implants; sterilization without consent.

Inaccessibility. E.g. denying access to proper healthcare; refusing to provide an interpreter.

Dehumanization. E.g. manipulating the natural (signed) language into signed English ("englisize") or other form which is a broken, unsystematic/unnatural language.

Control. E.g. hiring a hearing person instead of a Deaf person with a better qualification for a specialized position; hiring a hearing CEO of a service or organization for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing instead of a Deaf CEO. "Glass-ceiling" system.

Colonization: E.g. closing schools for the Deaf; implanting deaf babies with cochlear implants; appropriating sign language into 'baby sign language' while forbidding deaf babies from acquiring natural languages through eye.

Despite these grim scenarios, there has been also positive resistance against oppression, such as Deaf President Now protest, and many other forms of resistance through literature, arts, books, lectures, policies, protests, and so on. Deaf people have been collectively fighting for human rights.

Becoming Allyship

Human beings continue to evolve and make positive changes for the better to create a society of justice, equity, and compassion.

Use your power and privilege to empower the underprivileged and to make changes, such as giving deaf people opportunities.

When you learn a signed language, learn its culture and history, including oppression, hearing privilege, cultural appropriation, and so on. Learning sign language is not for your entertainment.

Embrace Deaf people and their signed languages and cultures, as part of diversity. Support Deaf advocates and activists for their human rights (especially their languages). Recognize Deaf gain that also benefits hearing people (e.g. texting, captioning, visual culture and space, etc.)

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." -- Desmond Tutu (quoted in Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984) by Robert McAfee Brown, p. 19).

"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." -- Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Related posts

For an introduction, see audism. To see the larger picture of audism, see institutional audism. Learn more about other forms of oppression such as linguicism, little things like microaggression in ordinary life.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Expressing needs and wants

  1. Making commands or requests

Talking about activities

  1. Frequency of time: how often?

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.