Our thoughts often gravitate to race or gender when we think of the words, ‘discrimination’ or ‘prejudice.’ These words are discussed often or heard/seen in conversations, television or radio news, and in print. Most of the time, there is a minority group which is being or feels it is being oppressed or treated unfairly. We hear these words often because they are part of the larger culture of hearing people. However, Deaf and hard of hearing people experience being discriminated against or encounter prejudice by people who are referred to as ‘audists.’ Audism can be simply defined as discrimination or prejudice that is based on a person’s ability, or lack of ability, to hear.
In deaf culture, calling someone an audist would be the same as calling someone a racist.
Tom Humphries invented the term ‘audism’ in 1975 to describe an oppressive attitude that some people, agencies, businesses, or organizations have towards people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
Humphries, while in a doctoral program at the Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio, used the word audism in his dissertation, “Communicating Across Cultures Deaf-Hearing and Language Learning.” He defined it as “the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or behave in the manner of one who hears.”
Audism can come in many forms:
- not signing in the presence of Deaf individuals when you know how to sign;
- negative expectations or views of those who cannot speak with their voices;
- ignoring or not providing reasonable accommodations for Deaf or hard of hearing people;
- inappropriate, negative, or lower expectations of success held by some educators, administrators, audiologists or speech therapists, interpreters, corporate/business employees, or others in professional positions toward Deaf or hard of hearing people;
- viewing hearing people and hearing culture as superior to Deaf or hard of hearing people and Deaf culture;
- not allowing Deaf people’s input or their rise to positions of authority;
- parents of Deaf children who insist on forcing their child to conform only to the hearing culture at the expense of or instead of their unique sense of belonging to Deaf culture because the parent sees the child as limited by a non-verbal, non-hearing minority.
We do not hear the term audism often due to the fact that the term applies to a minority or subculture. Even some Deaf or hard of hearing people are not familiar with the term or their own behaviors of audism. Some Deaf or hard of hearing people may feel they or their views of language, ability to use speech to communicate, or their attitude toward Deaf culture makes them superior to others.
Deaf people have pride in and a sense of belonging to their culture. They may feel audists are attempting to destroy or oppress deaf culture. Some hearing people want Deaf people to be just like hearing people. These hearing people believe Deaf people must conform and adopt English, lip reading, speech, and other hearing ways of communication at the exclusion of embracing the natural language of the Deaf, American Sign Language. These people do not accept Deaf culture coupled with this language or ASL-based educational methodologies which have proven very successful over the years.
One final note: You may be like millions of other people who have had limited or no contact with people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. You cannot be expected to know all the appropriate do’s and don’t's of interacting with someone who is Deaf of hard of hearing. Even after you become educated, you may still make an error in judgement or behavior. An audist is someone who has been around Deaf or hard of hearing people, been educated about appropriate expectations or perspectives, and knows the difference between discriminating or prejudice toward a Deaf or heard of hearing person, yet continues to act superior, belittles, looks down upon, makes negative comments about, or does not respect people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. You have the choice to discriminate or be prejudice toward any race or culture. We hope you will realize there is a whole other world out there with some interesting Deaf and hard of hearing people who can enrich your life’s adventure. Don’t go through life with a myopic view. Stretch yourself and discover all that life has to offer.