A Word With Andrew Phillips - Sense Week

While the music world may recognize this gesture as a sign of unbridled rocking, it is also the sign for love in sign language. Photo courtesy of Cindy Andrie.

For those of us who enjoy being able to perceive the world with all five senses, it’s easy to take for granted how so much of our lives hinge on these abilities, especially in the digital age. We can see our text messages and can hear the person on the other end of the receiver communicating with us almost as naturally as they would be if they were in the same room.

Outside of goods and services, there’s a positive reinforcement we experience when we see people who share our own abilities and senses portrayed amicably in our media. Unfortunately, this is not the experience of those in the disabilities community – a diverse group of individuals who share a wide range of backgrounds, talents, personalities, and challenges, many of which go largely unobserved by a cultural and media landscape who only see what they consider a handicap. They do, however, have one thing in common – a passionate desire to function and participate in a world that may not always have their best interests in mind, and when it does, sometimes offers that assistance in condescending fashion.

To highlight these interests and help spread equal opportunity in our world, BreakThru Radio exchanged an email interview with Andrew Phillips, Policy Counsel for the National Association of the Deaf, about equal access in the Digital Age as well as the depiction of the deaf in our media.

BreakThru Radio: What kind of challenges do those with disabilities face in regards to everyday technology?

Andrew Phillips: Technology has been both good and bad for people with disabilities. The challenges and difficulties depend on one’s own disability. For deaf and hard of hearing people, the web, email and all of the text based communications have been a blessing but now we’re seeing more and more devices using voice recognition technology and speaking to users. This is great for blind people, but if these devices or programs stop being visually accessible then it will be a problem for deaf and hard of hearing people. The best solution is to offer many ways to access technology and adopt universal design principals. One of the biggest challenges for the disability community is making sure that disability rights laws and the ADA apply to a changing world. For example, we worked hard in the 1990s to pass a law that required almost all television programs to be closed captioned. Now, we are seeing many TV like programs online which are not accessible. In 2010 we passed the Twenty-First Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) which requires improved access to internet based videos and communications. Under the CVAA, online videos that were already shown on TV with closed captions are required to be captioned online. We also work hard to build good relationships with technology companies and encourage them to make their products accessible from the start.

BTR: Some view such technology like smartphones as a luxury, and as such, aren’t an issue of equal access as much as, say, providing ramps and elevators in public buildings. What do you have to say in regards to that?

AP: I use technology everyday and while at first, some things like my smartphone or desktop computer were luxury items, but today I can’t live without them. I couldn’t do my job without a computer and it would be very difficult without a smartphone. One of the benefits of today’s technology is that it’s often much easier and cheaper to make accessible than older technology such as installing a ramp or elevator. Also it’s important to remember that everybody benefits from accessible technology, such as a mother pushing a stroller up a ramp or people reading captions on TV in a noisy sports bar.

BTR: The last major legislative effort to remedy this issue took place nearly three years ago, when President Obama approved of a measure setting new federal guidelines for the telecommunications industry that would cater more to the needs of those with disabilities. In the time since, does the NAD feel these measures have provided substantive change for those in need?

AP: The CVAA has provided many wonderful changes that we’re now enjoying only two years later such as a huge growth in online programming that is closed captioned. Other things are moving more slowly like improved emergency access for people with disabilities. Right now, we are pushing hard for phone carriers to support and 911 centers to accept text to 911 calls through an emergency advisory committee set up by the CVAA. There are some gaps in the CVAA and also technology will continue to evolve thus creating new accessibility barriers.

BTR: Are people with disabilities portrayed fairly in the media?

AP: The NAD represents deaf and hard of hearing people, and will answer your question with respect to this population. Media portrayal of deaf and hard of hearing people has largely been unfair but it really varies according to the sensitivities of various media outlets. The most important thing is to include the first-hand perspectives of deaf and hard of hearing people, and to include them as actors, writers, consultants, and in all other ways that contribute to all forms of media. It is unfair when a role calls for a deaf or hard of hearing character, and a person who is deaf or hard of hearing is not hired to play the role. Opportunities are limited for deaf and hard of hearing actors, and it is exceedingly inappropriate to hire a person who is not deaf or hard of hearing as such a person would not have an authentic ability to express the life experiences of deaf and hard of hearing people. Another issue with respect to the fairness of media portrayal is the lack of adequate exposure of the vast diversity of the deaf and hard of hearing community. For example, some are born deaf, use American Sign Language and are involved in the Deaf culture while others might lose their hearing when they get older and never learn ASL. There are also so many variations in family and educational background, racial and cultural diversity, different hearing levels, different use of technologies, and so on.

BTR: What are the major myths surrounding people with disabilities that the media still propagates?

AP: Too often, deaf and hard of hearing people are portrayed in the media as helpless. This couldn’t be further from the truth as we have deaf people who are lawyers, doctors, firefighters, and more. When will the media show deaf and hard of hearing people as strong people who are helping others rather than always being the ones needing help?

BTR: Who are some notable deaf actors, directors, journalists, media makers, etc.?

AP: Marlee Matlin, who won the 1986 Oscar for Best Actress is the most famous actor in the deaf community. There are other famous deaf actors such as Sean Berdy who stars in Switched at Birth and Lou Ferrigno who played the Incredible Hulk in the CBS television series. Linda Bove is another famous deaf actor who has been on television longer than anyone else, with her role on Sesame Street as well as several television movies. Phyllis Frelich won the Tony Award for her performance in the theater production of Children of a Lesser God. Ed Waterstreet and Bernard Bragg are beloved actors in the deaf community, and they have been in many theater productions. Howie Seago, Anthony Natale, Deanna Bray, Ty Giordano and Russell Harvard are among other actors in the community. A number of deaf individuals have produced and directed films such as Wayne Betts, Chad Taylor, Ann Marie Bryan, and Mark Wood.

BTR: Who are some positive role models of deaf people in movies, music, and TV?

AP: Switched at Birth has done an excellent job of showing positive role models of deaf people, including Marlee Matlin and Sean Berdy as well as several others. Marlee Matlin has been in various positive movie roles, and there has been an increase of including deaf people in TV shows.

BTR: Do you feel as though the media allow deaf people to speak for themselves or does it create a narrative for them?

AP: This depends, but we’re very impressed with Switched at Birth where ASL, Deaf culture, and more are shown in a very positive light and we understand that they work closely with consultants who are deaf or hard of hearing. In the past, deaf and hard of hearing people were portrayed without much input from us. That has been changing, but there continues to be media portrayals that are done inappropriately and without our input.

BTR: What are some harmful, widely-held narratives?

AP: The main harmful narratives have been that deaf and hard of hearing people are dependent on others, helpless, or are super lip-readers. In addition, another harmful narrative is that all deaf and hard of hearing people have one common personality or ability… in essence the epitome of a stereotype.

BTR: What can people do to help advance those with disabilities?

AP: One of the biggest problems facing deaf and hard of hearing people is discrimination in the workplace. We need employers to not discriminate against qualified deaf and hard of hearing individuals. This is also true for other disability groups. As for the media, the best thing people can do is let deaf and hard of hearing people represent or play themselves in media and work with deaf or hard of hearing individuals who understand ASL and the deaf community.

An audio version of this interview will air on our latest Third Eye Weekly podcast for Sense Week, debuting today at noon.