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Beyond the Law: Advocacy for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Rights in the United States:

By: Julian Womack



    The Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HOH) community in the United States has advocated and gained accommodations related to federal, state, and local laws, but the advocacy for rights is an ongoing process to obtain equal access under the laws and in American society. As a minority group in the United States, they have been overlooked as a population that has strived for recognition in American society. As they strive for equity and equality in American society throughout the 17th to 21st centuries, progress related to legal rights extends beyond recognizing ASL as a language to standard accommodations, to those associated with employment, education, and civil rights. The goal for equality and inclusion is more than just having translators available to Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing communities, but to provide access for all to be on equal footing with the hearing population. The Deaf population has advocated from the founding of community schools to the creation of Gallaudet University in 1864, forming the NAD, to the 2012, 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act that mandates closed captioning in the media to assist the Deaf and HOH community.  

    Members of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community advocate for equality within government policies through active and future accommodations for the community and are recognized as valuable members of American society. A foundational law that protects the Deaf, is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which is a federal law that "ensures deaf children have access to state and local governments, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications." (Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, Laws Impacting Students Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, 2015)

    Yet, in acknowledging the need for equity after years of advocating, the ADA was enacted to protect those of hard of hearing, a clear example from the Federal ADA website, "Individuals with hearing impairments can perform successfully on the job and should not be denied opportunities because of stereotypical assumptions about hearing loss. Some employers assume incorrectly that workers with hearing impairments will cause safety hazards, increase employment costs, or have difficulty communicating in fast-paced environments. In reality, with or without reasonable accommodation, individuals with hearing impairments can be effective and safe workers." (Chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission., Deafness and Hearing Impairments in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 2021). As in 2021, there are still misnomers and misconceptions related to the HOH and Deaf communities to be able to engage fully in American society with equal access under the law. 

    After decades of being neglected in the diversity and disability community, the oversight, thorough lack of legal accommodations, government discrimination, and workplace discrimination, had to be addressed. The passage of the few fundamental laws has created protections for the Deaf community, which were able to strike its first achievement in the 20th century towards equity as the United States Congress passed the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. The Act provided the Deaf and HOH community with legal protection from discrimination based on disability in programs conducted by federal agencies and applying to federal contractors. This Act allowed for the Deaf and HOH community to be on a level playing field with attaining government-employed jobs, which is a step in the right direction for protections.  

    Following the Rehabilitation Act, most members of the Deaf and Hard of hearing felt it was vital to equalize hearing children and their community related to education rights. It was essential that there was equity in educational opportunity amongst children and adolescents; from this, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted in 1975. The Act ensured that children with disabilities have the opportunity to receive a free appropriate public education, just like their hearing counterparts. This Act created access to resources and reduced educational barriers within the educational system. There are still improvements to be made as it is on the onus of the Deaf community to advocate for fair treatment, when it should just be built into the system by default for educational norms and resources as this is a fundamental civil right in America. 

    The Deaf community" joined forces with the disability rights movement to push for passage 1990 civil rights law that would impact access to telecommunication, public events, and interpreting services." (Through Deaf Eyes. Deaf Life. Community Self-Determination and Civil Rights, 2007). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that ensures that students receive appropriate education and accommodations for learning which relates to gaining an IEP or Individualized Education Program (IEP) and an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which supports students to have equal access under the law. When accommodations start at an early age for the Deaf and HOH, it creates a solid foundation for their future where advocacy for rights has to emanate from families for fundamental rights and support. When school systems support the Deaf or HOH community members, these laws are vital for early educational advocacy, supporting educational growth for members, and not undermining each student's value to society.

    Prior to the IDEA Act, the Deaf and HOH were excluded from equal access in public education, and Deaf students were not treated equally under the law. The hearing public viewed being deaf as a limitation, but Deaf students can learn and achieve just as other students. Yet, even with the law enacted, parents and students, still need to advocate for themselves. The creation of Deaf schools and community resources has fallen to the Deaf and HOH community for civil rights within American society. These accommodations are essential for members of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing as there are not schools for the Deaf in all parts of the country. The use of various technologies such as TTY as an accommodation are valuable means of access for the Deaf and HOH community, but as society evolves, there needs to be a greater awareness towards accommodations related to Deaf community needs and rights. The current laws extend to certain rights, but there can always be more done to increase the rights in society. 

    Public schooling provides Deaf and Hard of Hearing members with accommodations to prepare them for further education and employment. Standard accommodation related to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is a section of the law that ensures that individuals with disabilities will not be excluded from participation in programs that receive federal financial assistance, such as schools in the K-12 and higher education systems. This Act is important as it lays the foundation for the child to gain accommodations, which is translated into the workplace as adults. (Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, Laws Impacting Students Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, 2015). Just having federal laws in place does not ensure educational equity, as Deaf children's learning needs were not being met in public institutions. But they were also met on a federal level as federal institutions were required to provide services in the official language of your choice without delay, and the services must be of equal quality, regardless of the language one chooses to use. Following the law's implementation, it was highlighted that students were not being accommodated as there were still language and educational barriers encountered inside the classroom for students who were Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The US government's additional policies surrounding the right to use the ASL language had been modified; in each iteration of the law related to advocacy, all arose from the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community pushing for greater rights, which is still an ongoing process until this day.

    Taken together, these laws, IDEA, Section 504, and the ADA all supplement state constitutional guarantees to a free and appropriate education for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students. They establish a robust foundation for a right to language. They provide equal access to students with disabilities and entitlement to appropriate special education and related services. These laws are founded on the presumption that everyone has a right to language and access to accommodations related to education, employment, and other accommodations related to access to rights in American society. Recent laws are the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act that relates to aspects of communication to assist Deaf people in relation to community gains. It is often on the onus on the Deaf community to invent and advocate for the community to all levels of government, in addition to the public and private spheres. The rights of self-determination and economic opportunity should not be seen as optional for this community, but a minority group in American being granted civil rights that are entitled to them, under the law. 

    The right to accommodations related to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, ASL language is explicit in existing laws to create equality for all people. The rights to education and language have been advocated for every person, specifically for every Deaf and HOH person, as the only way to ensure this right is to provide a setting where there is equal access under the law. The myth is that the current laws and accommodations will suffice for the Deaf community based on current laws, yet it is still a work in process as understanding and accessibility are ongoing issues to be addressed with equity and inclusion. As the Deaf community and their allies grow, viewing the community as equal to the other populations in the United States and reducing stereotypes and myths is essential.

    Through laws such as the ADA, IDEA, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act; the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community has made strides towards equity and equality within schools, employment, health care, and the legal system, with public accommodations that are guaranteed under the law. As advocacy is an ongoing process, the protections under the law need to be enforced on all governmental levels, and Americans should think, skill and talent first, not just if that a person is Hard of Hearing or Deaf. There should be more laws enacted to protect and advocate for this population, until equality and equity exist within this community, and in American society. Equity and equal recognition is a process, not just a series of laws that only address part of the community's needs; this is a journey, not a race to the end, to be seen as valuable members of American society with diverse backgrounds, skills, talents, and a place in society.  



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