How Social Media Empowers and Connects People – D/deaf and Hearing

Published: Apr 10th, 2019

Although I did not grow up with the technology available today, I can appreciate the positive and negative effects it has had on the Deaf Community and will share some of my observations from being part of this community.

Technology for the D/deaf – then and now

Back in my youth, having a chat with a friend meant using a ‘Minicom’ which is an ancient piece of technology. For those of you who have not heard of or seen one, it was an electronic typewriter with a small screen connected to a typical ‘90s telephone, with two ends, allowing people like me to send and receive text messages. This was both costly and limited. Though it wasn’t something we could carry with us everywhere, it was useful in a sense. I lived in school during the week, so this was the only resource I had that allowed me talk to my mum; at weekends I could use it to chat to my friends. I think this simple device has also helped me to work on my writing skills, too.

Today, social media has enhanced the ability of D/deaf people to integrate into the hearing world and reach out to other D/deaf people. More hearing people are communicating in written words via text messaging, WhatsApp, chatrooms, messenger and emails and so we can be part of that too.

As D/deaf people, we now have the same access to many of the technologies used by hearing people.

 We have apps that allow us to live independently. For example, there some exciting apps for the D/deaf including Glide which is well known in the Deaf Community for its fast, live video messenger with text and emojis. Another app I like is Ava, which allows you to read on your phone what people say verbally, so missing conversation is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Although it has its flaws (such as not following different accents so well), it still has been a great help when there are no interpreters available. Apps like these open the world up for the D/deaf, especially in regard to dating, education and searching for jobs. It has been a gift for the Deaf Community in both good and bad ways, which I’ll be elaborating on later.

How can D/deaf people use social media?

Social media opens things up for the deaf with popular sites like Facebook and Instagram making it easier for D/deaf people to express themselves with videos, photos, memes, hashtags, gifs, posts, art and the written word – all visual platforms. An interesting BBC article (21 January 2016 – Why Facebook has become so important to the sign language community) reported that, “users of sign language have faced barriers to participating fully in mainstream Facebook groups because of the fact English isn’t their first language.  But now there are all kind of deaf groups, in particular a real explosion in space where BSL users share advice, such as deaf opinions (or ‘sharing advice’ to give its sign-name) which has over 7,000 members”.

Using videos can have a powerful effect. Recently, a seemingly trustworthy person was exposed by the Deaf Community as being a money-making scammer. The Deaf Community shared their concerns about this person, fighting back with videos and Facebook groups. The Deaf Community might be small and spread far and wide, but we came together to unite against the scammer!

We know that D/deaf people are usually visual learners, so the visual nature of social media can have a positive effect in education. I have always had to work at least twice as hard as my hearing peers for the same results, but using social media has removed so many hurdles for me. I can do my own independent research using Google, hashtags, YouTube videos, Facebook and Instagram. So many subjects that were previously closed are now open. I believe many D/deaf people feel the same as me: technology and social media have come such a long way in helping our community.

Finding D/deaf role models using social media

Growing up, I didn’t know any prominent D/deaf people or role models beside my friends at school. It was difficult to identify a D/deaf role model I wanted to emulate or who inspired me whilst people around me were telling me what I couldn’t do, like drive a car or play a musical instrument. Today, I can simply type #deaftalent to discover posts via friends of friends to find these inspiring people across the globe.

I have come to learn that we are not alone – we can find those who have overcome difficulties in their own lives and were able to seek the help they needed. We have seen D/deaf people become role models and even celebrities, like Nyle DiMarco, who was on ‘America’s Top Model’ and ‘Dancing with the Stars’ – and won both! He has shown both D/deaf and hearing people what people with a hearing loss can do. We also have Deaf shows like ‘Switched at Birth’, ‘The Silent Child’, ‘See Hear’ and many others.  We have Deaf YouTubers, and Deaf comedies – my favourite are British, John Smith and on Facebook ‘Hii_een’ who is a great artist and storyteller based in Germany, and “seek the world’ on Facebook, with many more interesting Deaf people making content.

Dating as a D/deaf person

Hearing people are becoming braver about engaging with the Deaf Community and vice versa. It has opened up the dating world to allow D/deaf people to access individuals that they may not have crossed paths with in real-life. The text-based nature of talking to people now has made us all equals in the dating arena. Now with today’s dating culture, people tend to rely more on text-based conversations. In my youth, Deaf culture seemed to be very insular but I observe more and more now that D/deaf and hearing people are dating each other. There are countless dating apps that don’t require voice conversations. ‘Tinder’ is a popular one with its visual and texting nature.

Despite its benefits, I find that it is often difficult to understand a person fully without seeing their facial expressions, body language, when it comes to clear communication. This can cause misunderstanding from both parties if they don’t understand each other’s cultures. This can, from my own experiences, cause a lot of heartache, headaches, misunderstanding and miscommunication. Face to face communication – like video chat – is the better option for most Deaf people as far communication goes. I hope we will see more of it in the dating world.

 

The world is smaller than you think

We can now go abroad and find other Deaf Communities at the tap of our fingers. We can learn different sign languages with Deaf foreigners in the comfort of our own home. We can even learn International Sign Language and be part of many other communities, not just the deaf. “Seek the World” is one of a few popular Facebook pages to find deaf foreigners and sign languages. ‘Sign language of the deaf world’ is another, with countless others creating content to be enjoyed.

Through social media we can communicate inexpensively and easily with our hearing family and peers while we are abroad. For me this has been game changer. My sister and I moved from London to two different, quite isolated areas of the world and the ease, affordability and access of social media over the last decade with Skype, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp has made keeping family a part of my every day experience. I remember when my mum had to ration calls home due to the cost of calling overseas. That simply isn’t an issue any more.

When I was growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I always felt inferior as I struggled to keep up with the live news, current events and the shows that people in the same room were watching. TV shows with subtitles through ‘888’ were so few or slow. I recall wanting to watch TV and being forced to watch shows that had subtitles that I didn’t want to watch. Today, all I have to do is click from any online media in the comfort of my own home or even in my car – this allows me to be more involved in discussions rather than just ask what I was missing. YouTube and Netflix have taken huge strides in offering close captioning on all their shows and movies. I can now independently make my own doctor and dentist appointments and run small errands alone. Emails, social media and apps help me to have a conversation independently, in my own ‘voice’.

Social media has its downsides, too!

While it has many positives, social media also has many negative aspects. The most worrying one is that even though it opens the doors to interaction, it can actually make us feel isolated. Like hearing people, D/deaf people can get addicted to social media. We can find ourselves comparing our lives to other picture perfect lives or preferring it over real-life people. We may find we would rather look up their posts online at home than have a conversation in person. I feel physical interaction is important for everyone, maybe more so for the D/deaf. I feel that social media can strip the physical and human side of interacting with other D/deaf and hearing people away because of low self-esteem. For me personally, it took years and a lot of help building up my confidence, as I can live inside my own head. We can feel like the social ‘hunchbacks’ of society if we isolate ourselves too much.

I recall the days where we would meet with local Deaf people at pubs or clubs. Our community was so small, so we would all come together ‘once a month, Friday at this place’ or ‘second Thursday of the month.’ This was always organized by word of mouth or Minicom (which you couldn’t carry with you or make last minute changes). We didn’t have any other means to communicate this important piece of information like we do today on text messages, Facebook pages or online groups.  We would come together as friends to tell stories, jokes, give advice, complain, vent and mainly gossip.

I have many fond memories of feeling that sense of ‘belonging’ with not trying so hard to fit in. We felt ‘normal’ before heading back to our ‘not so normal’ lives. This allowed us to feel equal with each other when we didn’t in our everyday world. We didn’t need to explain our deafness, the struggles, shortcomings and most of all our feeling of inferiority. Now, social media has replaced that family feeling of getting together in clubs and otherwise. With an instant means of communicating and singling out interests, we begin to get more selective and judgemental about each other. Texting and communicating over distance is an easy way for misunderstandings to occur. With face to face communication you have the opportunity to clarify misunderstandings or at least not feel that the distance makes you freer to be an ass! With more complicated and selective means of communicating with each other, we can also ruin things for ourselves as far as potential relationships – personal and professional – are concerned.

These days all it takes is to type your name to find out who you are. While these social concerns are everyone’s, not just deaf people’s, it simply adds an extra layer of social awkwardness to forming meaningful relationships.

How do you feel about social media?

As with everything else, setbacks adds some salt to every success. Although we have come a long way, I feel like we are getting to the point where we don’t have to do everything alone and we are more than willing to accept help to allow for better opportunities. I think we have all been part of that process of coming together and educating each other, which also allows for a bigger ‘community’.  We don’t have to hide behind our deafness just to get our points across. We can speak as loudly or as anonymously as anyone else using social media. All this suggests that as the Deaf Community grows in many more ways, levels and platforms than previously, we learn to ‘fit’ in by getting through to each other rather just withdrawing into the Deaf Community and harbouring our resentments.

How do you use social media? Let us know in the comments.

This is an opinion piece from Tania Pierre. She lives in USA but grew up in UK. Knows both BSL and ASL. – an aspiring Deaf writer. Her views may resonate with you and your own experiences, or you may have a completely different take on things. Feel free to let us know by email or through one of our social media platforms @DeafUnity. We appreciate Tania’s remarks, but they are her own. If you would like to write an article or opinion piece, please get in touch at articles-AT-deafunity.org

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