Claiming Disability as a Deaf Person, part 1

Not An Angry Deaf Person
4 min readSep 1, 2022

Below, I offer versions in three languages: American Sign Language (ASL), International Sign (IS), and English. They offer the same content.

ASL:

A bald white man with a short beard wearing a grey t-shirt against a background of shelved plants in a coffeeshop signs in ASL

IS Version:

A bald white man with a short beard wearing a grey t-shirt against a background of shelved plants in a coffeeshop signs in International Sign.

English:

Recently, people have been asking me to explain why I identify as deafdisabled (one word). Here, I’ll explain specifically why I identify as deafdisabled and why I prefer deafdisabled to DeafPlus. Later, in a separate video/blog, I’d like to discuss the politics of disability in relation to cultural understandings of deafness (e.g. the notions of d/Deaf and Deaf people aren’t disabled!).

I use deafdisabled as a single term because my experience has shown that DeafPlus is used as a euphemism by those who are uncomfortable with disability. The history of DeafPlus disturbs me and I really, really don’t like it. To be clear, I don’t like it and don’t ever want to be referred to as “DeafPlus”.

DeafPlus is not a positive framing despite the use of the positive sign in place of Plus. It is not positive because it emerged a number of years ago as a way of obfuscate disability or to emphasize that Deafness was separate from disability, the former a culturally acceptable way of being and the latter an undesirable condition. That term is grounded in ableist attitudes and negative views of disability. DeafPlus is rooted in the desire to disclaim identification with disability.

I claim that identification, putting the two words together rather than say Deaf and disabled, because the relationship between my deafness and disability cannot be cleaved apart. My deafness and other disabilities affect each other and shape my ways of being in interrelated ways. My ADHD impacts how my communication takes place in terms of eye gaze, turntaking, following and structuring the conversation, how I relate to other interlocutors. Some linguists have casually observed that ADHD influences how people use signed languages. I agree that’s true. I’m excited to see linguists start taking that question on. I’m also autistic. That means I have differences in eye contact, usage of eye gaze, how I engage in conversations with others and how allistic deaf people perceive the language I use, how I participate with deaf communities in way of sociality. I’ve lived all over the U.S. and in each place, when I try to join the local deaf communities, deaf people make assumptions about me because of their own internalized ableism and inability to imagine deaf people as multiply disabled. My ways of relating and being has been interpreted as standoffish, cold, and arrogant. The politics of education and literacy among deaf communities also means that the first thing understood about me is my Ph.D. and assumptions that this is why I am the way I am. In reality, I’m introverted and shy, needing to get to know a person’s values and politics aligns with mine, perhaps identifying common special interests, before being able to relate. But instead, I’m met with accusations of being cold, arrogant, and standoffish. As a deaf signing person, exclusion from signing communities because of ableism toward my autistic ways of being stings. At this point, I say that this is a them problem, not a me problem. Those responses are about their ableism and their ableist attitudes in assuming that disabilities are always apparent or that autistic people have the obligation to change to fit allistic ways of relating.

That’s why I put the two words together: deafdisabled.

I also have nerve neuropathy. It’s vastly improved over the years but for a time, I could barely sign with both hands due to pain. For a time, I became a one-handed signer- or relied heavily on my left hand (as a right handed person!) to communicate. Obviously, this affected people’s ability to communicate with me and understand me. I recall one hearing interpreter getting upset with me and demanding that I sign with both hands because they couldn’t understand one handed sign. Despite being an interpreter for 30 years. (In the US, deaf people sign with one hand all the time, and interpreting training programs really should start training interpreters to work with variants in signing style).

All of those disabilities have a relationship with and affect my ways of being and communicating as a deaf person. Deaf ways of sociality, relationship building, forming friendships and communities through signed languages, and my being Othered by lateral ableism from other deaf people.

This means cleaving the two terms, in way of identities and experiences, is impossible.

I unambiguously reject the term DeafPlus. I don’t want to obscure my other disabilities nor to feed into the ideas that having other disabilities is undesirable. Nor do I want to contribute to ongoing ableist rhetorics in Deaf Studies and Deaf Cultures.

The term was first proposed by a DeafBlind person a number of years ago and that suggestion was clearly rooted in internalized ableism, perpetuated by Deaf cultural discourses, about DeafBlind and DeafDisabled people. DeafPlus is used to erase and obscure additional disabilities while reifying the idea that Deafness itself is not a disability. I reject that.

All of my disabilities make me who I am and I have pride in how they have shaped the ways I am and think. I have no desire to change that.

Thanks for watching!

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