What the U.S. civil rights fight and Deaf history have in common

By September 10, 2020

USA (MNN) — Police brutality and civil rights issues sparked mass protests in June following George Floyd’s death. Demonstrations quickly spread nationwide throughout the summer, and they continue in cities like Portland to this day.

The current unrest springs from Black communities’ anger, sorrow, and frustration. According to a Gallup poll released yesterday, more than 50-percent of people in all age groups believe the U.S. needs new civil rights laws. It highlights a problem that may only take center stage now but has persisted for generations; injustice hides in plain sight, even in 2020.

The Deaf community also faces injustice in the United States. Mark Sorenson, a Deaf leader based in Minnesota working with DOOR International, discussed current and historical events with MNN.  Through an interpreter, Sorenson describes various ways Deaf people have encountered injustice.

Sorenson does not claim to be an expert on racism or to speak on behalf of Black members of the Deaf community. As a whole, the Deaf community’s challenges are not the same as what Black communities face. However, there are important lessons to learn from similarities between both groups’ experiences with systemic mistreatment.

Discrimination can creep into the Body of Christ, Sorenson warns, describing “audism” and other unintended consequences. Ask God to open your eyes to the Deaf community. Mark your calendar for the International Week of the Deaf, and seek to raise Deaf awareness in the coming days.

The following is a lightly-edited transcript of this interpreted interview between MNN’s Katey Hearth and Mark Sorenson of DOOR International:


MNN: Historically, how have racism and civil rights movements in the wider community affected the Deaf community?

SORENSON: The Black struggle for civil rights has really had an impact on the Deaf community in many ways throughout the years. Actually, the push for Black freedom and equality began America’s journey towards becoming a true democracy. They fought for rights for Black people initially, and then that had an impact on the women’s rights movement, and eventually on disability rights efforts as well.

A sculpture portraying Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet teaching Alice Cogswell the manual letter “A”. The memorial is located on the campus of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Gallaudet is the only Deaf liberal arts university in the world.
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In 1988, at Gallaudet University, which is the only Deaf liberal arts university in the world, the board was preparing to select the next president of the university. The board had a Deaf candidate, yet they chose a hearing candidate to be the president of Gallaudet. The student body and the faculty began a protest. It was known as ‘Deaf President Now’ and it was a powerful moment in Deaf history.

They closed down the entire university because they wanted a Deaf president – someone who would accurately represent the student body, faculty, and staff. They were successful; the board changed its decision. A Deaf person was appointed as president. So, we understand that desire to fight for representation and leadership of our own people. Black people understood that as well and were particularly supportive of the Deaf community during that time.

Another thing is to look at the 13th Amendment. When it was first enacted, there was a clause in that amendment that said people could still be imprisoned or forced into labor if they were criminals. That law was actually misused then to continue to effectively enslave Black people. That’s what I’ve learned from Black community sources. While Deaf people have not been enslaved because they were Deaf, this reminds me of a situation in the Deaf community and in Deaf history.

There was a congress called the Milan International Congress on the Education of the Deaf, and the participants were almost all hearing people. They made a decision for Deaf people that sign language should no longer be used in the context of Deaf education. Sign language had been a very significant part of the Deaf community and allowed us to experience a good quality of life and education. The lives of the Deaf community declined in so many ways after that decision was made about us, but without us, and we have since fought for sign language rights in order to have full access to education and information. We have learned from Black people’s activism in the area of civil rights and benefited from it as well.


MNN: My next question is about Deaf interactions with the police. I have read articles about Deaf people interacting with police and it seems like problems spring from miscommunication. Is that often the case? Or, is it a case of racism where maybe the police officer is white and the deaf person is black?

SORENSON: Well, Deaf people do have a fear of the police because of the communication issue. If a policeman pulls over a Deaf person, the Deaf person may be concerned about being able to communicate with the police. There was an incident that happened at Gallaudet University in 1990, where a Deaf person entered a professor’s office and was arguing with the professor and so they called campus security. Five campus security officers came to detain this man, and they handcuffed him with his hands behind him, which meant he couldn’t communicate. Then, they pushed him down on the ground in such a way that he couldn’t breathe and actually ended up dying of suffocation. As a result of that incident, Gallaudet’s policies were changed, requiring that all security workers had to be able to sign and communicate with Deaf people. So, that was a very significant incident in our history.

Representative stock photo.
(Photo by Julian Wan on Unsplash)

Another incident happened in 2006 here in Minneapolis. There was a well-known Deaf leader who was very active in the Deaf community. The police pulled him over and he pointed to his ears to indicate by gesturing that he couldn’t hear. So, the police knew that he was Deaf but when the policeman understood that, he tried to speak louder or gesture. The Deaf person gestured back that he would like to write notes to communicate, but the policeman continued to speak more loudly, to yell at him and try to gesture. Eventually, the police officer actually pulled out pepper spray and sprayed it in the Deaf man’s face, and then pulled him out of his car, beat him, and put him in jail.

Several times while in jail or during this process, the Deaf man requested an interpreter. They would come and try to find out how he was doing and every time he would say, “I need an interpreter,” but for several days an interpreter was not provided. He went to court and, eventually, policies were changed because of that incident as well. They would give training to police officers in terms of how to communicate better with Deaf people. They’ve also created an informational card that Deaf people can put on their side window if they’re pulled over that says, ‘I’m deaf. Please communicate with me through writing notes’ or, ‘please call an interpreter’; whatever the Deaf person’s preferences. But it’s important for us to be educating the police as well so that, when they meet Deaf people, they know how to communicate appropriately and effectively with us.

So, for Black Deaf people, I would imagine that they face a double level of fear. Not only is communication going to be difficult because they’re Deaf, but they also face the racism aspect as well. I imagine you have heard of Black parents needing to have “the talk” with their sons to educate them specifically about how to interact with the police. In many cases, that happens with Deaf parents who have Deaf children as well. We need to give special education to our children about how to communicate with the police, how to be careful and not upset the police in the process of trying to communicate. Sometimes, deaf people will have their phone or a pad of paper in their pocket, and they will try to reach into their pocket to get that. The police can misunderstand that action as reaching for a weapon.


MNN: There is a type of mistreatment or discrimination of Deaf people by the wider hearing community. You said there was a term for it; “audism”, or something like that. Can you talk about that?

SORENSON: Yes, [I will describe] a simple example. Oftentimes, this happens in a hearing church if there are Deaf people there who want a room to meet in on a regular basis. They might have a separate meeting of worship or Bible study, because Deaf people’s heart language is sign language and so they want to worship and learn the Bible in their own language. The hearing church might give them a room, but then as the church grows, many times the church will ask the Deaf group to move to a different room or change the time that they meet. Or they’ll say, “I’m sorry, we don’t have available rooms for you to meet in anymore,” and they will ask them to leave the hearing church.

(Photo by Life Of Pix from Pexels)

Deaf people have often experienced that in hearing churches; situations where we feel like we’re being treated as second-class members or second-class citizens. They don’t perceive our needs being as important as the needs of the hearing church. While we often want to meet separately, it’s this devaluation of our needs that gives us a sense of separation or alienation from the church.

Also, hearing churches are very eager to have an inclusive service, and [they] really value diversity. That is an excellent idea and can be very valuable when everyone speaks the same language. A racially diverse church can be a wonderful thing. But when there are multiple languages involved, it’s much more difficult to have a linguistically-diverse church that actually treats every linguistic group equally. So, in the Deaf context, it’s in separate Deaf churches or gatherings where we actually feel more connected with God, more connected to His Word. That context is what really helps us to grow. We feel more respected by the hearing church and community when given that opportunity.


MNN: How do you want hearing people to respond? How can they advocate for the Deaf?

SORENSON: “There was a recent prayer event where a well-known Black pastor gave some advice and I would like to echo his suggestions. One is listening to us. Listen to our experiences and our struggles. Another one is learn about our history. Learn about what has happened in the Deaf world, from a Deaf perspective, and where we are now as a result of that. Also, acknowledge lack of awareness up to this point, which may have led to inaction or indifference in valuing Deaf people. Understanding privilege is important as well. There is actually hearing privilege as well as white privilege. It’s helpful to recognize that that’s not necessarily a negative thing. It’s something that hearing people can use in a positive way to advocate for Deaf people and invite them to the table.

(Photo courtesy of DOOR International)

The final one is to see us as equal brothers and sisters in Christ. We can live in unity and yet diversity. We can learn from hearing people and hearing people can learn from us as well. We have much to contribute to the body of Christ and we can support each other in that way. You know, in John chapter 17, Jesus prayed for the believers. He prayed that we would be one as he is one with the Father. He wants us to live out our relationship with Him in unity with each other.



Header image depicts Black Lives Matter protestors and police in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 2020. Photo courtesy of Koshu Kunii via Unsplash.