In the spring of 2020, as the global pandemic forced us into lockdown and new ways of running programs, HNY staff members including Director of Programs Michael Washburn corresponded with Pamela Conley, a Deaf professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, about how best to accommodate her participation in our Zoom-based online Community Conversations. It took a few tries, some of them frantic, but it worked quite well in the end to use Zoom’s ASL services, and ultimately, Pam’s perspective in the group discussions was extremely valuable and welcomed. We invited Pam to write about this experience for the blog because we think it contained lessons not just for HNY, but might also be relevant to our various partners’ thinking on the issues of deaf and hard-of-hearing access and participation. –Sara Ogger
As a culturally Deaf American, I have been dealing with the many inequities in our society all my life, but the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many of these to the forefront. This public health crisis altered my life, personal and professional, overnight. I had to build new virtual environments, aiming for optimal access. While the transition to the virtual was difficult, I also discovered that my access to public events is in some ways more equitable. For example, I unexpectedly acquired the tools and techniques for full participation in Humanities New York’s programming. I was able to participate in last year’s online conversations, hosted by HNY, along with my fellow New Yorkers who were also struggling with the pandemic. Hearing the COVID-19 stories of New Yorkers through American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters was eye-opening. While access to its programming for deaf and hard-of-hearing New Yorkers is now widely available, HNY needs to employ a more concerted outreach effort to ensure that deaf and hard-of-hearing communities across New York are provided with opportunities for effective participation in its humanities programming.
Throughout 2020, deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans negotiated unexpected paths through COVID-19, continuing to deal with the many inequities and injustices exacerbated by the federal government’s insufficient response to the pandemic. Average Americans have long assumed that America’s institutions are fully accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, and that they are included in crucial conversations about national, state, and local issues. It took a pandemic to expose the longstanding illusion that deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans live in an equitable society. The culture is finally changing with more and more ASL interpreters appearing in video boxes within televised press conference briefings. Even the White House includes ASL interpretations of its regular press briefings.
We are fortunate that leaders at HNY have also acknowledged the need for deaf and hard-of-hearing communities across New York State that have been historically underserved to be included in its humanities programming. I was able to participate in difficult conversations during the peak of the pandemic. Through ASL interpreters in Zoom, I was able to learn from my fellow New Yorkers the daily challenges they faced in dealing with COVID-19. I wanted to connect with my neighbors for useful strategies for dealing with the unknowns of the pandemic. These conversations also provided me some respite from the suffering of fatigue and worry.
With COVID cases declining in New York, HNY as a venerable institution has rebuilt and newly transformed, reaching out to historically underserved groups to be part of mainstream programming, including its conversations. Perhaps now more than any other time in the history of New York State, HNY has an unprecedented opportunity to reach out to New Yorkers who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. Interestingly from a humanities point of view, schools for the deaf are safe-keepers of artifacts associated with the deaf and hard-of-hearing experience, and are critically needed for the retelling of their stories as part of our state’s more complete historical collections. HNY needs to do more to involve and sustain its efforts to include deaf and hard-of-hearing New Yorkers in order to share their knowledge in ways that inspire all New Yorkers to value inclusion and empathy.
How can HNY, and other institutions in New York for that matter, expand their community engagement work for greater inclusion of deaf and hard-of-hearing New Yorkers? A place I’d like to propose as a starting point is the Empire State Association of the Deaf, the oldest civil rights association for the deaf in the United States. ESAD is a statewide community of deaf and hard-of-hearing New York leaders and volunteers who have knowledge to share about their neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. This organization is a hidden gem for institutions that, like HNY, are interested in mining for information about Deaf culture, stories, and local history specific to deaf and hard-of-hearing people living in New York. For example, a story that should be shared more widely is that of the tireless efforts by the trailblazing deaf New Yorker Dr. Robert Panara to persuade the National Baseball Hall of Fame to induct William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy.
In these rapidly changing and challenging times, it is critical for HNY to expand and sustain its role in sharing the untold stories of deaf and hard-of-hearing New Yorkers with its mainstream audience. Currently, while ASL accessibility to its programming is easy to set up, HNY consists of leaders who are hearing, which is hardly conducive to promoting inclusion for New Yorkers who are not. Therefore, HNY should work with ESAD leaders for finding, documenting and sharing memories and stories of deaf and hard-of-hearing New Yorkers. It should also learn from these communities about how it can serve them better in the future. HNY is now strongly positioned to be more welcoming and equitable for deaf and hard-of-hearing New Yorkers who have historically been excluded from its programming.
Pamela Conley (BA in English and Education, MS in Deaf Education, MA in English Literature, working towards a PhD in Humanities and Culture with an interdisciplinary focus) Associate Professor, Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf, writing consultant in the University Writing Program, coordinator of academic support for deaf and hard of hearing students in the College of Liberal Arts; coordinator of the associate in science (AS) degree in applied liberal arts program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students; areas of specialization in literary representations of deaf people and interdisciplinary studies of deaf people.