September is National Deaf Awareness Month, so Campaign US decided to get some insights from Rosa Lee Timm, recently named CMO of Communication Service for the Deaf, which is the world’s largest deaf-led social-impact organization. Timm shares how deaf and hard-of-hearing people are misrepresented in the media, how brands can better engage this community and how to handle unconscious biases.
Do you think deaf people are still portrayed inaccurately in media and entertainment today? How so?
Absolutely. More often than not, deaf characters are portrayed as "less than," individuals who have "overcome" or inspire "in spite of" their disability. This is far from appropriate, accurate or acceptable.
Also, in this day and age, we still have deaf roles being played by hearing actors when a great many viable and dynamic deaf actors are out there who can bring authenticity and deeper layers to a performance and are being ignored. When casting hearing actors, there are inaccuracies in their portrayal of us that are revealed either by an improper use of sign language or cultural reference and many portrayals play to an idea of a deaf person as opposed to a fully realized person. This practice of not casting authentically also robs our community from being able to strengthen our social currency within society.
Elaborate on that.
Through the casting of deaf actors or having deaf people involved on the development team, there is a double benefit where we can bring that richness of real, lived experience to that storytelling and to show the world that deaf people exist. We are not just some skin that you put on to make art and then take off when the day is over. As we know, audiences are becoming more sophisticated these days, to the point that they can tell when an inauthentic performance is being given and we find that more people than ever are speaking out in support of the deaf community. A recent study supports this, revealing that about half of U.S. households support accurate portrayals of disabled characters and would sign up for a content distributor committed to disabled actors.
What can be done to fix this?
Representation matters—it also matters who gets to represent that representation. It’s important for us to speak for ourselves and to have allies defer to us when it matters. Media outlets will often report stories about a deaf person and get information about that deaf person from everyone but that deaf person. Also, I can’t tell you how many times people will seek knowledge from a person who has "experience" working with the deaf community, yet never think to ask someone from within the community. It’s mind-boggling how often we see stories about deaf people that don’t include any actual quotes of substance directly from an actual deaf person. Also, it always is better to talk to more than one deaf person because we are not a monolithic culture and there are an immensely vast number of ways of being deaf.
Tell us about the CSD Social Venture Fund and its purpose.
The CSD SVF is believed to be one of the first angel funds for deaf entrepreneurs. I dare say, it is the most effective program by CSD to realize our vision of creating a world where deaf people are truly valued. We do this by directly investing in deaf-owned or deaf-led businesses because we know that they are more likely than anyone else to see the value in deaf workers and hire them. The Fund is creating one of the first ecosystems for deaf entrepreneurship and few things are more effective in changing perceptions than stories of leadership and success.
Do you have any initial results from the fund?
We have invested in five businesses thus far and more are on the way. Our most well-known partner is Mozzeria, a Neapolitan pizzeria, which is set to open its first expansion store in Washington, D.C. this coming spring. Others include: Bus Door Films, which is bringing more deaf talent behind the camera; DeafTax, a professional tax preparation and book keeping services; National Deaf Therapy, a women-owned nationwide eTherapy platform in American Sign Language; and reFort, an environmentally-conscious startup addressing the issue of waste when people move in or out of residences and college campuses.
More than 70 percent of the deaf community is either unemployed or under-employed. How can companies fix this?
Here at CSD, we strive to change perception by creating opportunities for success. It is through our success stories demonstrating talent and capability and all the hidden potential in our community that opportunities multiply. As you know, success begets success and our presence and participation in corporations help to shape and steer policies and culture to ensure they are truly inclusive. Once companies are able to recognize the potential value and contributions of deaf people, they tend to create additional employment opportunities.
What about the unconscious biases deaf people still face in the workplace – how can companies ensure their staff is treating this community with the respect it deserves?
We all need some level of awareness and sensitivity to language and cultural differences among the great range of human variations, so basically, it’s just like with anyone else who is "different"—treat us with the same respect you would treat those who are more similar to you. It’s not just tolerance, but acceptance, appreciation and even celebration.
How can brands better reach/engage/target the deaf community?
It is important for companies to demonstrate they want a relationship with the deaf and disability communities. They can accomplish this by creating content that is fully accessible including American Sign Language content or subtitles and dedicating resources to inclusively managing their relationship with deaf customers and customers with disabilities. One of the best ways is to put deaf people who know how to speak with our community in leadership positions and have them drive your marketing and outreach efforts. The public’s awareness of this action or step on your part to invest in deaf talent will go a long way towards establishing the deaf community’s trust in your company.