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Deaf BIPOC: Unpacking the Needs in the Community

July 06, 2020

Written by: Kristie Medeiros, M.ED, Devonta Thomas, BA with Andrea Wohl, LMHC. This article was originally published in the July 2020 ADARA Newsletter.

In many ways, the Deaf community parallels the hearing community in America in that the majority of research, information, and education is geared towards the white Deaf community. When you research the Deaf community, you will find information relating to the white educated Deaf community. Only recently can you begin to find information about and pertaining to the Black and Indigenous People of Color within the Deaf Community (BIPOC).

Deaf BIPOC have historically lacked access to information (information controlled by white Deaf people), been deprived of equal access to education and language, been left out of outreach efforts by social services and faced scores of systemic racism in health care access, insurance, health care information, general community information and the like. In short, systemic racism is alive and well within the Deaf community. Deaf BIPOC are not a homogeneous group. Some are Christian. Some Muslim. Some Atheist. Some are gay or lesbian or transgendered. Some are Latina, Caribbean, African American, Puerto Rican, Asian, and Native... the list goes on. BIPOC with more than one identity are referred to as having intersectional identities. Therefore, Deaf Black people will automatically have intersectional identities.

Do we identify as Black or Deaf? Latino or Gay or Deaf? Who does it matter to and why? We both work at Walden Community Services providing Therapeutic Mentoring (TM) or Therapeutic Training and Support (TTS) to families where the youth has been identified as having emotional or behavioral needs. We function as role models in a therapeutic context, primarily using a wraparound model of intervention. We work as part of a larger team who works with the entire family to address issues the family identifies.

It is considered a “best practice” and a culturally competent practice for deaf children and families with a deaf member to receive clinical support using a professional with direct communication (typically in ASL). If that cannot be obtained, then a certified ASL interpreter should be provided along with clinicians. The same reasoning is why, as BIPOC’s (one Deaf and one hearing) we feel passionate about ensuring all families and youth of color have professionals of color as providers and mentors. We feel it is not only culturally competent, but should be considered a “best practice” as well. This article will reflect on the work we have done via anecdotes. It should be noted that Massachusetts does not have a single state school for the Deaf. Each of the three cases below represents experiences from three different day schools for the Deaf in the state. To us, this illustrates how pervasive systemic racism is and how much work is needed to support Deaf BIPOC’s.

Devonta works with a Black Deaf boy of Caribbean ancestry--we will call him "B." "B." lives with his hearing aunt and attends a Deaf school. His aunt insisted that "B." have a Black mentor as she believes he is struggling to understand what it means to be Black in a white world. She is also concerned about his hearing loss and being the only Deaf person with a close hearing family and extended family. "B."’s aunt and Devonta discussed his intersectional identities. His aunt mentioned she felt comfortable discussing this with a Black man. She stated that there were too many white professionals making decisions and felt Black representation was lacking in "B."’s life. She stated: “representation is so important.”

The team decided that "B." had plenty of Deaf peers and mentors at school, but NO Black male mentors. It was easy to decide that Devonta would be a perfect fit as a TM. Because, as his aunt noted: representation IS so important. After the killing of George Floyd, "B." made a video and posted it on a social media site. In it, he expressed his perception of how he may have been racially profiled and oppressed. In the video, he shared how he started off in one academic group, but slowly saw his white peers advance while he felt left behind. He goes on to express that he was forced to get additional academic support because his signing was not up to par with the rest of his peers. "B." concluded he was a victim of racial discrimination by watching vlogs from others speaking up about how they were discriminated against as well.

"B." and Devonta are able to discuss systemic racism (being left behind his white peers in academic settings) and learn how he can help advocate for himself. He is also learning how to get support within the Black Deaf community and the Black community. Devonta and "B." plan to continue to work to explore what racism means and how "B."’s intersectional identities as a Black Deaf young man will impact him. They will work to advocate for "B." so that "B." can get the kind of educational opportunities he deserves.

Kristie works as a Therapeutic Mentor with a Black Deaf transition-aged female from a Caribbean Island culture--we will call her "J." "J." was homeless, living with an interpreter from her school after having been traumatized in her family home. The first time Kristie and "J." met was at a Care Planning Team meeting. All the providers and the interpreter where she lived, were white. That team had been working with "J." for several months, and getting nowhere. Some of the providers were Deaf, and everyone was fluent in ASL, but there was not a single provider of color at the meeting--until Kristie arrived. When J. saw Kristie, her eyes lit up. "J." quickly told Kristie what she wanted from the meeting, and Kristie was able to share this with the team. A plan was then put into place where Kristie worked with "J." to teach her about her rights as a Deaf Black woman.

Kristie helped empower "J." to speak up when she wanted something. Kristie and "J." spend long hours together discussing what it means to be independent and self-sufficient. Kristie encouraged "J." to see a therapist to help deal with past traumas. "J." saw a white, male, hearing, signing therapist a couple of times, but felt it wasn’t right for her. At one point during their work together, Kristie disagreed with a Deaf white female clinician to model for "J." how to disagree with a professional and stand up for herself. Kristie encouraged "J." not to get stuck in the past, and to envision a future for herself.

With Kristie’s support, "J." graduated high school and applied to (and was accepted to) a local community college. "J." will be moving to her own apartment in a few weeks and is now connected to both Deaf community resources and the DIPOC community in Boston. She creates her own agenda for meetings and is working hard to achieve her goals. She is solidly on the road to success. Kristie and "J." credit "J."’s success with being heard and seen and validated. Through Kristie, "J." was able to feel represented and begin the process of advocating for herself.

Devonta and Kristie both work with another family of a Deaf female who is Black and Dominican--we will call her "C." "C." attends a school for the Deaf and has emotional disabilities. Since the age of four, she has had difficulty maintaining positive relationships with adults and peers. Her teachers report her as “rambunctious, inconsiderate and lazy.” The school has filed several reports of child neglect with the State’s child protective services agency. Each time, the agency has been unable to find any evidence of neglect.

The relationship between the school and the family has deteriorated to the point that the family does not engage with the school. "C."’s mother feels that the school targets her family and other families of color in reporting neglect. The mother also feels that there is no representation of Latinos or people of color at the school or “around the table” during IEP meetings. She feels she, her daughter, and her family and community are targets of racism by the school.

We felt that it would be appropriate for Devonta to work with the mother and family as a Black hearing man, while Kristie, as a Deaf Black woman, would work mentoring "C." This is the first time "C." worked with another Deaf female of color. We are optimistic that "C." and Kristie will be able to develop a strong and authentic relationship.

Again, we are struck by the importance of representation. All people need representation. All people deserve to see a version of themselves in schools, communities, and workplaces. Deaf people, mostly white Deaf people, worked hard to make sure that Deaf individuals taught and mentored Deaf children. BIPOC who are Deaf deserve to have teachers, counselors, and mentors who represent this intersectionality.

We hope that in providing this to youth and families in our community, we can empower these young people to live lives they find fulfilling with families and communities that support their dreams and goals. It is also our hope that additional studies can be done to validate the importance of representation in the lives of Deaf BIPOC. Ending systemic oppression of Deaf people AND racism will take time. We feel we are uniquely suited as professional Deaf and BIPOC to help families in this endeavor.