Accommodating the Hearing World: When is Enough… Enough?



I have nearly half a century accommodating the hearing world, in one way or another. That is a long time. I had never really considered myself a passionate activist nor an educator on audism. I have typically been the easy going, ultra-forgiving and accommodating person when it comes to my own personal needs. I usually try to make it easier for hearing individuals who are not aware or have not received training. I am, as some would say, most certainly hearing-friendly. Perhaps, growing up in a deaf family, I was conditioned to accept the harsh realities of the hearing dominance from American mainstreamed society and the persisting ignorance that seems to yet go away. Or, perhaps, I channeled my energies as a full-time human services provider for consumers and community’s needs and decided to just go with the flow when it came to my own needs. Going with the flow meant I was selective with which battles to fight and sacrificed pieces of “me” along the way. However, I think I have just reached the point where I have a dwindling amount to give away. When did I finally realize, enough was enough? When did I realize that advocacy became ingrained in my DNA?

A few years back, I did my dissertation research focusing on leadership and sustaining voice.* Having worked over twenty-five years in the field of human services, I advocated for the rights of deaf and hard of hearing consumers for quality services and consistently fought for a place in the budgetary decisions to sustain what little services we had. Advocating for the community and being offended for another deaf human kept my emphatic spirit afire. I prided myself in being able to straddle two worlds. Being able to code switch between American Sign Language and English effectively gave me the ability to educate, to bring awareness and to advocate with some achievement. However, there is something completely different and undeniably bewildering when I am personally offended. Most definitely as a deaf individual growing up in American mainstreamed society, I have experienced countless discriminatory practices, oppressive attitudes, offensive bullying and gross misconceptions. I have dealt with issues that were identifiably black and white. What was stated was incorrect. What was performed was illegal. What was thought was inaccurate. It was simple as that. But all of the simple acts of oppression were simply destructive to the human spirit. I felt the stabs of oppression.

Granted, I provided many leadership workshops, coached employees, mentored aspiring leaders and worked with non-deaf professionals. I sought answers to rights and wrongs, usually, within the parameters of the law. We would touch upon the ethical issues and debate how to best cope. We would pressure the norms and values of the hearing dominant system to consider how the clashes impact integrity of services. It was hit or miss especially with the contingency of budgetary allowances. Sometimes we win. Most of the times, sigh, we lose. Interestingly, money often guided the urgency of change. Nonetheless, slowly, the system began to recognize what they can and cannot do. However, it was always deliberated within the parameters of the law, feasibility of funding and the ethical boundaries of human rights.

Are we finally making progress? Do we finally have the teeth to protect the rights of deaf and hard of hearing people? How do we really determine that America is assimilating the needs and values of deaf and hard of hearing people… let alone people with disabilities, marginalized people and people who are plainly considered different? Do I think America has changed? No, I don’t.

Granted technology has changed many people and created greater potential for access. It has changed our thinking of how business is conducted and how services are provided. It seems that information and resources are operated at a speed that is beyond comprehension. It used to be “gotta keep up with the Joneses.” Today, its “gotta survive in the cyber world.” One would say, that is not a bad thing. At least information is accessible.  Wrong.

Information may be accessible but information is still exchanged through aural means within the scope of what is considered the norms of American mainstream. That is financial connections, oratorical finesse and competitive networks. It’s fast. It’s money. It’s status.  It’s power. Power is a very intimidating target but it is desired. Power equates how well you talk, how well you sell and who you know. Power is an exclusionary privilege that creates a means for hierarchal position and dominance. The privilege is the very nature of instigating paternalism, authority and inequality. Never mind, you have to add in the communication facilitator, the sign language interpreter. Any hope of a true equitable opportunity in the mainstreamed America is challenged. I am not saying it cannot be done.  It sure is a heck of a difficult road to sharing the likes of the Warren Buffet’s; Bill Clinton’s; Marissa Mayer’s; and Mark Zuckerberg’s.

I recently visited Panera’s to have a coffee with a friend. Arriving early, I stood behind one customer at the counter. Now picture this, if you will, there were only the two of us in line.  I did not hear a cashier at another cash register call out to me. By the time I scanned the counter and glass display of pastries, I saw that the cashier was yelling and becoming annoyed with my seemingly inattentiveness. Knowingly, I smiled. I walked up to him and stated, “I am deaf. I didn’t hear you,” and proceeded to give him my order. My speech is quite intelligible. I asked for one chocolate chip bagel, just sliced and plain with nothing on it. Not toasted and a small diet coke. I also added the gestures. I wasn’t sure of the volume in my voice. He sputtered words. “Bagel?” “Nothing?” And something else I could not comprehend. I repeated my order politely and cheerfully. He was bobbing his head, looking down and becoming visibly annoyed. I firmly raised my voice and stated, “Please look at me when you take my order. I said I am deaf. I want a chocolate chip bagel, sliced, nothing on it and not toasted. With a small diet coke.” He was increasingly flustered and annoyed, looked around at his fellow co-workers (they looked uncomfortable) and realized he had forgotten what customer service entails and how to look at a customer in the face. He continued his patronizing behavior and never apologized. I got my order. I was very disappointed. As simple as my order was on a beautiful, sunny morning; my mood was shot down by this whole experience. I could have done more. I could have called the manager. I could have lost my temper and given him a piece of my mind. There were definitely plenty of options at the time. However, my time was precious and I did not want to spend my time educating the manager or the employee. I chose this decision and yet I had pay for the consequences.  You would think it is common knowledge to treat someone with respect. I could not help wonder how much of it was because it would require a little more time to get my order correct; a little more effort to communicate with me and a little more knowledge to get past the deafness and understand how to integrate difference as a normal American value.

I sat and ate my bagel. I started to think of all the oppression that I have been confronted with in my lifetime. I immediately thought of another experience that had troubled me as a professional. I am sure that my deaf colleagues share the same experiences and will nod their heads in unison. I serve on a nonprofit board with all hearing individuals. None of them have disabilities, none that are visibly apparent. A couple of the board members are considered experts in their respective field of disabilities; the others are business owners, executives, advocates and parents. On our board, two individuals have doctorate degrees, myself and another member. Interestingly, that board member is often referred to her whole name with a Doctor preceding her name. However, I am referred to simply as “Darlene.” Not Dr. Zangara, but Darlene. Am I being hypersensitive about a simple salutation practice? No, I am not. Am I being hypersensitive about simple respect and equality? Yes, I am. Sadly, this happens often. Did I take a stand and correct the group.  Yes, I did. Should I have to consistently preserve my identity and reputation as a professional; and dignify my laboriously earned doctorate? That is a whole other argument for another day.

I am attempting to make scholarly sense of this human phenomenon and to obliterate some of the disappointments that I am experiencing. I keep referring back to Dr. Harlan Lane’s book titled, The Mask of Benevolence; the studies on Audism by Drs. Dirksen Bauman, Genie Gertz and Tom Humphries and relearning the history of American Deaf communities.  I fully comprehend the scholars’ perspectives on oppression and discrimination. But mindful of the impacts on the level of human development and human spirit. Oppression is overt, covert and it can be blatant or subtle. Regardless of the incidences, each experience has a significant negative impact. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Today, professionals have taken a second look at this childhood nursery rhyme. The original intent is to discourage physical bullying and/or assault. With a growing problem of bullying across the country, professionals are scurrying to deal with the negative impacts, recognizing potential fatal outcomes from the emotional pain of bullying. Funding is poured into bullying prevention and kindness programs. Every American now knows that bullying is an unacceptable behavior. Let us not forget that words, behaviors and attitudes that encourage oppression also create similar scars on the subsistence of many deaf as well as other marginalized individuals.

Disappointment, anger, sadness and frustration are probably the beginning of a long list that describes the emotions when experiencing oppression and discrimination. The feelings are intertwined with their sense of identity, autonomy, social competence, self-esteem and purpose. The list goes on. Professionals in the field of human development, human services and emotional health will profess that every human being must experience positive and successful incidents to create opportunities for growth, resilience and healthy formation of the human spirit. So, enough of the questioning of a deaf professional’s expertise; underestimating abilities, or taking a double take on initials after a name. The deaf and marginalized individuals have consistently worked from an accommodating point of view to be hearing friendly as a way to change the culture and value system of what is thought normal. As much as we can “scholar-ize” this phenomenon, the disappointments are painful and devastating to one’s human spirit. In my opinion, the oppression is unveiled and it is no longer tolerable. It is time to demand that American society to be deaf friendly. It is simply called respect.

Enough…is enough.


[*Voice represents a unit of expression including standing up for oneself, defending a position, and asserting one’s rights.  However, deaf community views the word voice as a representation of the dominant culture and the English language.  Voice also represents vocal sound, speech and utterance.  While, the deaf community utilizes their hands to vocalize oneself, the word does not fit in the American Sign Language vocabulary.  The American Sign Language translation for voice produces multiple; descriptive sign phrases to capture the meaning.  American Sign Language does not have an equitable sign to represent voice.]

This is a glimpse of my ongoing internal dialogue; one that most definitely will be frequently revisited.

7 comments to Accommodating the Hearing World: When is Enough… Enough?

  • so sorry you had a bad day its sad but this is just a sample of the decline of society in general years ago when I still ate fast food I always ordered one thing a sausage and cheese biscuit with extra sausage patty I very rarely actually received this even though it seems simple enough to me I very rarely see any evidence of being heard and it has nothing whatsoever has anything to do with how someone’s ears work or not

  • Juliette H.

    Thank you for this poignant article on audism!! I wish Deaf culture and ASL would be taught to elementary school children in all America, so that when they grow up it will be easy for the hearing people to have decent respect for the Deaf people!! You made good points and all Deaf are familiar with those experiences of the hearing suddenly acting embarrassed and awkward and don’t know how to treat you after they realize you’re Deaf! I wish for a solution to have hearing and Deaf more equal and respect for each other someday soon.
    Thank you for this article to raise awareness of audism

    Juliette H.

    • Darlene Goncz Zangara, Ph.D.

      Thank you! It is something we experience everyday. Hopefully, we find the strength to maintain our patience and continue to teach the hearing community. I do remind myself there are many wonderful people and experiences as well. I am optimistic that there are solutions!

  • Sheila

    Wonderfully written…why not post it on Panera’s social media outlets? Admittedly my only connection to the deaf community is by best friend who is an ASL interpreter and her husband, who is deaf. Still, I disagree that “having a voice” requires audible words; especially in today’s world of social media. I’ve seen complaints posted to a company’s website or other social media outlet bring such an overwhelming response that their ecommerce crashed! Additionally, it gives the message a global exposure. Maybe I’m naïve, but in my opinion (which is only an opinion) giving this article a global reach – to both the hearing and deaf – constitutes the power of voice.

  • Riah Roe

    Dr. Zangara,

    I read this post whenever I feel sad because it so succinctly relates to the experiences I have had with skirts, of all things.

    Growing up in the Midwest, predominantly North Dakota, I never had access to a lot of diversity. Beginning in first grade, I didn’t have the language to describe being transgender. Attempts had been made by various professionals to inform my family that I was trans* but they were quick to inform those doctors that I was “normal”, read: cisgender. A decade or so after I had been shamed into concealing my trans-identity I was ready to openly live as a transgender woman in a cisgender world.

    One day my best friend Jen accompanied me in buying my first skirt at Herbergers. She took off to find a sales clerk as I trailed behind browsing. Jen found a clerk and explained that she was looking for professional clothing for her friend; in particular a skirt suit. As I approached, the woman tried to correct her by asking if the skirt suit was for Jen and not me. When Jen indicated that the skirt was in fact for me, the clerk told us we should look in the men’s department instead. Needless to say, I ended up buying my skirt somewhere else.

    A few months later I wore my new skirt to Dempsey’s Pub. A bouncer there told me that he wanted to look at my driver’s license before I could use the women’s bathroom because they were, in his words, “cracking down”. When I brought my complaint to management they indicated that I should use the single stall bathroom in the basement of the bar as long as a band wasn’t storing their gear down there.

    Accommodating the dominant cultures of our world is hard. I always get a little bit of anxiety when I need to buy clothing or my friends ask me to get a drink at an unfamiliar place. I even get nervous for job interviews or meeting new professionals because invariable there is always a cisgender person across the desk who usually has little knowledge of the lived experiences of people like me.

    It is a travesty that marginalized people are so frequently mistreated by wider society. I am sick of people trying to erase our proud identities; whatever they may be.

    Obviously, as a temporarily able bodied & hearing person, I move through the world with many unearned privileges that those in the deaf community are denied. But reading about the similarities we do share provides me a great sense of solace when I reflect on my own challenges. For that, I want to thank you for sharing some of your experiences with the world through your leadership.

    ~ In Solidarity,

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