Interview by Julie Eckhardt
Alison Aubrecht works as a mental health counselor at Michigan School for the Deaf. She is also a poet, scholar, and Deaf woman. She moved to Michigan in August 2003. Prior to that, she was a student at Gallaudet University (BA in Psychology, MA in Mental Health Counseling). Alison did her internship in London, England at National Deaf Services. As I write this introduction, I am reminded about Alison’s deep thoughts on identity, and so we turn to her words…
Alison: I grew up in mainstream schools, using interpreters. In high school, I had a Deaf teacher who became a role model for me. But it was at Gallaudet that I was truly able to develop a strong identity as a Deaf person.
Julie: I read your article about Identity in The Tactile Mind (A weekly e–zine of the signing community). Could you say more about your sense of identity as a Deaf person?
Alison: Basically, growing up I didn’t have much confidence in my self. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. Most of my mannerisms are that of my family (and they’re hearing). I remember the first time I met a Deaf person I thought he was wild. He seemed so out of control. Now, looking back, I can’t imagine ever thinking that.
I felt lost between the cracks. Not hearing, and not Deaf enough. I’m profoundly deaf, but I was taught Manually Coded English (MCE). I had the same interpreter day in day out through my elementary school years. When I was in junior high and high school, I attended a mainstream program that had a large number of deaf students (similar to Lahser High School in Michigan). But the kids didn’t accept me because I didn’t have that “D” pride. (See Deaf Culture).
My first few years at Gallaudet were a struggle. It wasn’t until I joined some organizations that I began to build confidence. During my last year of undergraduate studies, I grew the most. It was at this point that I was taught the word “Audism.”
Julie: What does Audism mean?
Alison: Audism is a word that was coined in 1975 by Tom Humphries and expanded on by Harlan Lane. Audism is to deaf people, what racism is for black people. The idea is that one is superior on the basis of one’s ability to hear–– or behave in the manner of one who hears. Audism has roots in a pretty far–back place.
A long time ago, Aristotle was given the great task of dividing all kinds of nature into categories. He struggled with a concept for separating Animals and Humans. He determined that what makes humans different is their “langue” (Latin for tongue) and the root of the English word, “language.” His basic premise was that human beings can talk and are therefore intelligent. Then he was confronted with (this was a long time ago) Deaf–Mutes. How should these be categorized? Because they couldn’t speak, he classified them with Animals. Over the years, the unspoken message has been carried–– even if it’s not always conscious–– that deaf people, because they cannot communicate verbally, are not as intelligent. The same principal is applied to English. People feel, often unconsciously, that if you’re not skilled with the English language, you’re not as intelligent.
It was from this point on that I really began to analyze my place in society and the use of the word disability (I would never call myself disabled — which I will explain later). I was already comfortable with ASL (American Sign Language) and felt that “D” identity. But I was able to go beyond that—and see myself as something more than Deaf.
To identify myself as ‘Deaf’ feels limiting. A strange comment, I know. Let me see if I can explain—because I’ve just started growing into this new “skin.” I believe that identity is three–dimensional. At the core, I don’t hear. (To hear or not to hear is rapidly becoming more of a choice with improvements in technology. I say I don’t hear because, given the choice, I would choose to remain deaf). I am a member of the Deaf community and feel comfortable with Deaf norms. I believe that Deaf Culture is a sub–culture that I belong to. But I’m a person outside of all that. I’m a woman. I’m a counselor, a daughter. I am all the roles that come together to make us who we are. I see my deafness as an invitation to become a member of the deaf community. I can decline the invitation or I can embrace it. In embracing Deaf culture, I accept the responsibility of understanding this community, our culture, and the needs of those who are a part of it (as well as those who are not).
I don’t see myself as disabled– because I am not. I am not incapable. True, I have one sense that doesn’t function-but my other senses are stronger and therefore balance things out. I believe that society disables people: people are not disabled. There is no positive connotation to that word ‘disabled’. It is a way of differentiating between you and me. At a deep level it doesn’t feel like: “Everyone’s an individual. You like chocolate, I like vanilla." It’s more like: “Sure, we’re the same. BUT, you’re disabled." Why do people seem to have the need to point that out? Something to chew on…
Julie: That is a lot to chew on. So, in a couple weeks we will post Part II of this interview.
Part II will focus on Alison’s experience in the mental health field.