YES..Sometimes, Hearing Loss CAN be a joking matter.(Hearing impaired comedian making a big difference).
The…”Signs of Change”.
“When I was little, there were so many games that kids would play that involved whispering, like the game they always wanted to play, ‘Broken Telephone.’ It had different names. Some people just called it ‘Telephone.’ I always called it ‘The Game That Exposed Me as the Deaf Kid,” comedian D.J. Demers said to the audience, laughing.
More than 50 members of the Yale community convened in Trumbull College’s Nick Chapel Theater on the evening of Nov. 2 to listen to Demers deliver the signature tell-it-like-it-is jokes that have landed him on shows like Conan and America’s Got Talent.
He told stories about his awkward experiences in nightclubs, his paranoia about flying on airplanes, and, of course, his experiences as someone who, while not completely Deaf, wears hearing aids. Demer’s appearance on campus is part of a larger move to give more visibility for Yale’s disabled community. The organization leading the efforts, Disability Empowerment for Yale (DEFY), founded in 2016, helped bring Demers to Yale’s campus.
The scope of DEFY’s mission extends beyond speakers. According to president Benjamin Nadolsky, SY ’18, DEFY was established to “celebrate a community of like-minded individuals who view disabilities not as detriments, but rather as attributes to be celebrated.” DEFY’s primary accomplishments include establishing a peer mentor program for students with disabilities, creating a community for disabled students that did not previously exist on campus, and most recently, successfully lobbying the Yale administration to implement American Sign Language (ASL) as a language course, according to Nadolsky.
Next semester, ASL will be taught as a for-credit pilot course to gauge student interest. In the coming years, students will hopefully be able to take ASL as a language distributional requirement. The victory is encouraging for DEFY, but Nadolsky believes there is still work to be done: “Disabled students on our campus are stigmatized, isolated, and removed from campus discourse, especially in the social sphere. It is time we challenge preconceived notions about people with disabilities and fight for a more inclusive campus,” he said. Nadolsky hopes that Demer’s performance and the announcement of ASL courses are just the first steps in that fight.
During the show, Demers said that he initially avoided jokes about his disability, fearing that he’d become the “hearing aid guy,” forced to make only hearing aid jokes, until he saw an interview with a comedian who made $20 million in one year for making jokes about just one subject. “When I heard that part, I screamed so loud my hearing aids broke. Because I wear hearing aids. I have a hearing disability. I’m the hearing aid guy. I assume you’re all laughing. I’m very deaf,” he joked.
For nearly as long as he remembers, Demers has been hard of hearing. “I started wearing hearing aids when I was four years old, and I don’t remember life without them,” he said.
Although Demers has been accustomed to wearing hearing aids since his earliest years, he grappled with feelings of embarrassment throughout his youth. He saw his hearing aids as “something to be ‘covered up’ and made discreet.”
Today, he is unapologetic about them. “I realize they’re not that big of a deal, and a lot of people are going through similar things, so the stigma personally has been pretty much eradicated, but I know there still exists some sort of stigma in popular society,” he remarked.
His recent tour directly addresses this stigma. Demers’s “Here to Hear Comedy Tour,” a 35-day endeavor sponsored by the hearing aid company Phonak, began on Oct. 3 at Washington State University and ended with the Nov. 2 Yale show. On his website, Demers describes the tour as “a cross-country road trip to shatter stigmas and raise awareness about hearing loss through the power of laughter.”
When Demers first began performing comedy, his primary intention never was to eradicate false perceptions of disabilities; he was just trying to get his start in the industry. “I never set out to destigmatize hearing loss… I just wanted to be a comedian,” he said. According to Demers, inspiring Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals and raising awareness of disabilities have been “fortunate byproducts” of his love for comedy.
Demers explained that his comedy is for anyone who enjoys having a good time and laughing, not just for hard-of-hearing and Deaf individuals. But by performing at different colleges while on tour, he has been able to serve as an example for hard-of-hearing students who may feel insecure about their disability.
“College…is kind of a formative time in your life where you may be more prone to those feelings of embarrassment or shame surrounding your hearing aid, so it’s an important age group to hit and show them that I’m totally cool with my hearing aid, and I’m 31 years old,” Demers remarked.
His commitment to ensuring that all are able to enjoy his shows is clear just by looking at the setup of his performance. His Yale show had both closed captioning and two ASL interpreters, making the show accessible to the six audience members who raised their hands when Demers asked if anyone in the crowd wore hearing aids or was Deaf.
“My goals personally were to put on accessible comedy shows and feel that sense of community, and I feel that we’ve achieved that big time,” Demers said. “I feel that appreciation from hard-of-hearing audience members because it’s such a rarity to have an accessible comedy show.”
Demers doesn’t know ASL, but he learned some while he was on tour.
“I didn’t grow up signing. It’s never really been a part of my personal experience. So that’s also been interesting: learning more about that and meeting people who use ASL as their primary language.”
In early October, the YCC sent an email to the student body announcing that new ASL classes would be offered in the spring, confirming that others besides Demers will learn more about the language. By implementing ASL as a pilot course, Yale has taken a step towards acknowledging the language and making students more aware of its significance.
Yale is not the first to bring ASL to the classroom. Several universities across the country, including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, already offer ASL for course credit. Other schools, such as Northeastern University, even offer ASL as a major. ASL has also become increasingly visible in popular culture; for instance, Chance the Rapper hired ASL interpreters for his tour from DEAFinitely Dope, an organization which, according to its website, “is changing the way Deaf people experience music & entertainment.” And one of the the more memorable scenes in Season 2 of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None showed a deaf couple venting their sexual frustrations to each other in ASL.
While visibility in pop culture is hastily progressing, the process of establishing an official ASL course at Yale was lengthy. Prior to the creation of the pilot ASL course, students could only study ASL either formally through Directed Independent Language Study (DILS) or informally through the American Sign Language at Yale (ASLaY) club, founded by Kate Rosenberg, ES ’18. According to Rosenberg, ASLaY has weekly sign language lunches and dinner discussion tables as well as monthly movie nights, and its members range from people who know absolutely no ASL to people who grew up signing and are fluent. It also has hearing, hard-of-hearing, and Deaf members, both undergraduates and graduate students.
“The idea for the club actually came out of the push for an official ASL course here. Last semester, my classmate in DILS Jennifer Gaines and I decided that we wanted to advocate for an official ASL sequence on campus,” Rosenberg said.
Together with their teacher, Gaines and Rosenberg started gathering information on the importance of offering ASL and the number of students interested in taking the language. They then went to Raffaella Zanuttini, the Director of Undergraduate Studies for Linguistics, to ask her to sponsor the proposal. While Rosenberg waited for approval, she attended some DEFY meetings in hopes of combining their lobbying efforts to establish ASL as a Yale course. After some time passed without any update on the status of the ASL course, Rosenberg believed that progress on the course proposal had stalled. In reality, Zanuttini was actively working to get the pilot course approved. She first submitted a proposal to the Language Study Committee (LSC), which is responsible for certifying courses as meeting the foreign language requirement, and met with the committee to discuss various issues related to the proposal. During the summer, Zanuttini revised the proposal and, with the blessing of the LSC, submitted it to the Teaching Resource Advisory Committee (TRAC).
“The committee reviewed it during their first meeting of this academic year at the end of September and approved allocation of funding for two courses in Spring 2018 and four courses in the academic year 2018–19. This is what we refer to as ‘the pilot program,’” Zanuttini said. “During the 2018–19 academic year, TRAC will monitor the progress of ASL courses. If enrollments and general interest warrant, TRAC will then welcome the opportunity to review a petition from Linguistics for a part-time or full-time multi-year appointment in ASL to begin in 2019–20.”
Zanuttini said she envisions that, after the pilot program, Yale will offer ASL on a regular basis from Level 1 through Level 5. Students taking ASL courses will be able to pursue study abroad programs and summer opportunities, just like students studying other languages.
Rosenberg and DEFY had succeeded. “I am so excited for ASL to come to Yale and for more students to be exposed to this language and culture,” Rosenberg said. “When we started this campaign, I never imagined that it would actually happen fast enough for me to be able to take advantage of the classes, but I’m really looking forward to it,” she commented. She also stressed that the presence of ASL courses would help change the image of the language: “A lot of people think signers are just sort of gesturing or playing some kind of extremely expressive charades, which is extremely far from the truth. ASL is a language with structure and rules like any spoken language, and it can express everything a spoken language can.”
Zanuttini shares Rosenberg’s beliefs about the importance and uniqueness of ASL. “The Linguistics faculty is interested in having students study ASL… because recent research has been showing that sign languages are not merely equals to spoken languages but are also able to tell us unique things about language and cognition that spoken languages cannot,” she said.
Nadolsky added that increased awareness and understanding of all disabilities, including deafness, are important “if we really want to make our campus welcoming to all students… [and] ensure that all future students have the same opportunities to succeed and become full members of the Yale community as everyone else.” He cited the implementation of the ASL pilot course and Demers’s visit to campus as steps in the right direction. For, amid his numerous jokes about nightclubs, planes, and struggles with childhood games, Demers communicated a powerful message to the audience.
When Demers finished his performance, the audience erupted in applause. Maggie Nolan, SM ’21, who saw the show, said it was “helpful in making the broader Yale community aware of… the struggles that the Deaf community faces both at Yale and in the world.”
“Everybody has their own individual challenges,” Demers observed. “I think it’s important to recognize that… and realize that there’s a whole community of people out there who are going through a similar experience. It’s okay to lean on them and learn from them.”
Source: The Yale Herald
Image credit: D.J. Demers on Conan
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