Before I begin: there is a range of deafness, from mild hearing loss to profoundly deaf. I am on the “medium” range. I wear hearing aids, wore them since I was around two or three years old, and attended speech therapy classes throughout my youth. Basically, I am a (what a hearing person would call) “functioning” deaf person: I am able to hear, lip-read well, and use my voice to communicate. However, I do not practice the particular “skill” frequently, which means that my “skill” can be ineffective in a group setting when everyone is talking over each other and I would be unable to read anyone’s lips. I chose to not practice my “skill” “often” because I consider myself deaf. I grew up going to an all-deaf school and an university that mainly serve the deaf. I am very comfortable using my first language, American Sign Language, to communicate with people. Using an interpreter to convey my messages to hearing people is the best way for me to communicate because I am able to accurately represent my “voice” by signing and there would not be any misunderstanding from both sides of the conversation between me and a hearing person (or hearing people).
Growing up, I knew I was one of those Deaf people who were fortunate enough to attend an all deaf school and an all deaf university. Also, growing up, I was cultured. I was aware of the world. I was addicted to the field of museum studies and archaeology, practically from my mother’s womb. I did not know any difference nor was I barricaded from pursuing my goal: to get a degree within the field.
Fast forward years later:
“It is too late”, those words shattered me to the very core, and plunged me into an abyss of depression. I was spinning out of control and it was only two weeks into an archaeological dig in Belize with an acclaimed program. Two weeks in the field, doing what I loved, and I wanted to be anywhere else. I couldn’t believe how I was feeling: I was starting to hate archaeology. But I kept reminding myself that it was not archaeology that was at fault, it was the barrier keeping me from my goal: the communication between myself and others. I was faced with such frustration that I have never had before: no accessibility to communicate.
However, I could not help but think that this was partly my fault. I had been asked, weeks before the trip, whether I wanted to have American Sign Language interpreters (from my university) and because of my arrogant pride, I said no. My thinking at the time was, I am not disabled nor do I need help because I could hear and talk. I thought I would be just fine on my own. In reality, I did need help, and I (repeatedly, every night) wished I had help. My roommate at the dig knew how to sign (no offense to her because I was really, really grateful that she was willing to come to my aid) but was it enough for me to understand everything? Enough to be able to participate in group discussions, side conversations? No. When I sat there, amongst my archaeology peers in the audience watching Dr. Guderjan present about the Mayan ball court or any other interesting tidbit that would have had been vital for my knowledge, I did not understand a single thing.
This experience struck me harder in my life when I realized that I should embrace my disability and, also, educate others about my disability. I realized I needed to learn more about my own deaf culture, and to ensure that I get the accessibility that I deserve, and need. It also opened my eyes and led me to a field that was filled with extremely nice people but with US/Mexico border wall-sized communication barriers.
It was the starting point of the many challenges I had to face in the field, some of which I overcame and some I did not. After attending Gallaudet University and living out in the “Real World”, I realized how sheltered I had been and how I was in such a bubble within the deaf community that did not have any access to archaeology and museums. I started to volunteer more, in person and virtually. I started doing website work for an archaeology organization in West Florida and contacted Dr. Juarez from Texas State University to see if she had any ledgers available for me to transcribe. When they both showed enthusiasm for my work, I realized that all I had to do was to ask and to show my interest. Working with Dr. Juarez led me to realize I needed a masters degree in order to advance within the field, and to prove to the hearing community that a deaf person is capable of doing the same d*** thing that they are doing.
Now, my eyes open, I am starting to see how much the art and culture fields are lacking in the deaf community. In both having deaf people within the field and the programs that cater to the community. Even though the issue of inclusivity within various fields of discipline has led to an increased awareness within the deaf and hearing community alike, many facilities are still inaccessible. Especially those in remote areas (such as North Central Washington, where I used to work as an AmeriCorps VISTA for a year, which is entirely another story).
There are no archaeology/museum summer day camps for deaf children, archaeology/museum workshops and/or tours for deaf adults however there are a FEW popping up now that are for the deaf people BY the deaf people, not the archaeology/museum community, and we call them: ASL GALLERY TALK. There are no outreach efforts from the archaeology/museum community (specifically: the hearing community) to the deaf schools across the United States.
To remedy this lack of accessibility, here are a few suggestions I can offer to the hearing community to be more inclusive: an archaeology directive could type up visual aids instructing community volunteers that are deaf the basics of excavation. An archaeology organization hosting an event at an university could get in touch with the disability services to request interpreters. An archaeology society chapter could ensure that the movie that they will be providing during a meeting will be captioned. These actions will help the members of the archaeological community which are deaf.
We, deaf people, are sheltered because we do not have opportunities that are shared with us from the hearing community. The archaeology and museum community is already so small, which makes it harder for them to realize that there is an entire community (with their own, unique culture!) overlooked.
We must educate each other but do we, deaf people, have to always ask?
About the author: Amelia is an avid backcountry backpacker, novice fisherwoman, bouldering aficionado; she lives life in the fast lane and slows down when she is surrounded by archaeological endeavors. A Deaf museum-director-in-training, she hopes to bridge accessibility between the deaf and the hearing world in archaeology and the museum field.