My Black Deafhood

By Bobbi-Angelica Morris

Like many, if not most, and probably all Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) students that attend UVA, I grew up mainstreamed. This meant being the only Deaf person in my classes up until the end of my undergraduate career and growing up without knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL), the vibrant culture associated with it and the Deaf community for most of my life. I first became interested in Deafness after binge watching the popular television show Switched At Birth. While this sparked my interest, it still left me really unsure on where I fit into all of this. During my last year of high school, I hoped to learn more. I created a student led ASL club where my friends and I would gather weekly to learn signs using YouTube videos. Ultimately, this revealed a kind of gravitational pull towards ASL that I was entirely new to and became the reason I took my first ASL class at UVA.

My experience with the ASL program and navigating my identity at UVA has been a roller coaster. One of the many highlights has been UVA’s Deaf Lecture Series. Each semester, the program invites two guest speakers from the Deaf community to share their experiences and contributions to the Deaf community. I remember attending my first ever lecture as a first year; it was a comedy show that helped me understand parts of myself that I wasn’t even aware of. For example, the speaker joked about Deaf people always injuring themselves (because we’re constantly looking in one direction as visual communicators by default) and suddenly, so much made sense. From every wall I’ve walked into to bruise I’ve sustained from car doors to the head, it clicked.

The second Deaf lecture I attended was less enjoyable and I didn’t realize until there was nothing I could do about it. The comedy show from earlier in the semester was presented with screened live captions behind the comedian. I assumed this would be a recurring thing, being a Deaf space and all. Much to my surprise, that was the only Deaf lecture I attended in person that had live captions. Where did that leave me? A mainstream Deaf/HoH student with only one semester of ASL completed, I sat surrounded by all my hearing ASL classmates, my ASL fluent and Deaf teachers, an interpreter to voice, an interpreter for signing ASL, and no hearing aids. I sat in that room with no idea how to advocate for myself.

Things changed a little by my second year. I moved into Shea House, the language house at UVA that dedicated a floor to students learning ASL. Living in Shea House has been one of my most rewarding experiences; I’ve had some of the best times of my life staying up late, signing and feeling safe in an environment I was able to choose for myself. I was surrounded less by people who constantly felt the need to debate whether or not I was actually Deaf and more by people who just let me be myself, accommodations and all.

My feelings around disability justice radicalized in the spring semester of my second year when I interned for a nonprofit named Jahid Adibi Foundation while studying abroad in India. I learned many invaluable lessons during this time but of most importance was self-advocacy.

As I learned more about disability advocacy, I grew connected to the disability community through Twitter. I learned that hearing aids and cochlear implants are most often not tools that accommodate Deaf people, but means for Deaf individuals to accommodate hearing people, and that the best way for hearing people to actually accommodate us is by learning sign language. With these new understandings of disability and Deafness, I started to think differently about the hearing aids I had finally acquired by the end of my first year and eventually stopped wearing them when I didn’t need or want to. After choosing this route, I came to feel liberated in my Deafness and the newfound label I held of myself as disabled.

I remember being greeted with belligerent bangs on my hotel door at 5am one morning in India. This knock was followed by a very hostile tone and borderline physical contact that was meant by my professors to awake me. My professors did not show my white, hearing classmates the same aggression when knocking on their doors that same morning and instead justified their behavior as the necessary aftermath of being unable to reach me by phone, despite being aware that I was Deaf. My professors allowed preconceived notions about deafness dictate their actions and it was at my expense. From here on out, I requested all information to be made accessible through a digit or in written form so situations like this would be prevented in the future. The class proceeded as normal but once COVID hit and we were forced to return to the US, I cut all ties with them.

As the only Black female student on the trip, I began to realize intersectionality in disability and race. Upon returning to UVA, I became hyperconscious of the nuance of discrimination towards not only disability, but the additional challenges I had to overcome as a Deaf woman of color. Ableism is rooted in racism; the two cannot be separated and as a university whose land and institutional systems have a foundation of genocide, slavery, and a continuous displacement of Black and Brown communities, there are flaws embedded in our everyday operation. I still confront inaccessibility daily, especially in post-COVID conditions. Without the safe haven of Zoom’s live captions and ability to read lips through mask coverings, I found myself back at square one in my fight for an equitable education. Even after completing all levels of ASL offered at UVA and thus finally being able to fully utilize interpreters for in-person classes, I still felt little to no improvement in the quality of my education. The non-disabled ignorance and obliviousness towards accommodations is something I am constantly reminded of. I remember the first day my interpreters accompanied me to class; admittedly, I entered the classroom feeling a degree of relief and comfort. I soon realized I was mistaken to feel this way when my professor turned off the lights to show a caption-less video and I was forced to make sense of my interpreter in the dark.

As my time at UVA comes to an end, I reflect on these experiences and more importantly their place as drivers of my identity and dedication to disability advocacy. Not having quenched my desire to learn, I recently applied and was accepted to Gallaudet University, where I will be pursuing a Master of Social Work. I welcome this opportunity to not only pursue a path that will afford me the skills to challenge deeply-embedded social injustices faced by Deaf and HoH people, but to find a community similar to that of the Shea House. I hope to always feel as free as I feel during signing lunches and ASL classes. Outside of my professional pursuits, I have also looked to poetry as a creative outlet. My poem titled “My Black Deaf History” touches on many of the briefly mentioned experiences in this piece and can be found at the hyperlink above; I encourage you all to take a look at it.

Likewise, I encourage anyone, hearing or Deaf, to take a few moments to reflect on spaces of belonging and the importance of community. With that, I would like to leave a short message for the next generations of Deaf/HoH students that will walk UVA’s grounds:

I hope that current and future Deaf/HoH students at UVA find their place in the Deaf community eventually. I hope that you surround yourself with people who care about your wellbeing in every aspect. Don’t let this inaccessible setting make you feel like you are the problem, because you aren’t. Your Deafness is beautiful regardless of how much you grew up learning sign language or know about Deaf history. Make sure you put yourself and your fellow Deafies/disabled people first no matter what. I want to do so much for the Deaf community, but especially you, my fellow mainstreamed Deafie.

Bobbi-Angelica Morris is a fourth year at UVA majoring in Global Development Studies and minoring in American Sign Language. She is the founder of De’Vias (Deaf View/Image Art and Song Club) at UVA, where she created a space centering Deaf art, music, and other aesthetics to promote engagement and awareness of Deaf culture in the community. She’s also served as the treasurer for the Chronically Ill Disabled Cavs (CDIC) and was a member of the CUPSI (College Unions Poetry Slam) poetry team for FLUX at UVA. Bobbi currently teaches ASL to local children and plans to attend Gallaudet University post-graduation in pursuit of a Masters in Social Work. Bobbi’s long-term goal is to create a nonprofit organization teaching ASL through a community garden and ultimately, help significantly bridge inaccessibility gaps. To keep up with Bobbi’s work in disability advocacy, visit her Instagram or Twitter pages @BlckRainbow5.

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