big buts at the train tracks

Jon Henner

Jon Henner
November 26
full time father, full time deaf activist, some times writer, most times thinker, all times wandering.


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AUGUST 18, 2008 2:57PM

Why I no longer fully trust hearing progressives

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Some time ago, while I was researching journal articles for my masters thesis, I came across an article* which described the role of microagressions in the unconscious classification and oppression of various minority and sub-cultural groups. 

Microaggression are casual and often unintended actions that reinforce the status-quo.  For example, a white woman who fondles her mace every time she passes a young, black man is commiting an act of microaggression.  In the same vein, a person calling another sweetheart or like affectionate terms in inappropriate situations, such as a board meeting or during a customer service call can be considered a microaggression, although there the situation becomes murky.

Within the article, the authors delineated a long list of minority and sub-cultural groups which often suffer daily microaggressions.  Women stood out prominently and the entire alphabet soup of sexuality was spelled out.  Disability, which encompasses everything from chronic pain aliments, to mobility challenges, to sensory disorders and language differences, came at the end - seemingly an afterthought thrown in to placate activists such as myself.  Although I enjoyed the article immensely, I could not help but be amused at the microaggression the authors commited against me.

In the progressive sphere, disability is the big bugaboo, a reminder of the fragility and diversity of humanity, and a symbol of the constant frustration of acommodating the individual needs of each person.  Many progressives have no qualms about campaigning for their individual causes.  Women are oppressed.  Got it.  Lets expand opportunities for women.  People of Color are oppressed.  Got it.  Lets work on ways to enrich their lives through raza-type programs and multi-cultural awareness programs.  But, when disabilities comes to foray, all of the sudden the consequences and costs of accomodations must be considered before the quest for equality.  Transcribing the video-blogs created by Salon Media contributers?  Well, that's time consuming and not cost effective.  Wouldn't you rather read the secondary sources?  Building wheelchair accessible entrances to all businesses?  Won't people think of how small businesses owners can afford it?

 A few weeks before the Don Imus' nappy-headed-ho controversy, a well known comedian went on the radio and declared that G-d hated deaf people.  When a population of deaf college students, already a stunning statistic considering half of the American deaf population reads and writes at a 4th grade level, complained, they were derided as lacking a sense of humor.  I'm sure many of those who did so were sickened by Imus' comment and demanded consequences.

When campaigning for transcripts on Salon's comments section, I'm often told that I should first pay Salon before I complain, or that I should allow the video bloggers their medium of choice.  Once, I was told that I was too aggressive in my commenting.  I don't understand why I need to pay for content that others receive for free, and judging by comments in other blogs, both Salon main and Open Salon, people tend to respond emotionally to items which they feel denigrates them.  The fact of the matter is that providing inaccessible media is oppression.  It's that cut-and-dried.  If you're campaigning for equality, then that equality applies to everyone seeking it - not only your sphere of interest.

At this stage in my development, the only conclusion I have for the often irrational behavior of prorgressives regarding disability rights is people are only concerned about issues which affect them.  People face gender and racial issues daily.  The odds of meeting a deaf person are substantially slim - we compose only at most only 2% of the American population, and of that 2% an even smaller percentage consider themselves proponents of deaf culture and deaf rights.  Other elements of disability manifest more frequently.  Most of us know at least one person who suffers some form of chronic illness or movement disorder.  At this point in disability rights struggles, advancement towards equality for a subset of disability pulls up all of those who fight for rights.


*Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, M. B. A, Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microagressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271-286. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271.

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Hi Jon: I am trying to understand what you would like to see -- scrolling script under a video stream? Or, for someone to write out what is being said on the video? For a long video, that would be a pretty big ask? Are there funds available to pay someone to do this?
Or, would it be up to the blogger?

In order to grab a You Tube video, all we have to do is right click on the provided HTML, and then paste into the HTML screen in a new post. It would take a few minutes at most. Transcribing the video could take quite a bit longer.

I am not sure what you would like to see done? Can you explain how you visualize what you are asking to be done, say for example by bloggers at OS? I have a lot of hearing impaired people in my family, but none completely deaf. I am sympathetic to your cause, but I think some of us would like to know what you would like to see happen. Thanks!
Lalucas: Thank you for your comments. In a perfect world, all video streams would have scrolling scripts; much like closed captioning on TV or open captioning on movies. Since that sort of overlay is quite time consuming, simple transcripts will be acceptable. I understand that the length of time required to transcribe self-produced videos is more than what most people have. That is why the FCC makes captioning exceptions for small broadcasters. Media companies, such as Salon, have no justification for forgoing transcripts, especially since their video segments often are less than three or four minutes long. I'm hoping that captioning laws are eventually expanded to encompass internet media. You have no idea how much it pisses me off to click a news link only to find that it's a video stream and not captioned (Damn you CNN!).

Having transcribed American Sign Language into English, I'm well aware of what goes on, but I would think that since written English is nothing more than a graphemic representation of spoken English, the transcription process is more automatic. Obviously, I don't expect the casual video blogger to provide transcription for every stream they post on their blog. Circumstantial summaries of the stream are usually sufficient enough for me to get the gist of why the stream is relevant to the blog.

I'm old enough to remember when most television programming wasn't captioned. As we move into internet media programming, exponential increases in the use of non-accessible media such as podcasts and low-budget video productions threaten to once again remove the deaf from the national discourse.

I don't have an easy answer for you. With disability accommodations, the debate usually boils down to cost; considerations not discussed when seeking equality for race, gender, or sexuality. No one argues about the cost of desegregation, or allowing women into previously male-dominated fields. Cities must be desegregated. Women should have full access to the same pursuits men have. But, ah, accommodation for the disabled? Well, how much does it cost? Will it take up too much time?

Try to understand my point of view. Non transcribed and captioned video streams are akin to a hearing-only, exclusive club where all the happenings are. I'm outside, trying to peek through the windows.
Actually, I do understand your point of view. If I insert a video in the future, I will give attention to at least a summation if too long to do a transcript. I had not thought about that as something that would be appreciated, but I do get what you are saying. Actually, I am not a huge fan of watching video clips for which I have no context. It might be a service to people like myself as well, to have a summation to entice me to or deter me from actually clicking the play button!
As a side point, would not much of the video (probably a boon for the blind, though, don't you think?) produced by Salon already have a written script as the video was developed (Joan?)? Would that not suffice, while not really being all that time-consuming or expensive?

As an aside, although not hearing impaired, I feel I owe a debt to the advocacy of those who are, even if I have benefited in a comparatively minor way. In almost all cases, I prefer written transcripts to audio and video (are you, ahem, listening, Salon?). I keep what television I need to watch on mute and read the captions. I almost always use captions when watching movies (low spoken dialog followed by hideously loud sound effects bug the crap out of me).

Because I am a person of the words, reading reaches me in a way that watching people speak cannot. I retain information better.

In any case, I hope I speak for more progressives than you might think when I express the opinion that the comfort of the status quo is useless if it leaves other people behind.
Alexandria: My understanding is that there are text-to-speech programs that the blind can use to access online written media. Much to my chagrin, speech-to-text programs aren't flexible enough to be applied to every-day situations.

But, you're absolutely right. Everyone benefits from captioning and transcripts, not only the deaf. Not everyone has the luxury of sound, particularly those who view videos at work or while their partner sleeps.
I think Alexandria makes a good point about accessibility often having benefits wider than initially expected; I wrote a post on a related topic a couple of weeks ago. But I actually wanted to ask about this:

Media companies, such as Salon, have no justification for forgoing transcripts, especially since their video segments often are less than three or four minutes long.

How much would it cost Salon to have all of their video segments transcribed? I think that would be helpful to know, even if it's just an estimate. For what it's worth, I'm not trying to boil a disability debate down to cost, but I do think it's relevant. Consider that in college sports, Title IX has meant not only improved access for women but reduced funding for some men's sports. There are unavoidable cost tradeoffs.
Rob: You make good points. As a former wrestler and coach, I'm always disappointed when another university cuts their wrestling program and cites Title IX as justification. Arizona State, not too long ago, did just that.

I think that, for Salon, a from-this-point-on type of decision can reduce the set-costs of accommodation. All future videos should be accompanied with transcripts. But, I wonder if there are intern-type-future-nonprofit-worker lackeys that do this thing for Salon? Salon can also offer incentives to its viewers for making content more accessible. Perhaps a free month of Salon Premium for individuals that accurately transcribe X amount of videos?
(Damn it! Open Salon logged me out, chucking my well-reasoned and eloquent reply. Oh, well.)

I like the creative aspect of your suggestion, Jon, and it does make it sound practical and cost-effective. Amortization of the cost of transcribing videos via a slightly more labor-intensive seti@home model. Are there any such programs in place right now? That is, someone submits a video, and it gets farmed out for volunteer transcription? (Leaving aside compensation at this point.)
Very interesting you should post this today, as I just came across a great, free video conferencing product with a feature that allows easy production of video email and web-embeddable video content, and I was all excited to possibly share it with my friends here at OS.

I think the solution to your transcribing issue may lie in recent advances made to voice recognition software, of which I know quite little as a practical matter, but which I suspect may be a place to start looking for answers.

We should all remember, as well, that "accomadations" made to people with disabilities are also available to all members of society, many of whom find unintended value and benefit from things some deride as unnecessary or exorbitant "costs."
This is an interesting post and it has certainly brought my attention to something that I had given very little thought to previously. I have a few comments. I'm going to describe them each briefly. The cumulative effect of just listing them may make me seem hostile to your position. That is not how I feel. I do feel, however, that this is a topic that merits lengthy discussion. I am choosing the list format (1) because otherwise my post would be ridiculously long and (2) I have a limited amount of time to spend on OS each day because I have to get my paying work done. If you take a look at my blog page you will see that I am not giving you short shrift.

First, your proposed approach would also require Salon to provide all of its written material in audio form, wouldn't it? Otherwise Salon would be giving unequal treatment to those who cannot hear the videos and those who cannot read the articles. I don't know if there is software that is already able to accomplish this for individual readers, if there is then that problem has already been taken care of.

Second, I think that some of the resistance that you encounter stems from the fact that when it comes to communication we are all excluded from a vast number of clubs. There are hundreds (thousands?) of languages in the world and each human is excluded from the communications that take place in all of the languages that they don't know. The difference here is that communications that you cannot understand are interspersed among the ones that you can. Because the overwhelming majority of the users of the site can understand those video communications they can become part of the ongoing discussion. In contrast, if someone started posting comments in French they would have virtually no chance of becoming part of the discussion because (I assume) an overwhelming percentage of Salon users cannot read French. But if someone started replying to those posts in French, then those two people would be carrying on a discussion that others were unable to participate in. Anyone who lives in a linguistically diverse city is frequently surrounded by, and sometimes the subject of communications that they cannot understand.

Third, I think that you overestimate the scope of the benefits that anti-discrimination laws provide to women and people of color. Our cities are not desegregated. No governmental entity is allowed to have laws that require segregation. Certain types of private businesses are forbidden to discriminate in certain areas (hiring, providing services to customers, selling or renting homes). Within the private sphere, however, there is no law against discrimination. De facto segregation exists in many of our cities and suburbs where neighborhoods are predominately populated by one racial or ethnic group. Our county is full of private country clubs that have no black members. There are many private groups that require members to be from a specific group (race, gender, religion, ethnic background). The only weapon that those who oppose discrimination have against these groups is to try to shame them into changing.

Fourth, I think that there is a difference between a (theoretically) for-profit media business like Salon and individual private bloggers. It may be appropriate for media businesses to provide alternatives that private bloggers do not.

I agree that disability rights are given much less attention than they should be getting in this country. It's ironic because while gender and race remain static, every person alive who does not have a disability is a potential future member of the community of people with disabilities. The needs that we ignore may someday become our own.
Lemoneyes: Thank you for taking the time to consider and respond to my posting. I've replied to each of your points accordingly in numbered format.

1. There already exists computer software that translates text-to-speech. One of Rob St. Amant's postings actually goes into further detail about how Screen Readers work. Since there exists sufficient accommodatory means for the blind, Salon would not need to convert all its graphemic material into auditory. No similar speech-to-text program offers sufficient and similar benefits at this moment. Voice recognition technology is still in its infancy. If you've ever tried using a voice-to-text program, you'll understand what I mean. The program actually has to be trained to recognize a single person's speech pattern. The training process is pretty time consuming.

2. Postings in languages other than English can be fed into available online translators. While the translation process is not accurate, enough can be translated to give a general idea of the posting message. If there's sufficient motivation, one could always undertake a bit of an effort to translate or even learn the posting language. No such voice-to-text translator exists at the moment and learning how to hear auditory language is not a realistic option.

Furthermore, I'll argue that the issue of transcription and captioning is not a matter of linguistic differences, but of accessibility since the American deaf population largely can read and write English. Since there's already precedence for transcribing and subtitling other American auditory media, the same regulations can be transfered over to for-profit Internet media of certain sizes. This, of course, does not apply to small scale blogging operations. In these situations, I would imagine that transcripts can be available through request. Some small scale bloggers and media companies have transcribed their media I've written them. I've always been very grateful (Thank you Randy of Something Positive).

3. The NAACP and NOW have been very vocal about aspects society that allow forms of discrimination. When people of color or when women are discriminated against, those agencies are forefront in advocacy and getting their issues recognized by the media. When is the last time you saw the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) in the news? I admit that the NAD's failings as a viable political organization are failings of the deaf community in general, but hearing support for stances taken by the NAD have never been strong. Hearing media was overwhelmingly against the 2005 and 2006 Gallaudet protests, even though the students had just cause to demand the ouster of Dr. Jane Fernandes.

You're absolutely correct though that sexism and racism still exists. They are causes du jour, though, and disability rights seems to be shunted aside. I have not been treated well by women or people of color because of my deafness. Still, within the deaf community, there are sexists and racists. The Matrix of Domination needs to be expanded to include disabilities.

4. I'm not going to argue with you here. You're right. But, I think that people naturally being good, will transcribe items upon request.
You have given me a lot to think about.

I don't think that I have ever seen NAD in the news. The only time that I have ever seen the deaf discussed in a serious way by large news organizations was during the Gaullaudet protests. Were they really as recent as 2005/2006 or am I thinking of something that happened earlier? Be right back.

OK. No. The only time that I remember seeing the deaf discussed in a serious way by large news organizations was during the Gaullaudet protests of 1988. (I knew that it had been a long time.)

So even though I'm someone who makes an effort to keep up with the news and stay well-informed, the 2005/2006 protests slipped right by me. That doesn't present the news media in a very good light.

However, right now, it's late at night so I will have to learn about the 2005/2006 protests some other time.

I read the book Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks a few years ago. I'd be very interested to know what you think of it.
Absolutely spot on. I've a friend who studied deaf socio-linguistics at Harvard in relation to deaf folks in Québec, and she's been terribly informative on these issues. (It helped that I took many courses in linguistics myself.)

You're right about this insensitivity in Western culture. Here in the UK I find they're trying to be much more sensitive to these frustrations. Deaf-friendly television programmes exist much more here than they do in the US, and the major news broadcasts are often accompanied with a signing assistance. There are more such services available. Further, they've gone a long way to provide audio descriptions of most programmes on specially-designated channels on BBC and ITV (and I'm sure other broadcasters) for the visually impaired.

There is also one of my favourite campaigns against discrimination of the's included nice animation telly spots and advert billboards, from the same man (Leonard Cheshire) who brought us Wallace & Gromit. They've received a substantial amount of media attention, and as a progressive non-disabled person I couldn't be happier.

You can read more about the latter here:
RCMoya612: This is great! A deaf Cheshire cat? All was mimsy in the borogroves and the mome raths outgabe. Haha. Oh, that wouldn't translate well into ASL.