“Diversity” discourses as a way to deny access – post-ICED reflection

(blogpost by Annelies Kusters and Maartje De Meulder)

At the Dutch Kentalis blog, Harry Knoors, one of the leading figures in Dutch and European Deaf education, has given his perspective on the accessibility issues during the ICED conference in Athens last week. He was responding to a discussion thread initiated by a Dutch deaf person, Juliette, which was quickly followed by other responses from deaf people.

What happened to “Nothing about us without us”? “You are too diverse so there is no other way, it has to happen without you!”

Diversity is a buzzword, and it has been used in diverging ways. A few months ago, we (together with Michele Friedner and Steve Emery) wrote a working paper on diversity and inclusion, evaluating the promises and perils of using those two concepts in academic and policy realms, such as in the WFD and UNCRPD discourses. We argued that in order for these concepts to be useful for deaf people in the achievement of rights, we need to foreground a specific understanding of inclusion as societal inclusion, and diversity as needing a group rights-based foundation. The working paper is open access, you can find it here. It has also been translated in German in the most recent issue of Das Zeichen.

However, “diversity” can also be used in a way that’s actually oppressive. This is what happened during and after the ICED conference in Athens two weeks ago. The controversy around statements made by Harry Knoors (Knoors is one of the leading figures in Dutch and European deaf education and heavily involved in ICED) with regard to access during the ICED conference, reveals this. Knoors used the concept of “diversity” in a way that is very counterproductive for us deaf people. Reacting to deaf criticisms that not all the parallel sessions during ICED were interpreted into International Sign, Knoors argued that deaf people are so diverse (calling them: ”Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing people”) that it is virtually impossible to cater all these communication preferences (such as IS interpreters, CART, acoustic devices), hence it is not possible to provide access for all. In such a statement we see the concept of “diversity” being used as an excuse for the inability to provide access.

Knoors further commented that the right to 100% access deaf people from Western countries claim (!) they are entitled to, would lead to higher conference fees and as such discriminate against participants from developing countries because they wouldn’t be able to afford to pay the fees anymore. Knoors is invoking the global South here as a way of showing failure or inability. Secondly, what about access for those deaf participants from developing countries? Between the lines Knoors’ discourse makes signers look like a small marginalised group; he referred to “only 2% of deaf people using BSL in England”. Here we see “diversity” operating differently— signing deaf people are such a small minority that it is not necessary to accommodate them in the sea of diversity.

So, again, “diversity” is used as an oppressive term here: differentiate us to such extent as to be able to say: “You are so diverse it’s not possible to provide access for all of you!” Thus, here it seems that diversity functions as an excuse for not being able to provide access or accommodation or to deny the possibility of access or accommodation happening.

This line of thinking is not specific to Harry Knoors; we are reacting to a broader pattern here. The ICED’s conference theme was: ”Educating Diverse Learners: Many Ways, One Goal”. Following the conference on Twitter (check #ICED2015) and Facebook revealed specific (and powerful) discourse of “teaching diverse learners”. The conference was opened by Greg Leigh (Australia), stating: “There is no one size fits all, and those who say there is will be looked at with Argus’ eyes”. Several speakers at the ICED conference used “diversity” of deaf children to justify their discourse of “we need to look at every child individually, they all have diverse needs, there is not one teaching language”, “deaf children with a CI don’t sign”.

How did it happen that our communication ways are so diverse? What is the reason that, according to Knoors and his colleagues, so few deaf people know a sign language, or International Sign? Here we come back to the very topic of deaf education. It’s because deaf education (both in deaf schools and in mainstreaming attempts) has diversified us to that extent. The idea is that when “including” deaf children and adults in mainstream education and mainstream jobs, such individual language and other preferences (a sign language interpreter, CART, acoustic modifications, etc…) can be catered to. However, when such “individually included” deaf people come together such as in the context of a conference (or a deaf community event), it becomes hard to cater to such diverse needs. Mark Marschark (one of the other ICED keynote speakers) in his presentation referred to “what we really know (and we think we know)” about deaf education. Well, here is what we know: had deaf education been bilingual during the past few decades, the situation would have been entirely different. Many more deaf people would know one or more sign languages, and as such be better equipped to understand and use International Sign or national sign languages such as ASL.

We are talking about a very oppressive mechanism here, a “divide and rule” mechanism: first deaf education systems diversify us to that extent that there are different preferences and needs, and then this diversification is used to deny us access. Earlier we have argued that “diversity” is a concept that offers potential for recognising sign languages (not to be confused with “sign supported speech”). Instead, at ICED it has been used as one of the new oppressing terms. The same is happening with the concept of “inclusion”. This can be interpreted as: “make deaf people as hearing as possible so that they can function in a diverse mainstream society” OR as: “provide deaf people with sign language education and sign language access so that they feel included as a diverse group in a diverse mainstream society”. The latter seems to be the WFD’s interpretation of the concepts “inclusion” and “diversity”, however their discourse needs to be strengthened, as we argued in our working paper (and as we will talk about in International Sign during the WFD conference in Istanbul next week).

In short, here, diversity becomes a problem instead of something that needs to be valued, nurtured and supported. It is also important to note that it is not just deaf people who are denied access; hearing conference attendees are also denied access to deaf people’s presentations, and to deaf people’s comments and thoughts following hearing attendees’ presentations. Thus, access to diverse visions and perspectives is minimalized and the whole academic and educational community loses out (a point also made by another deaf blogger talking about ICED).

The theme of the WFD conference in Istanbul next week is “Strengthening Human Diversity”. We want to ask people to be critical of how the term is used: in favour of our rights, or in a way that can turn against us?

Annelies Kusters and Maartje De Meulder

2 thoughts on ““Diversity” discourses as a way to deny access – post-ICED reflection

  1. Thanks for this article! They urgently need full access for everyone now or the problem of access and deaf education will never be fixed. In a sense they’re excluding the people who most need including to repair the problem. Please pay attention to all of the deaf community!

  2. Well said! Let’s not forget the ‘D’ in ICED! This concerns a whole group of professionals who have made a carreer in researching, providing services and/or giving advice about or to Deaf people. Without, however being able to fluently communicate with them. If their children’s teachers would have the same level of linguistic proficiency in communicating, they would immediately remove said children from that school or get that teacher fired! ‘Inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ here generally means: we’re not able to do it your way, so we will tinker and finesse untill you -more or less- do it our way…This way of thinking deems pragmatic and economy based (not really acceptable in this field of human endeavour) but most of all: it disables deaf and Deaf people from reaching their full potential and their true contribution to society.

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