Understanding Audism

By: Verbit Editorial

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Audism is a specific type of discrimination that focuses on people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Learning more about this harmful perspective can help combat its prevalence and the impacts of audism.

Table of Contents:

What is Audism?

Audism is a type of discriminatory thinking that suggests individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing are inferior to people who are not. It is a form of ableism that often manifests as a belief that hearing people are inherently more intelligent or successful than people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Another common manifestation of audism is the assumption that those with hearing loss are unhappy or in need of “saving.” Audism is the result of audio centricity — the belief that having the ability to hear and communicate verbally is the “norm.”

As the awareness and understanding of audism grow, so does the need to safeguard against discriminatory practices and beliefs. In order to combat audism effectively, it is important to have an understanding of its manifestations. Here is a closer look at some audism facts, the different types of audism, and ways to prevent audism at personal and institutional levels.

Who Coined the Term “Audism?”

Tom L. Humphries coined the term “audism” in his doctoral dissertation, “Communicating across cultures (deaf-hearing) and language learning.” Humphries is an American researcher and educator who primarily studies language and Deaf culture. The history of audism is a lengthy one, but the academic exploration of audism is a relatively new phenomenon. Though the term dates back to 1977, it rose to prominence in the early 1990s thanks to psychologist Harlan Lane. The audism definition Humphries outlined focused mainly on ways that audism manifests among individuals. Lane’s definition, however, expanded the definition to include institutional practices and beliefs.

three persons talking with each other on a conference table - Audism

What are Signs of Audism?

It’s important to identify the signs of audism, both internally as well as in communities and institutions. Here are a few common indications of audism to watch out for: 

  • Rejection of Deaf culture or the use of sign language
  • Expectations that individuals with hearing loss rely upon residual hearing, speech, or lip-reading
  • Assumptions that those who are Deaf or hard of hearing should be held to a lower standard of success in work or educational environments
  • Discrimination against prospective employees or students because they are Deaf or hard of hearing
  • Indications of patronizing or pitying those who experience hearing loss

What is Conscious Audism?

Conscious audism is a form of active audism. It manifests when individuals — both hearing and Deaf — intentionally engage in audist practices or hold audist beliefs. Although these audists are aware of their prejudice and its potential for harm, they choose to continue to discriminate. Rather than an implicit bias, this type of audism is an active form of prejudice.

Dysconscious audism, on the other hand, is less obvious and more covert. Dr. Genie Gertz defines dysconscious audism as “a form of audism that tacitly accepts dominant hearing norms and privileges.” This mentality is not an intentional form of prejudice but rather a collectively accepted bias in favor of hearing people. Dysconscious audism may persist in institutional structures and systems that reinforce the idea that Deafness is “other” rather than equal.

What is Internalized Audism?

Dysconscious audism can also present as a form of internalized audism within the Deaf community. Sometimes, Deaf or hard of hearing people may accept audist beliefs and practices as the norm. This thinking can occur despite awareness of the harm this prejudice causes to the Deaf community. There are varying degrees and diverse manifestations of audism within the Deaf community. For example, some members of the Deaf community may choose not to use sign language and look unfavorably at those who do. Others may be reluctant to participate in certain activities or communities because they implicitly accept the audist notion that the hearing people in those environments will be at a greater advantage.

The medical system can exacerbate internalized audism by treating Deafness as an affliction that requires “fixing.” This practice is rooted in a misconception that speech and language are inextricably linked. The tendency to conflate language and speech also serves as the basis for a form of audism called “metaphysical audism.”

two men talking with each other with one man pointing at the other

What is Metaphysical Audism?

Metaphysical audism stems from a societal belief that speech is a fundamental aspect of humanity. As a result of this perspective, people who don’t speak face severe discriminatory attitudes that relegate them to “other” or “lesser.”

Historically, this belief led to many unfortunate audist educational practices. For example, in the 19th century, Deaf educators collectively agreed to ban sign language in favor of “oral education.” Attendees at the Milan Conference made this decision because they believed that sign language was inferior to oral communication. Subsequently, people who were Deaf needed to rely on their residual hearing to communicate with speech or to practice lip reading.

The impact of that decision lasted well into the 20th century. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the United States formally recognized American Sign Language as a national language. This long history of audism in education caused significant harm to the global Deaf community. Arguably, much of the internalized audism those who are Deaf or hard of hearing continue to experience stems from this cultural and historical background.

Audism Examples

Following so many years of systemic discrimination, the only way to combat pervasive audism is to learn how to identify it in real-life scenarios. Here are a few examples of how audism may present in our everyday lives:

  • A hearing person assumes a Deaf person is unable to communicate for himself or herself and jumps in to assist without consulting them first
  • A school focuses its time and resources on instructing its students who are Deaf in speech and lip reading rather than ASL
  • A person who is Deaf refuses to communicate in ASL with another member of the Deaf community 
  • An employer refuses to provide workplace accommodations to employees who are Deaf or hard of hearing 
  • A professor requires that their students listen to an educational podcast without offering a written transcript of the content
man in a video call signing with the participants

How is Audism Prevented?

While identifying examples of audism is vital to prevention, it’s also necessary to combat this type of discrimination. Fortunately, there are four key ways to prevent and counter-act audism. 

Increase public awareness

Educating the public about the societal contributions of people who are Deaf or hard of hearing can help to shift and reshape perceptions. 

Offering more Deaf-centric educational environments

Prioritizing accessibility and inclusivity for students who are Deaf or hard of hearing can improve their quality of education. Additionally, equitable educational experiences will help to mitigate the perception that individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing are less intelligent or successful than their hearing peers. Building more inclusive learning environments can also help expose hearing students to Deaf culture, making it easier for them to recognize and push back against audist practices and beliefs.

Supporting intergroup dialogues

The tendency toward separating the Deaf community from hearing people in social, educational and vocational settings has deep roots in audism, meaning we must curtail the practice. One of the most effective means of dispelling bias is by engaging diverse groups in an inclusive discourse.

Engaging in community service

Those looking to combat audism and educate themselves about the Deaf community can take advantage of a vast array of community outreach and service opportunities. These experiences often expose hearing people to Deaf culture in new ways and can serve as a valuable resource for evaluating and eliminating internal audist tendencies.

Final Thoughts from Verbit

Verbit believes that schools, businesses and individuals should never stop striving to make inclusivity the rule, not the exception. The diverse populations that make up worldwide institutions come with diverse needs. Institutional leaders have a wide array of information and resources at their disposal. These leaders are responsible for taking steps to prevent audism in the workplace, classroom and everywhere in between.

Verbit is an essential partner to leaders building the next generation of inclusive workplaces, universities and other institutions. With our full suite of accessibility tools like live transcription, closed captioning, and audio to text transcription, offering more equitable experiences to those who are Deaf or hard of hearing is easier than ever. Proactively providing accommodations can help dismantle audism by pushing back on the assumption that all community members receive information or communicate in the same way. Reach out to learn more about how Verbit’s technology solutions can help to improve inclusivity and eliminate bias among members of your community.