DeaFestival 2012: What are we really saying if our audience can’t hear us?

This past Saturday, July 7, 2012, the Kentucky Arts Council partnered with the Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at DeaFestival to present a workshop for Kentucky Arts Partners and cultural districts. The topics were communicating with and presenting the arts to deaf and hard of hearing audiences.  We learned how deaf people are best able to appreciate theater, about deaf storytelling, computer-aided realtime reporting (CART) and hiring ASL interpreters.

The morning was fascinating. A highlight was when Timo Owens from University of Louisville described going to see “Poltergeist” in the movie theater when it was first released. There was no mandatory captioning at that time, as this was in the ‘80s before the American’s with Disabilities Act.  The entire audience was jumping and screaming. Girlfriends were clinging to boyfriends. Everyone was generally tense and scared. Meanwhile, Timo and his friend were laughing hysterically. They were unable to hear the sound cues, so the mood was quite different for them. Everything came across as kind of stupid, he said.

Nina Coyer, a deaf storyteller, shared her story about experiences at the airport to illustrate the importance of providing effective communication and equitable treatment to deaf people. In one instance, she had a question about boarding as there had been several changes to her itinerary. As she approached the counter, the two attendants panicked! They argued back and forth for a while until one of the women came from behind the counter, took Nina by the hand and escorted her to the gate. Nina was gracious, but pointed out that all the attendant had to do was write down the gate number. Sometimes the simplest solution is best. Not to mention, you should always treat adults like adults, regardless of how they communicate.

After our workshop, I represented the Kentucky Arts Council at a booth in the DeaFestival exhibition hall. After the morning’s sessions I felt equipped to communicate and started the afternoon with confidence. What I didn’t realize is that DeaFestival is an event where attendants can rightfully assume that most people there communicate using American Sign Language. When the first person approached me, she immediately began signing rapidly. I panicked! I felt like the two women behind the desk at the airline. I froze. I couldn’t find pencil and paper. I just pointed sheepishly at the publications on our table and smiled.

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Then, an angel leaned over the pipe drape of the adjacent booth and asked if I needed help. She was hard of hearing but also knew sign language. She helped me speak with a few people who wanted information or to tell me about their art. Then she taught me a few helpful signs like “free” (referring to the items on our table), “I am hearing” (which indicates that I don’t sign), “thank you,” “you’re welcome” and “sorry.” I used “sorry” a lot!

I was able to get by. I even shopped at the artists’ booths and discovered some phenomenal deaf and hard of hearing artists from all over the world. Everyone was very helpful when they found out I don’t sign but am eager to learn.  It was great to get a crash course in the morning and full immersion in the afternoon.  Obviously my experience was nothing like living as someone who communicates differently than mainstream society, but it gave me a brief glimpse into what it must be like to attend an arts festival that wasn’t designed with your communication medium in mind. I would encourage any festival or arts event planner interested in making their program more accessible to attend DeaFestival. Twenty minutes there is worth four hours in a workshop or seminar.

Sarah Schmitt, arts access director

Categories: Other, Performing Arts, Visual Arts | Tags: , , ,

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