Gestural Communication and ASL in the Spotlight During Deaf History Month
Many teenagers like to pretend that they can’t hear what their parents are saying, but for Jess Davis-Walters, that was actually the case. Jess was born with a rare genetic disorder called Alport Syndrome, which can affect hearing levels and kidney function over time. In adolescence, Jess began to lose their ability to understand verbal communication clearly. By the age of 14, Jess experienced a "moderate to severe" decrease in auditory perception and struggled to communicate only through spoken English. As they learned American Sign Language, Jess was able to communicate with other d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing people and find new means of expressing themself through language. Now, Jess shares their story as a disability rights advocate and peer support mentor for patients with chronic illness, kidney disease, and late-onset deafness.
In addition to chronic illness, Jess was faced with the challenge of living in a world that values verbal communication more than non-verbal, or gestural communication. Known as “oralism,” a term that describes the idea that spoken language is considered superior to signed language, this bias often means that the perspectives of d/Deaf/Hard of Hearing people are seen as less significant than those of speaking people. This is especially challenging for the almost 90% of d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing people born to hearing parents. Some hearing parents who have Deaf children view any level of deafness as an issue that needs to be "fixed", and seek out resources from other hearing people, often without connections to the Deaf community. In their own experience, Jess explains that being "Capital-D-Deaf” is not a problem for them– the real problem is the societal stigma against d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing people and American Sign Language.
To facilitate a better understanding of gestural language and foster an environment of linguistic equity, Jess Davis-Walters is partnering with VPM on the educational series Spectrum of Expression. Each day on Instagram Reels, Jess will interpret a phrase in American Sign Language along with various modes of physical expression to illustrate the nuances of gestural communication. As a part of the series, we’ll be sharing resources about learning American Sign Language, Deaf History, Deaf Culture, and ways to encourage accessibility for d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing people. Follow the series on Instagram @myVPM.
Spectrum of Expression is produced by Octillion Productions based in Charlottesville, Virginia in partnership with VPM.
Funding support from Reel South, a cooperative documentary series telling diverse stories from PBS stations in the regional south, through a National Education Association grant. Additional funding from VPM.
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Written by VPM intern Spencer Law.