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Homegrown author, researcher advocates for Deaf awareness
By: Cathy Barney
Date: October 1, 2018
Embracing dual identities, Black and Deaf, Dr. Joseph C. Hill opened Deaf Awareness Week and celebrated the 27th anniversary of the University of Cincinnati’s (UC) African American Cultural and Resource Center with a talk about his journey at the center Sept. 24. His message of inclusion for those of color and those who use minority languages resonates with UC President Neville Pinto’s Next Lives Here 10-year strategic direction.
Hill, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Miami University, a master’s degree and doctorate at Gallaudet University was only steps way from his alma mater, Hughes STEM High School. Hill was accompanied by: his parents, sister, brother-in-law and nephew, a Hughes sophomore enrolled in the UC Bearcat Academy, part of CPS Strong that prepares students for college and careers in one of nine Next Lives Here pathways.
His talk was slightly delayed as technical glitches with assistive devices were smoothed. The audience grew over that time to almost capacity, a mix of students and older adults, those who signed and those who didn’t, Black and White. No one seemed to mind the wait so everyone had access, reinforcing the message that accommodation requires conscious effort. Expressive hands flowed and laughter peeled as the audience connected via conversations during the lull.
Hill recounted his story of a supportive family with varying degrees of hearing loss, navigating mainstream public education, a 97-percent white university, the only worldwide liberal arts university for the Deaf and the thorny path toward a Ph.D. Hill has just published a second book, Language Attitudes in the American Deaf Community, and is an assistant professor in the Department of American Sign Language and Interpreting Education in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He has been a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and a Fulbright Scholar.
Education has always been a place he excelled.
“I want to tell a story that may inspire, but I am telling it more to educate others about what it is like for a deaf person to go through the educational system.” Hill signed and interpreters translated his message. “This is not just a road to a Ph.D and the journey of a deaf person, but what it looks like for the Deaf community. I hope people will gain more compassion for those individuals and their experiences.”
Hill shared the history of Deaf education in the U.S. after becoming aware of public ignorance. “I am giving my presentation and the only thing the audience asks is how I got there without the assistance of a driver. They missed the whole point. Society views Deaf individuals with a certain ceiling about what we can achieve, with limitations … barriers of access and a lower quality of life. I’ve been handed Braille cards before and I can see just fine. What’s truly disabling is the idea that the Deaf individual cannot do something.”
The medical view, Hill said, equates success for the Deaf with speech, “but the person has a right to the language of their choosing.”
American Sign Language (ASL) was prevalent in the 1800s and opened deaf students to “focusing on learning,” while some institutions pushed lip reading “that turned the world upside down for Deaf students,” according to Hill. “Imagine trying to lip read and focus more on ability to speak and less on learning subjects.”
His family functioned well with speech communication, easing his mother’s decision to enroll him in a mainstream school. “I ended up speaking with a device strapped to my chest. There was no way I could not be different. I wanted to be free of it.” About the time he entered school, his older Deaf siblings were grown and had moved out of the house. There were few other Deaf students in his class and Hill “felt isolated and depressed” even though he could relax at home, leaning on his mother. “She taught me about life because I had little association with my peers.”
He found solace in food and studying. “I didn’t want anyone to pity me, wanted to work hard and show people what I could do. Though the oral program wasn’t easy, elementary school was. I excelled” to the point they wanted to move him from the Deaf class, “but I knew I would drown in a hearing classroom.”
In middle school, he was assigned an interpreter. “I started signing and my world opened up. I totally understood everything for once and I made my first best friend.” His academic success continued, spurred on by older siblings who entered college. “The only identity I had was as a student.”
He pushed that to attend Miami University, shocked by the few, three percent, Black students. “At Hughes, a lot of the students were Black, so I could relate to the environment. There were 11 Deaf students out of 16,000” at Miami.
He persevered, deciding “school and nothing else was important to me,” when his older brother died of cancer. “After self-reflection, I attended Gallaudet because I wanted a different path. Nothing prepared me to see everyone signing. I felt the world explode and I had access to everything” … including a rich social life for the first time. Hill breezed through his master’s degree program, but fell “flat with the Ph.D. It was a hard, difficult time. People were hard. I encountered racism.”
He took a leap of faith to spend seven months in Italy as a Fulbright researcher “in a different country, a different language, a different culture.” Italian Sign Language is not the same as ASL. In fact, Hill pointed out, there are 150 sign languages worldwide.
“I wanted the experience to figure out who I am and realized of all the identities I struggled with, I had not even thought about being American. Learning two languages developed my confidence as a Deaf person. I learned to connect.”
He returned home to the Black ASL Project, tracing the roots of an almost lost language that emerged out of segregation, creating Black and White signed variations of ASL. “I discovered my identity as a Black Deaf person documenting different linguistic samples across the southern states.”
That work is the basis of his first, co-authored, book, The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure.
Beyond the academic and publishing accolades, Hill’s strongest desire “is to give back. It’s my duty to the Black Deaf community to show the potential each individual has.”
He has encountered Deaf students whose options, including being discouraged from using ASL, have been limited. “I think of my own journey and how I was so fortunate to have Deaf siblings and a Deaf mother. A lot of these students – 90 percent, in fact – don’t have this support. Something has to change.”
Talks like these around the country are Hill’s way of opening the possibilities for inclusiveness. Organizations such as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing advocate for the speech and auditory method with technology. “No one has ever addressed what’s been successful for Deaf children, always looking to the hearing community. Deaf professionals are not being invited to the table to have this discussion.”
Hill chooses another duality, the metaphor from the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken. “Deaf people throughout my life have given me opportunities to take the road less traveled. Oftentimes Deaf individuals are not given the road to success. I am working as an ally to change politics at the institutional level to provide the Deaf community opportunities to succeed as human beings.”
The talk was sponsored by UC’s Office for Innovations & Community Partnerships in the College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services’ School of Education Department of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies.
For more information, please contact:
University of Cincinnati
ASL & Deaf Studies Program