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The Double Divide: Deaf and Native

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Deaf Natives who live on isolated reservations, said Judy Cummings Stout (Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina), can often “live between two cultures,” marginalized from mainstream America because of their Native identity and also marginalized within the Native community because of their hearing loss. However, fully acculturated deaf Natives, she says, are “comfortable communicating and interacting on the reservation and in non-Indian settings.”

Stout, a student enhancement educator at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., explained these challenges in her presentation “Deaf Native Americans: Organization, Culture and Experience,” at the National Library of Congress on November 14, as part of the Library's event series in honor of Native American Heritage Month. The presentation was based on a paper she shared with the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).

Like all members of the deaf community at large, technology can enhance the lives of Natives who are deaf—but only when barriers that sometimes prevent access to this technology are removed, Stout says.

Judy C. Stout

One barrier to the placement of services and technology is the inability to quantify the needs of deaf people who are also Native. It is almost impossible to determine exactly how many Native Americans are deaf, though several studies have indicated that hearing loss and deafness rates are higher among American Indians and Alaska Natives than the general population.

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According to Dr. Damara Paris, director of deaf studies and Education at Lamar College in Texas, “The higher prevalence of hearing loss in American Indians and Alaska Natives appears to be further corroborated by a NCHS [National Center for Health Statistics] 2006 survey, which reported that 25.3 percent of Native Americans over the age of 18 self-report a hearing loss ranging from mild to profound. In addition, it has been reported that American Indian children under the age of 5 have up to three times the rate of otitis media [middle ear infection] than the general population.”

Dr. Paris adds that, with regard to Native children, “The most recent annual national survey compiled by Gallaudet Research Institute (GRI) shows approximately 0.7 percent of deaf and hard of hearing children who attend K-12 classes in residential school settings were identified as American Indian or Alaska Native during the 2009-2010 school year.” But even these statistics might not provide a complete picture of the deaf Native experience. “This data is not inclusive of all Native Americans who are Deaf,” Paris explains, “since it is dependent upon reporting by all schools who serve deaf and hard of hearing students, and it is unclear whether schools on Native American reservations contributed to the report.”

Citing a 2004 monograph produced by the University of Arkansas Research and Training Center, Paris estimated that there were about 180,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives with mild to profound hearing loss. But Paris also adds that, “Demographic data on Native Americans who are deaf have been largely overlooked, and is usually generalized to people with all ranges of hearing loss, not focusing exclusively on deaf Native users who are primarily ASL [American Sign Language] users and consider themselves part of the deaf community.”

Although her NAD presentation could not provide exact figures with regard to the deaf population across Indian country, Stout’s personal narrative did provide one example of the everyday experiences of deaf Native people. Stout says she developed skills in the arts when she was a child—largely, as she explained in her presentation, because of her minimal communication with others at home or in school. At age 11, she was placed in a special 2nd grade class. But, when she met White deaf girls for the first time in her life, Stout says she was finally exposed to ASL and learned to communicate using sign language in two weeks. Stout also met other Lumbee who were deaf and, despite experiencing what Stout describes as oppression in a high school chemistry class, received a letter of acceptance to attend Gallaudet during her junior year of high school. She says she continued to experience “challenges and obstacles as a minority student,” but Stout went on to earn both a Bachelor of Arts in Arts and Psychology and a Master of Arts in School Counseling at Gallaudet.

Today, Stout uses her background and education to improve the lives of others like her. She is among several contributing authors to Step in the Circle: The Heartbeat of American Indian, Alaska Native, and First Nations Deaf Communities, which was edited by Damara Paris, along with Sharon Wood. Stout also contributed to Circle of Unity: Pathways to Improving Outreach to American Indians and Alaska Natives who are Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and Hard of Hearing by Katrina R. Miller. In her professional life, Stout provides consultation on education, information and referral on Deaf and Hard of Hearing American Indians.

Though she is stepping down from her job at Gallaudet, Stout will continue to work to improve the lives of people who are deaf across racial and ethnic lines. “I will be retiring this Dec 18th after 28 years of services with Gallaudet University. I was a political activist for the D/HH [Deaf/Hard of Hearing] community. In the past I promoted D/HH to get involved in the political processes as well as working with hearing politicians to become aware of the D/HH community’s needs. I look forward to getting back into the Democratic Party after being on hiatus since 2008.”