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Nothing About Us, Without Us.

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

A Blog about the Inaccurate Representation of Deaf People In Stock Photos

I'm shaking my head in disbelief.

I'm in the middle of a project which is a new flyer announcement for one of the Deaf culture training events, and yet I'm struggling to find a picture that is of a Deaf person in stock photos directories. When I type the word "deaf" in the search bar, you will find several "fake deaf people" in the stock photo records, more than I can count. Any sighted person who lives with hearing loss, or works with deaf people, can immediately notice if the person in the photo is deaf. It all comes down to body language, facial expressions, and other nuances. The pictures with the fake deaf representation give away visible clues that the person cannot hear. Why is it important to emphasize that the deaf person does not hear you in the photo? Second of all, why is the takeaway message displaying helplessness?

The message is loud and clear in the pictures, depicting acts of audism. Audism is an attitude based on pathological thinking that results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear; like racism or sexism, audism judges, labels, and limits individuals based on whether a person hears and speaks (Humphrey & Alcorn, 1995: 85). Audism also reflects the medical view of deafness as a disability that must be fixed.

The mission behind Access Vine's training is to dismantle the bias that Deaf people are not intelligent, not successful, or capable of doing anything. This photo below is offensive because it's making fun of deaf people. Please tell me, how do we ensure we are creating and telling stories that are a force for good and that entertain and empower other people who have a disability?

Person in a suit and bowler hat cupping their hands behind her ears, showing a silly facial expression.
By Getty Images.

Authenticity Means Everything to Us

"Nothing About Us Without Us" is a slogan used to communicate the idea that any representative should decide no policy without the full and direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy. In its modern form, this often involves national, ethnic, disability-based, or other marginalized groups from political, social, and economic opportunities.

We need to push for authentic representation of people with disabilities in stock photos. ‍If marginalized groups aren't able to see themselves in the media, it has a drastic and negative impact on their ideas of self-worth. Authentic representation means so much to the disability community to be seen, heard, and understood. Because there's a lack of accurate pictures of a deaf person in stock photos, it conveys that deaf people are not valued or included. The misrepresentation reinforces the acts of oppression and discrimination. It's already known that Deaf people do not have equal access to job opportunities, social services, medical care, mental health services, and more.

To reject deaf people from the opportunity to be a part of representation is the opposite act of inclusion.

It's becoming too familiar for us to find pictures of fake deaf actors cupping their hands behind their ears or plugging in their ears, expressing frustration. The common denominator that I'm noticing in most "deaf" pictures is the show of the ears while displaying emotions: goofiness, despair, helplessness, fear, confusion, or anger. Who decides what kind of message to send the public portraying deaf people? The photographer? Director of photography? The model who's acting like a deaf person? Let's save you and everyone some money and the trouble. Do not try to publish photos with hearing, non-disabled people representing a disability not part of their identity. Do you want to share pictures of deaf people cupping their hands behind their ears while experiencing despair, helplessness, fear, confusion, or anger? I didn't think so.

White man in blue collar shirt and hearing aids with hands cupped behind his ears, showing a confused facial expression.
By Getty Images

White woman laughing with both hands cupped behind her ears while wearing hearing aids.
By Getty Images

White bearded man in eyeglasses holding hand behind ear, with a puzzled look on his face.
By Getty Images

What in the world are you trying to say?

Another point to make is that when a hearing person who does not know sign language is trying to model as a deaf person, they try to imitate sign language but don't do it in the most natural way possible. The photos do not reflect the communication etiquette taught in deaf culture training sessions. For example, both individuals are signing at the same time. I see a pattern of pictures with the same signs - the First person is signing "F" but awkwardly - like the index finger and the thumb forming a perfect circle. As a deaf person, it's hard to sign F the same way; it even hurts my hand. In the same photo, the next person is signing "help."

Are you saying that Deaf people need help?

To add insult to injury, several pictures tagged "deaf" are of non-disabled actors acting deaf are sitting there, not doing anything productive but signing the word "help." Why is the word in sign language "help" in most deaf stock photos? Did you know that The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words in current use (and 47,156 obsolete words)? Out of a total number 218,632 words, you couldn't think of another word other than "help"?

Deaf people come from all walks of life. There are many distinct Deaf communities around the world, which communicate using different sign languages and exhibit different cultural norms. Deaf identity also intersects with other kinds of cultural identity. There are 48 million people who have some degree of hearing loss. Are you not able to find a person who has some degree of hearing loss?

Let's go back to the drawing board and ask ourselves, "How would deaf, DeafBlind, or hard-of-hearing people want to be portrayed in mainstream media?" It's easier than you think. Hire a team of deaf individuals who are qualified and can showcase the natural beauty of the deaf culture. Just know that we will not portray deaf people as helpless people who cannot hear. Deaf people can be independent and successful, just like hearing, non-disabled people. Deaf people are human beings who cannot hear. It doesn't mean our brains do not work, and it doesn't mean that we need help all the time.

Let's Make it Right

We need to push for positive changes in this world, such as more education and awareness about deaf culture, being more inclusive and learning how to work with Deaf and hard of hearing people with dignity and respect. Let's do better and take action by reporting the pictures depicting audism and replacing it with an authentic representation of deaf people in different roles such as employers, employees, case managers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, actors, models, and CEO. Let's work together inclusively by hiring deaf, DeafBlind, and hard-of-hearing photographers, media gurus, directors, models, and trainers to invest in improving the quality of disability representation in stock photo directories.


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1 Comment

Feb 08, 2022

Totally agree. This should be made into an article to be used in the mainstream media and news. Very well put together and really makes people think, hmm…

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