YouTube vs. The Deaf Community

Hello and welcome to another Thought Provokers post where we discuss and debate important topics in the disability world! (As usual, feel free to join the discussion in the comment section below)

A magnifying glass by me

I usually don’t discuss anything too specific in these debate posts, but something happened recently in the disability community that I simply couldn’t remain quiet about. I won’t mention names, but an able-bodied YouTuber who inspires people to learn sign language was forced to stop making videos because of the continuous opposition that she was receiving from certain individuals who disagreed with her channel. (As a tiny disclaimer, I’d like to mention the fact that I am not deaf, but I am disabled and can relate to feelings of exclusion and ableism which will be mentioned in this post)

To give you a little context, the YouTuber made videos where she signed along to famous songs. She also used to post videos where she taught her followers sign language so that they could sign along themselves but she took down all of those videos once she realised you SHOULD NOT teach sign language online if you are not qualified to do so (she was a non-fluent ASL student). Although she was able-bodied, she struggled with mental health issues which she also used her channel to raise awareness about. She inspired many people to learn sign language, and even I picked up a few basic sign language phrases from watching her videos.

This is not a picture of the t-shirts she sold. This is an example of what they looked like which I digitally sketched myself.

There were, however, a few issues: in the beginning, she didn’t caption her videos, which therefore excluded the deaf community – the very community that she was trying to raise awareness about (which she eventually changed). Another was that she released merchandise stating that she signed along to songs because she couldn’t sing which I thought was slightly distasteful since, for most deaf people, signing isn’t a fun little thing that they choose to do because they’re bad at speaking; for them, it’s their only way of communicating.

The YouTuber did apologise for releasing the merchandise and made sure that she didn’t earn any money for the jumpers and donated what she had earned to a deaf charity. Also, she already wasn’t earning any money for her sign language cover videos because she knew that would be exploitation. That aspect of her channel is not monetized. However, after years of constant disagreement from the deaf community, the YouTuber posted a tearful video where she said that she couldn’t take the comments anymore and would be stopping her sign language videos. Maybe it’s easier for me because I’m disabled, but I can sympathise with the deaf community in this situation. From what I could gather (from reading multiple comments, messages, and letters from the deaf community), there were three main reasons that they disapproved of her channel:

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1. Her Channel was Stealing Popularity from Deaf YouTubers

Image of a person in a wheelchair by Marcus Aurelius via Pexels.com

To better understand this point, I tried to view this from my perspective. I am a permanent wheelchair-user. So, imagine if there was an able-bodied YouTuber who took videos of themselves riding around town in a wheelchair to raise awareness about how difficult it is to travel in a wheelchair. And then they became more famous than any other disabled content creator. Admittedly, it would suck a little bit that they were ‘trying on my disability’ to see how it feels like and that people would rather watch that than an actual disabled YouTuber. However, if they were truly making a difference and fewer people were parking on pavements or dropping glass on roads because of their videos, for example. I would be okay with it.

The sad truth of this world is that people are much more likely to listen to a white person speaking about racism than a black person, or a man talking about sexism than a woman. That’s the main thing that needs to change here. Personally, I wouldn’t go out of my way to make the YouTuber stop if they’re having such a huge positive impact by inspiring people to learn sign language, even if it is a little upsetting that this is the way that the change is coming about.

A picture of YouTube by NordWood Themes via Unsplash.com

However, if I was that YouTuber – I’d invite other disabled content creators to be in my videos or recommend them to my followers (she did in her last video). I’d use my popularity to help introduce people to them. If you are raising awareness about a minority you must include that minority in the process somehow. And you have to make clear the level of your skill. Her sign language was amateurish and often contained mistakes. I didn’t think that she made it clear enough that she was also just learning the language.

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2. She Wasn’t Listening to the Deaf Community

I agree with this one. Like I mentioned above, if you raise awareness about a minority – that minority must be heavily consulted beforehand to avoid miscommunication or misrepresentation. And one of the biggest issues that deaf people had with her channel is that she was spreading miscommunication by signing wrong. And I completely understand why this could be bad, I have no idea if this is true, but if her sign language is incorrect then that could be a major issue. Yet again, this is something that could be fixed by having deaf people who are fluent in sign language play a greater role in the process of her making her videos. Having a deaf person check all her work was all that it would have taken.

A photo of sign language by Jo Hilton via Unsplash.com

I also agree that she was ignoring the general opinion of the community for far too long. If I were writing a novel with a neurodiverse character and the mental health community told me that they had a problem with it – I would instantly stop to make sure that the community I was representing was okay with my representation. Especially since I am not neurodiverse. The deaf community is full of so many incredible people and their culture needs to be respected. If they say that her videos were ableist towards them, even if we can’t understand why, she should’ve respected that and tried to change them so that wouldn’t be the case.

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3. Being Deaf Means Ableism

Some people thought that her videos were unfair because actual deaf people encounter ableism everyday when they sign – it’s not a fun skill to them, it’s their hard, harsh reality and she therefore had no right to ‘try it on’ for her videos. I understand this point… but I also don’t. Some people were saying that they encountered ableism because most people didn’t understand sign language and they therefore struggled to have their voices heard. But wouldn’t the YouTuber encouraging more people to learn sign language help with that?

Picture of a language dictionary by Pixabay via Pexels.com

A world where everyone speaks and can understand sign language is a more equal and fair one. So I can’t understand why someone inspiring people to learn sign language is ‘unfair’ or ignores the ableism that deaf people face. It actually helps in getting rid of said ableism. To quote someone who commented on one of her videos: “Deaf people want to be able to communicate with non-deaf people right? Shouldn’t we be encouraging non-deaf people to learn ASL?” At the end of the day, sign language is still a language. Spanish people can’t be angry at English people learning to speak or being able to speak Spanish, for example.

An ode to black hair by Wherbson Rodrigues via Pexels.com

That said – sign language is different from most languages. My sister gave me the example of thinking of it like black hair: black hair is still hair. So it’s okay for people to know how to care for it and do ‘black’ hairstyles. However, there is an entire culture and history associated with that hair. That’s why it’s frowned upon when white people wear black hairstyles. It’s the same with sign language – it is a little more than just a language. There is so much history and struggle behind it, deaf people truly had to fight for this right. I think it’s great that sign language is being taught more in schools. But this is a point that all able-bodied people who learn the language should be aware of. Don’t learn to sign just because it’s fun and funky. Learn to sign because you care about deaf people’s voices being heard. The more that I think about the debate from this angle – the more that I sympathise with the deaf community in this situation. So was her channel itself ableist? That’s what some of her fans need to consider.

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And the result of all of this is exactly what you’d imagine: it started a comment war between her followers and the deaf community (I say ‘the community’ but it was just a few deaf individuals, there were also deaf people who supported the YouTuber). The YouTuber had been called evil, selfish, and other horrible things for her videos. The deaf community has been called much worse by some of her fans. And I watched it all unfold thinking: “what a shame.” This channel which was meant to raise awareness had now been turned into a warzone where most fans were left with a bitter taste about the disabled community instead of a feeling of wanting to make things more accessible for them.

Debate podiums by me

I don’t blame either ‘side’ for what happened and I acknowledge the fact that there were faults on both sides. We shouldn’t shame people for raising awareness – so many people were inspired to learn sign language because of her. However, if we are going to raise awareness, we should be careful about how we do so to make sure that the information that we put out does nothing but show acceptance and respect for others.

But the deaf community does not deserve to be seen as the ‘bullies’ or ‘bad guys’ in this situation. If you were disabled yourself, you’d probably understand every point that they’ve made about her channel. So I encourage her fans not to be instantly angry at the deaf community, but to instead try and see it from their perspective. And it seemed like the YouTube channel was a learning experience for the girl that created it: she was told to add captions to her videos and she did, she was told that her merchandise was offensive so she gave away the money that she earned from it. Who knows what would’ve happened if she had continued to receive constructive criticism instead of mostly hate? I know that she ignored advice for a long time. But most of the advice that I saw was: “STOP NOW” instead of “This is how you could improve…”

Apologetic girl by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels.com

The YouTuber has been emotionally apologetic about everything and says that she hates to think that what she started with the intention of being a good thing has been labelled as evil and harmful by some people. I believe her when she says that she never meant to do harm. Although, in her apology video, the YouTuber stated that she still doesn’t understand how what she did was so awful and why sign language is so ‘controlled’ (that’s a little like saying you don’t understand why only certain people are allowed to sit in wheelchairs. And to be honest, at this point I don’t understand how the situation could be explained to her any clearer – she is not a member of the minority. The minority doesn’t approve of her making videos about their culture. Simple). As a disabled person myself, I understand more why what she did wasn’t perfect, but the handling of the situation saddens me. I’d love to hear your opinion below.

35 thoughts on “YouTube vs. The Deaf Community

  1. You make some really interesting and valid points here. I’m reading ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche at the moment. She talks (amongst many other things) about African hair and what you’ve written really underlines her words.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Americanah actually inspired me to start my blog! Because the character Ifemelu has one. I really hope that you enjoy it – I really did. I’m glad that you found the points interesting – my main goal of my debate posts are to provoke thought so I hope that I succeeded in that. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Thank you for sharing another well thought out opinion. I learn so much from reading your thoughts on many different topics. As someone who falls into that majority and knows little about what it is like to be disabled, I value and appreciate your encouragement to share experience in the *right* ways. I am sure I unwittingly engage in ableism throughout my daily life, and your encouragement to examine this behaviour with a critical eye has hopefully helped me become more aware of it. Constructive criticism is a great way to learn, but as you say, if we deliver criticism in the wrong way we can do more harm than good.

    I hope more people read this post and see there are good ways to do things and embark on the journey to do them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome 🙂 I’m glad that you have been learning things. Indeed, it is important to do things in the right way so that it achieves the impact that we desire it too. And criticism can be valuable but how we communicate it is also essential. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Hamish! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your insights.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This was so interesting!
    On the topic of white people talking about racism, I once watched a video (with a African American woman talking) with my mom stating why calling an African American “Black” wasn’t exactly nice and where it started.
    From then on, I’ve been careful with how I refer to people with darker skin.
    It opened my eyes to be careful with my language.
    And now I know how to be around deaf people, and what to look to to learn ASL.

    And a side note: this reminded me that ASL is suddenly very popular among girls in my class to talk when we’re not supposed to be.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I understand what that woman was saying but people also need to realise that not every black person is African-American. Maybe that’s the case in America, but over here in Europe, most black people are neither African nor American – so they just call themselves black. For instance, I’m dark-skinned but I’m Jamaican-English and just prefer the term: black. But, like I said, it might be different in America. I’m happy that you’re trying to be careful with how you refer to people who are different – educating ourselves is key. And I’m happy that ASL is becoming more popular at your school – maybe one day it’ll help them if they are confronted with a real deaf person. Thank you so much for reading and commenting ❤

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Tricky. Okay, I’m going to give you some back story here, I have about 64% hearing in my right ear, so while I’m not strictly deaf, I do class as hard of hearing. My hearing loss is in the low tones, so O and U sounds particularly, and more so male voices than female ones. Also, I struggle more in acoustic environments, like swimming pools and shopping malls. I have had a hearing aid before, but they were on trial and when I got given analogs (“normal” hearing aids), they made everything worse and went back. Ever since then, I’ve relied largely on face-on communication and lip-reading to back up what I hear, and my brain sort of puts all the pieces together. When I go swimming, my hearing leaves a lot to be desired, so how are my family going to tell me that they’re getting out or that it’s time to leave? Simple, they sign to me. My brother particularly can sign very fast, and we both use the ASL alphabet because it’s easier to remember. Sometimes we use it for misdemeanours like sharing plots and schemes that we don’t want my mother to know about, but more often it’s a way to communicate over crowds and in difficult environments.

    Now, as for the Youtuber herself, again I find that tricky. I didn’t realise that you shouldn’t teach someone to sign unless you’re fully qualified, and I don’t think many other people would, either. It’s not generally done from a place of malice, it’s done to try and help people communicate with deaf people. My Mum taught me parts of British sign language and I learned to say “my name is Helen” in BSL after my canoe instructor taught me. Neither qualified, both translated well. I’ve also taught people the ASL alphabet and it’s only ever been because they’ve wanted to be able to communicate with me. Even if you do make a mistake in sign language, most people are generally accepting and forgiving. The fact that you are trying to communicate can sometimes be less isolating than frustrated looks and blank stares.

    The t-shirts themselves, yes, I do find them distasteful. As you’ve correctly said, it’s not a fun thing to do, it’s a way of communicating for those who need it. I said about the alternative way my brother and I use it, but really, I also see him as somebody that I can communicate with ease with. You don’t have verbal conversations at snail’s pace, so it helps to have someone who can sign quickly and efficiently, too. The shirts do make a gimmick out of sign language, and that is unfortunate. It doesn’t seem like it was intentional though, just absent-minded.

    In my very personal opinion, it does just seem like a handful of do-gooders with too much of an opinion and too much time on their hands. It doesn’t seem like the Youtuber had any ill intent, but again, making money from something that enables deaf people (even if she did give it to charity) probably wasn’t the right way to go. Unfortunately, we live in a society now where a lot of people have an opinion, and everyone thinks that theirs is the right one. These people can only speak for themselves, not others. If another deaf person likes or dislikes the videos, that’s up for them to decide.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you for joining the debate! Sorry, I should have clarified: You shouldn’t teach people sign language ONLINE if you aren’t qualified to do so – I think that there is an official rule against it. Of course it’s okay to teach people sign in real life and I completely understand your family teaching each other. I agree with you that all of the mistakes that the YouTuber made was probably unintentional – she did it all with good intentions.

      This post was hard to write because, as a fan of the YouTuber, at first – I didn’t understand how what she did was wrong. I did a lot of research and read a lot of comments written by deaf individuals. The difficult part was trying to see it from their perspective when I couldn’t understand them. And to a certain extent – I still don’t. Personally, I wouldn’t have forced the YouTuber to quit. That’s why I tried to write the emphasis upon showing how people can improve when you have a problem with them instead of merely spreading hate. I didn’t have THAT much of a problem with her, but those that did, could have voiced their opinions a little better. So at first, I completely agreed with your last paragraph – and I guess that I still do, but I mainly wrote this post for the YouTuber’s fans so that they could at least try and see it from their perspective and hopefully to stop them from dismissing the entire deaf community (like some of them were doing) after what happened.

      Thank you once again for voicing your opinion. You always make these debate posts so interesting and help me to see a different perspective of things!

      Like

  5. you have clearly thought much about this and helped me to see the argument from so many different angles, though I haven’t seen the youtube. I always find there are so many angles to approach most discussions, but when people take sides, rather than resolve issues and discrepancies, there seem to be no winners. I read a book review of a couple of winners who have an encouraging story though – one deaf and one blind in a stunning partnership. You might like it. https://suestrifles.wordpress.com/2020/11/13/book-review-a-beautiful-tapestry-by-tracy-williamson/comment-page-1/#comment-4843

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! Yes, I did try to think about this really hard to try and share both side’s perspectives equally. I agree – that’s why it’s important to approach a discussion critially rather than with a clear ‘favourite’. Thank you for the link! I read the book review and it seems like an incredible story. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve never before been made to think so hard before. I do agree with your points but I can’t seem to choose a side to argue for. As you said, there were faults on both sides that deserved to be acknowledged and things would’ve turned out slightly better had everyone told her what needed to be changed. As an able person, she just wanted to help/raise awareness and probably couldn’t relate to the deaf community’s requirements and opinions. Increasingly thought provoking indeed.
    Also, I loved the graphics you used in this post, the podium one especially is simple yet profound. This is out of context, but I noticed your gravatar image today and I have to say, it’s brilliant! From what I understood, it’s the wheel of a wheelchair with each spoke conveying a specific message.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can relate – it is quite a tricky topic. I agree that everything would probably have gone very differently if people online were slightly more understanding and nicer when it came to giving criticisms. I’m happy that you found it so thought-provoking! Thank you – I’m happy that you liked the graphics 🙂 I can’t wait until my holiday starts because then I’ll have much more free time and I can hopefully draw all of the pictures for my posts and not have to use any online resources. Yes! That was what I was trying to represent! Each spoke of the wheelchair represents one of my blogging categories. For instance, the orange spoke with the debate poduim represents my Thought Provokers posts, the red one with the eye represents my Personal Experience ones, etc. Six spokes for my six blogging categories.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this insightful post. On the topic of apologising, you cannot say you sorry and don’t mean it! I taught my children at a very young age that you cannot just shrug off your wrong doing by saying “sorry” taking the easy way out for your wrong doings. When they did say that they were sorry, they had to prove it to me that they really meant it and so that they did not do it again. I believe if we do not accept that we did wrong, you will continue doing wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome 🙂 Very true – I love that you taught your children that. Sorry is indeed a truly powerful word that should not be wielded lightly. Accepting wrongdoing plays a large role in bettering ourselves and accepting our faults. I hope that when the YouTuber apologised, she really meant what she said.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t know how I feel about this issue, but I do think a little sensitivity on both sides may have helped to prevent hard feelings. If you don’t understand, ask! If someone is offending you, let them know and talk about it.

    Good discussion topic, wheelchairteen! Have a great day! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree – a little sensitivity and good communication in this case could’ve gone a long way, and it is a really tricky debate. Thank you! I’m happy that you liked it. I hope that you have a great day too! 🙂

      Like

    1. Thank you! I’m glad that you found it to be thought-provoking as that was the aim of the post. And I did put a lot of hard work into it to make it as fair as possible so I’m glad that you were able to appreciate that. God bless you too! xxx

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I think this is really sad, and don’t really know what to say.

    Not too long ago, I really enjoyed watching these “one day in a wheelchair’ challenges on YouTube, where non-disabled people took on the challenge of being in a wheelchair one day, so they got to understand better what challenges we face.
    These days, I don’t watch them anymore, as it all feels like just more of the same now, but I still like the idea. It does raise awareness, no matter how little and one-sided. Because there’s that too, of course. They all use the wheelchair as if they had spinal cord injury and weren’t able to walk at all, or even stand for the shortest amount of time. I can, thankfully, still walk a little – inside only – so I’m not nearly as restricted as that.
    More specific to ASL. My son and daughter – neither of them deaf – have been learning and using ASL for years now. Not as their main method of communication, of course, but since my son is autistic and goes non-verbal when overwhelmed, ASL has been a great help to him. So I would disagree that ASL is for the deaf community only. There are other valid reasons why people may want or need to use sign language. Same as with wheelchair use, really. Not all of us are unable to walk.
    I think it’s a real shame this girl felt forced to stop making those videos. From what I understand she was trying to do a good thing, but just went about it in a sometimes clumsy manner. Who knows what might have happened had she been able to learn and develop further as a Youtuber? I guess we’ll never know now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course, I don’t think that ASL is only for deaf people – I just meant that it’s culture needs to be respected. And of course it’s okay to use it if you need to. Not everyone who uses wheelchairs have a leg disability, for example. People also just accidentaly sprain their ankles for a month – it’s still fine for them to use a chair. Your son may not be deaf, but it sounds as if he needs to know ASL for when he goes non-verbal. There’s nothing wrong with that. If an able-bodied person with no disability used ASL to earn money on the street, for example, that would be different.
      I think it’s a shame that she had to stop too. I was a real fan of her videos. Constructive criticism instead of hate could have made a huge difference. That channel sounds really interesting. That’s what I was trying to get at with my first point. And I said that I would be okay with it if it was raising awareness, and it sounds as if that was what that channel was doing. Thank you for joining the debate! I loved hearing your opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This was another awesome post Simone. I can see your point(s). Then again, it’s the merchandise thing that I can’t condone (even if she mended her ways about it later…I mean, she said she did, but we can’t know if she did donate the money, can we?). That was utterly insensitive, and makes me think that she didn’t have a clue about what she was doing – she was “wearing” a deaf person’s cap for fun, or carelessly at best.

    Totally off-topic, but I love the new look of your blog (even if I did love the previous one too!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s true – after all the hate that she recieved for selling the merchandise, maybe it would’ve been easier for her to just say that she had given the money to a charity even if she hadn’t. There is no real way of knowing. That merchandise was probably the worst part of the debate, it is hard to believe that someone who was trying to raise awareness about the deaf could do something so wrong. I understand why you can’t condone it. And thank you for complimenting the new look! Olivia-Savannah helped me a lot to make it look more professional and get the domain .com.

      Like

  11. You did a good job of being nuanced in this discussion and conversation, and you can tell you’ve done your research and thought about this very deeply. When you said ‘If you are raising awareness about a minority you must include that minority in the process somehow.’ I agree with that 100% and it goes for all marginalised community cases, and where the biggest fault seems to be. The merchandise thing is a big yikes though, even though she did try to correct it. It’s a complex situation and I really liked the discussion you brought to the table here!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I did do a lot of research. And this post was the only one that I’ve had to go back and re-write multiple times. It certainly was a challenge trying to get it out there! I’m glad that you enjoyed the discussion – it was a really complex situation that I wanted to get out there for people to ponder.

      Liked by 1 person

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