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)
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.
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:
1. Her Channel was Stealing Popularity from Deaf YouTubers
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.