Opinion

I wish I was deaf. - Zsolt Robotka, CEO SignAll Technologies

I wish I was Deaf.
The thought first came to me while attending the Congress of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) in 2018 in Harford, Connecticut. This biannual event is a multi-day series of events embracing community leaders as well as d/Deaf individuals. In the evenings, the conference offered a range of entertainment programs, for instance, selecting an NAD youth ambassador or attending various Deaf performances. The event was opento signers and non-signers alike (including non-fluent signers like me).The organizers provided real-time captioning (CART) to involve non-signing deaf and hearing people. Still, not everyone felt in their element at the event. I missed out on many of the jokes or comradery between the Deaf attendees, and it occurred to me that this is a community to which I will never belong, no matter how well I sign. I have been spending years in close proximity to the Deaf community and I also have many Deaf friends. Nevertheless, I still felt like an outsider.

A need to be a part of a group, to belong, is natural for any human being.
My company, SignAll, was fortunate enough to start a partnership with Gallaudet University.  For those who are not familiar with the university, Gallaudet is the only university in the world that offers all of its courses in American Sign Language (ASL). Gallaudet, located in Washington D.C., is a prestigious mecca island for the Deaf community.

I had the chance to visit the campus frequently.  For me, an able-bodied white male, this was my first experience of exclusion. Let me emphasize that I never felt unwelcomed. I made good friends there who put a lot of effort to involve me inthe community, to make me and my family feel comfortable. Despite these efforts,nothing could change my position. I could never be a “born-deaf” person in a multi-generational Deaf family. ASL would never be my first language.

For many, this may sound ironic. How could a community which experiences lack of inclusivity is be exclusive? But the idea is not so far-fetched. Gallaudet operates differently from “mainstream” society. I experienced some challenges and issues similar to those a d/Deaf person might encounter in daily life. For example, I had to type on my phone to ask for directions or order in a café. I wasn’t able to understand the conversations or engage in small talk with those around me. But those small inconveniences are incomparable to the significant barriers that d/Deaf people experience in their daily life. Access to education, job opportunities, or getting promotions - a d/Deaf person must put more effort into achieving any of these, and often with far fewer success. Of course, I’m aware that being a hearing person (and a mediocre signer) in Gallaudet barely scratches the surface of the true experiences of a d/Deaf person.

So, do I really wish I was Deaf, where the capital D refers to the close-knit signing community of culturally Deaf people? Yes, on some level, I’ve wished for that many times. However, giving it a minute of reflection, I know that I would not be given the same advantages that allowed me to get where I am today.

I am greatly aware of the privileges life has handed me. I earned my degree in Mathematics. I’ve been involved in ambitious artificial intelligence projects. I launched my own company in computer vision and later transitioned my career to sign language recognition tech. I raised investments from venture capitalists that allowed me to put together a brilliant team that works to achieve our goal with full dedication. I list these accomplishments not to brag, but to name opportunities that I’ve been given with the help of my status, not despite it. These doors were open to me as a white, abled man born in the Global North. None of these are forbidden to the d/Deaf, of course. Still, achieving these milestones is significantly more challenging for disadvantaged members of our society.

I feel sorry saying this, but frankly, I do not really wish to be Deaf in certain situations. However, the reflection on my privileges and, more importantly, on the disadvantages of others, gives me purpose. Our company’s vision is to create a world in which sign language can be used universallyin any scenario, similar to the status of spoken language today. We, at SignAll, have taken it upon ourselves to help reduce the gap in opportunities between the hearing and the d/Deaf.

Co-creating and promoting a more inclusive society in which I could wish to beDeaf gives the motivation every day.

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