by Dai O’Brien & Steve Emery
16th January 2023
Look, it’s quite simple. We want to put everything in common, starting from the principle that everybody should do some work and all should live as well as possible. It’s not possible to live in this world without working, so if one person doesn’t do anything he has to live at the expense of others, which is unfair and harmful. Obviously when I say that everybody should work I mean all those that are able to, and do the amount suited to them. The lame, the weak and the aged should be supported by society, because it is the duty of humanity that no one should suffer. We’ll grow old too, or could become crippled or weak, just as those dearest to us might.
In any case everyone must be assured of the basic needs such as bread, housing, water and so on, independently of the quality of work each one is able to do.
(Malatesta, E (1884) Fra Contadini, or Between Peasants: a dialogue on anarchy)
Dai O’Brien (DB):
Welcome to this podcast on deaf people and anarchism!
This podcast has been put together based on conversations we have had for a long time. For those of you reading this essay, this is a translation/transcription of a video which was produced in BSL, and based on both the video itself and its subsequent interpretation into spoken English. This is the work of two deaf men, Dai O’Brien and Steve Emery. But before we start, we will introduce ourselves.
If you want to watch the BSL video, please visit the Anarchism Research Group’s YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9_Z6nkFUqw If you want to listen to the English podcast, please use the link here or search for ‘Anarchist Essays’ wherever you find your podcasts: https://anarchistessays.podbean.com/e/essay-50-dai-o-brien-steve-emery-deaf-people-and-anarchism/
I am cis-gender and my pronouns are he/him.
I have had a long journey from a fairly mainstream political background to becoming more interested in radical politics through contact with Steve and others in deaf communities around the world who have engaged in anarchism, socialism and other radical politics.
I don’t really have access to local radical politics because communication access is a big issue. So I’m definitely not claiming to be an anarchist myself just on those grounds. I don’t claim to do anarchism, necessarily, I read and learn about it! But I am involved in community support in other ways.
Steve Emery (SE):
I am also cis-gender, my pronouns are he/him
I’ve been active politically since the 1980s, when I was involved in the far Left but have been interested in anarchist ideas since I left a far Left party in the early 1990s. I’ve been going to bookfair meetings – when they have been accessible! – and getting involved in bits of action when I can over the last 15 years or so. I’ve been an activist for deaf rights since the 1990s too, and my work has been in academia, with deaf studies, and also within the deaf community.
So, why are we putting this podcast together? Let’s just say this podcast is the start of a conversation we’ve long hoped would take place amongst deaf people and also the anarchist movement.
Right now we are seeing the class struggle picking up in the UK through workers going on strike, we’re seeing the impacts of climate change, the cost of living crisis; anarchism offers a perspective of a different society, one that isn’t built on capitalism or state oppression. This movement and its ideas are just not accessible to working-class deaf people.
We will give a few pretexts before we start, and then we will be addressing three key areas:
- Explore the barriers deaf people experience if they want to further their interest in radical politics.
- Spark some debate/discussion amongst deaf people about radical politics as alternatives to hierarchical party politics.
- Open up a question of what the anarchist movement could do to make their movement inclusive to deaf people.
Before we go further we want to outline how this podcast has been put together.
We want to start by stressing that what you can see/hear/read is not akin to how a spoken-type podcast is made, but what we refer to as a ‘tri-modal release’; that is, firstly, the two of us have made a video in BSL, secondly, our BSL has being translated into spoken English by a BSL/English sign language interpreter, and thirdly, from this dialectics, a written English transcript has been provided.
If that sounds like a lot of work, welcome to our world! We want to set a comradely tone for this podcast; we want anarchists to think about this. For example, we have constructed this tri-modal way to provide accessibility to hearing anarchists to our (deaf) thinking on anarchism, so how might that work the other way round? We’ll hold that for now and come back to it later.
We feel it’s important to share our stories and the ways in which deaf people have been excluded from both mainstream and radical politics to show that lack of involvement doesn’t mean lack of interest. Just lack of access. There are many more deaf people like us who want to be involved in politics but lack the opportunity to do so
It’s of course important to remember intersectionality – we are not only deaf, we are two white men (with all the privileges that that brings) and of course not all deaf people are the same as us. So even though we are talking generally about tips for deaf inclusion in anarchist networks etc. you need to be sensitive to differences of race, gender, disability, sexuality, etc, in our community, and all the implications that this has for creating safe spaces.
One of the things that brought us together to do this podcast was when we read about two prominent deaf anarchists who were active in the UK during the First World War, Leonard Motler and George Scates. They edited the anarchist newspaper Satire and Labour’s Voice. Motler wrote a weekly column for The Workers’ Dreadnought, and both were active and highly regarded in socialist and anarchist circles at the time. There’s a bit of public information about the work they did on anarchism, but their deafness has been less recognised.
This left us asking: where are all the deaf anarchists in history? The history of deaf anarchism has yet to be written, but we hope that this podcast will contribute somehow!
Now we’ll move onto the first question: What are the barriers for deaf people to radical politics?
Lack of awareness of what anarchism is and what it means in deaf communities means it’s difficult to establish action in our own communities or have meaningful discussion of anarchism within our own communities.
BSL doesn’t have the necessary vocabulary for direct translations of, for example, anarchy/anarchist/anarchism. Any radical politics has generally been allocated the RAISED FIST sign with no nuance or differentiation. It’s a big challenge for us in terms of keeping the video/podcast short. We can explain each concept in BSL, but there’s no established vocabulary to use so it becomes long-winded.
We do have some recognised signs in other signed languages, for example [DANISH ANARCHISM] and [US COMMUNISM], but we need BSL signs, that’s for another project. We want to bring a wider group of deaf people and anarchists to come together to develop this vocabulary.
So that means that what we do understand about anarchism (and any political theory for that matter) might be limited because of our own language barriers, but let’s take a look at where these limitations originate from in the first place, and it’s not simply about not having sign language interpreters provided at meetings!
This is a huge barrier for deaf people for involvement in anything. The education system for deaf people in the UK and worldwide is appalling. At an international level there are 70 million deaf people in the world and 80 percent don’t even get an education at all! In the UK deaf people lag behind their hearing peers in English comprehension – and that’s nothing to do with them being deaf but because of how the education tries to fit deaf people into versions of hearing people who can speak, which just doesn’t work.
If deaf people have poor written language skills, then their ability to access anarchist literature is very limited. We’re very lucky that we have good access to written English, this is not true of all deaf people.
Informal exposure to political discourse:
How do hearing anarchists get involved in the movement? Many will have overheard some sort of political discussion, or heard that someone’s older sibling was involved in a cool movement where everyone wore black, or they had exposure to radical politics through punk music or whatever. Deaf people don’t get this access to informal discussion outside our own signing community. Without this exposure, how do deaf people even know about radical politics? Many deaf people don’t even have full access to knowledge about the mainstream political process, let alone informal radical networks.
In society deafness is mainly viewed as a medical condition and deaf people as being in need of care and support, which is ideologically and socially constructed. This ideology is not new and goes back further in time.
For example, a few Deaf historians we contacted sent us a brilliant piece written by Motler in the 1920s, where he wrote of the stranglehold the priest has over the Deaf club, it was called ‘The Priest Ridden Deaf’.
In those times, the Deaf club was the place where working class Deaf people went and met and socialised after a hard day’s work, but because worldwide governments had been trying to destroy sign language since the late 1800s – that’s for another podcast! – there had become a dependency on Missioners to help deaf people and there is a hangover of this attitude in Teachers of the Deaf, social workers, organisations ‘for’ the deaf, support workers, and the medical profession.
It has also led to an institutionalised ‘caring culture’ in our society and this has evolved over the years and as a result there are a lot of patronising attitudes towards deaf people. It has led to a culture where people try to ‘shelter’ deaf people from involvement in anything that was not ‘nice’ or ‘normal’, like anarchism or revolution!
As mentioned above, hearing people have the same access to the spoken culture of their society. They will understand references to cultural norms, behaviours and values that might come up in propaganda aimed at illiterate people, because they share the same spoken culture. Deaf people don’t share that. This means that propaganda may not communicate anarchist thought well to deaf people.
Life for deaf people under capitalism is therefore like it is for working class people generally, tough! But with specific barriers and hardships.
In summary, we argue that Deaf people’s issues with capitalism are:
- Lack of education leads to lack of progression in work, which leads to lower income, which leads to economic exclusion from society.
- Lack of communication access in social lives/social activities leads to social exclusions.
- Lack of access to the political process leads to disenfranchisement and alienation from having input into your own life.
- Opaque and centralised political decision making with no deaf input, or only input from hierarchical deaf organisations leads to poor decision making for us rather than decision making with us.
- To name just a few.
But how do we know an anarchist society would be any better?
That brings us to the second question which is: How is Anarchism as a movement different from the politics of parties, politicians, and hierarchical organisation, especially as they are prevalent in deaf communities at the moment?
We think anarchism has great potential in relation to deaf people and their communities, but we don’t want to sit here and pretend we are experts in relation to this subject – however, we want to throw in a few suggestions where some discussion could evolve around deaf people and an anarchist utopian future:
- Deaf internationalism: we already live without borders, internationally, we don’t have armies or pay police to enforce rules, we pretty much run ourselves and our own organisations peacefully and in solidarity or live with compromises. We sort out problems internally, together, with each other. Many of us have strong international networks which aren’t mediated through top-down organisation and often those organisations that do exist are unfunded and rely on volunteers and activists to keep them going.
- Mutual aid: we come to each other’s support, exchange and help each other out, not just locally, but internationally. We look to each other for skills: can we get a deaf decorator, deaf hairdresser, deaf chef, deaf tutor, deaf counsellor – yes we can and do.
- The family is not our core institution: the community is – 90 percent of us are born to hearing parents and the majority of those parents are not encouraged to sign, so deaf people often refer to the deaf community as their family.
- That means we embody collectivist as well as libertarian instincts within the culture: we can’t exist without each other (after all, we can’t sign to ourselves!) but at the same time we can navigate anywhere in the world independently, because there will always be deaf people wherever we are.
We are not suggesting all deaf people love each other and get on brilliantly, there is racism, sexism, homophobia, and all manner of prejudices that rear up from time to time.
There are organisations regularly springing up such as Black Deaf UK, groups supporting Deaf ethnic women, and the LGBTQI+ deaf community is quite strong.
Well, also a really important point to pick up on is the fact that these four aspects of deaf communities which maybe parallel anarchist values haven’t been picked up by the wider anarchist movement.
The third question then is: what can anarchists do, but it’s not just about how to get interpreters, or how you can learn to sign, although that is a brilliant place to start! There is also a need for a social, cultural and political recognition of deaf people’s engagement with capitalism today.
As anarchists well know, being oppressed does not lead naturally down the road to resistance to capitalism or a desire for no government. But Deaf people DO get organised and fight for their rights. Sometimes that has involved direct action such as blocking roads or occupying whole universities!
At the present day, Deaf people’s, like most disabled people’s, access to wider society such as workplace, media, politics, and so on is mediated by the state thanks to schemes like Access to Work, Personal Independence Payment/Disability Living Allowance, Disabled Students Allowance, government policy mandating percentages of accessible TV broadcasts and so on. So there is understandably some reluctance on the part of deaf people and other disabled people to change that. It’s by no means perfect, but it does mean that deaf people have some guaranteed protection of their rights, and can demand and obtain access to various services through the state via various laws.
A second and related concern is that because of lack of deaf (and disabled people’s) input into anarchist theory, it’s very difficult for us to see our place in these possible anarchist futures. Not wanting to impose ideas on us without discussion is fine, but not discussing us at all means we feel ignored. It definitely feels sometimes like there is no place for deaf or disabled people in the anarchist future, because we can’t see ourselves in any of the theory. Waiting for us to come to you is no good. We’ve already discussed that many deaf people don’t even know that anarchism exists!
There is also the issue that many of us have lots of negative experiences of people who won’t support us. Without the legal framework of mandated support, we feel very vulnerable to neglect/exclusion which for deaf and disabled people very easily can lead to extreme suffering and death. This, understandably, makes deaf and disabled people wary of moving to a society which relies on mutual aid rather than legally enforced rights.
To go to the quote we used at the beginning of this podcast by Malatesta (1884), I think the really important point here is the way in which we rethink involvement in society, labour, how people can contribute rather than how much they can contribute. We need to stop thinking about disabled people as those who can’t contribute to society. We do, and can, and we want to! Often it’s the capitalist state itself that imposes restrictions on our contributions, for example, insisting on structured working hours, assumptions about which bodies can be productive, imposing work practices which are ‘profitable’ but not accessible, and so on. So we need to be re-framing this debate on how to include deaf and disabled people, how to ensure we have involvement rather than be seen as people who can’t contribute and need looking after.
Anarchists seem to put emphasis on accessibility and learning sign language, and while we welcome that, we also want to see the anarchist movement engaging with our theories as well as supporting our struggles. That’s something for further discussion, we’ve started that process and look forward to critical and comradely collaborations.
Finally, to repeat what we’ve said: we are privileged white cis-gender men, and we have access to the English language, but more importantly, there is more awareness in society today that our perspective and framing can end up becoming prominent because of us being in a privileged position to share disseminate them. We are keen to avoid that, but at the same time, keen to kickstart an area of politics that is so neglected, marginalised and misunderstood.
If we are talking about future anarchist utopia, then there is a space for that discussion to be held – however, given what we have said in this podcast, that discussion has yet to begin!
If you want to be involved in this discussion, please get in touch – email@example.com