Content notes: domestic violence, law enforcement, abuse, harassment, trauma
I was two years old when the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) became the cornerstone of disability civil rights. A year prior to the ADA, I was identified deaf by my maternal grandmother before a physician diagnosed me. I was the first exposure of the invisible disability for my hearing family. American Sign Language was a foreign language to them except for the existence of my primary native language. My family grieved and questioned my future as a little Black, Indigenous Deaf girl. With the resources, knowledge, and collective support, my family entrusted the right people to provide me the tools to learn, internalize, and maneuver in the hearing-dominant society. Being a deaf person is an ongoing battle against audism. Being a black and indigenous woman is another battle. My family knew and understood this. What we, including myself, did not realize was that I’d have to fight EVERYDAY for the validation and acknowledgment of my humanity as a deaf woman of color. Through the luxuries of my homegrown and trained education, my advocacy was birthed.
“Mainstreamed” is a term referred to in the deaf community for deaf and hard-of-hearing children who attend public or private schools with a deaf program. I want to emphasize not all mainstreamed schools have the luxury of facilitating a deaf program within the school. I did not learn of the ADA until I was 12 years old in middle school. The advocacy skill was tapped onto me when I had no sign language interpreters in my mainstreamed classes. This delayed my education, but that did not last long. I knew not having interpreters in my classes was unacceptable. I was not able to articulate my frustration with the lack of interpreters so I consulted with my teacher to find a solution. My teacher suggested I write a letter to the school board expressing my concerns. I was so sure I would not get a letter back from them. After a couple of weeks, I received a letter from the school board with the response to my concern. I was surprised. I asked myself, “Is this how advocacy looks like?” In my 12-year-old mind, I believed this was the right way to advocate for my needs. I was on the school board panel advocating for other deaf children who are still learning how to advocate at age 12.
I have always known I am not just a black woman; I am also deaf, able-bodied, and more. I was asked in the past to prioritize my identities but I knew that was not the reality. Hence, intersectionality was introduced during my college years at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. I assumed that was a new buzzword until I researched further. Intersectionality was coined by Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, a pioneer in critical race theory and legal scholar, in 1988 when she wrote articles about how black women have always been devalued within the court system and often excluded from antiracist and feminist works. Those articles reached right inside my head. The monocultural (deaf only) advocacy I knew at 12 was suddenly upgraded to doing what suits me in my life: an intersectional approach towards advocacy. Dr. Crenshaw wrote her theories and observations in one of her articles, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color (1991). The article illustrates how the erasure of women of color’s experiences in domestic violence is correlated with various oppressions based on class, race, sex, disability, immigrant status, and etc. Dr. Patricia Hill Collins stated in one of the books, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, black working-class women suffer specifically because they encounter isms: race, gender, and class oppression. I am prone to be objectified based on my physical identities and disability. In this essay, I will share one of my personal and raw stories I feel resonates with Dr. Crenshaw’s and Dr. Collins’ theories in how the court system failed to serve me in terms of my intersectional identities. I also will share the flaws and invalidation of the ADA law with the lens of intersectionality.
Dr. Crenshaw stated in the article that women of color are often reluctant to call the police because they are afraid of being subjected to scrutiny and control from hostile law enforcement. My intersectional identities and work as an advocate was put to the test on January 19, 2018. I endured my second domestic violence the previous year. I was devastated and lost. I initially did not want to call the police to report the possible harassment because I did not want to expose my personal life to a system I knew would not fully protect me. I also knew I would endure ongoing oppressions: audism, racism, sexism, classism, body normativity, and perhaps more to name. My family encouraged me to call the police. I hesitated for several days. I received a verbal threat from the abuser that led me to be willing to go to the courthouse. I took off work early and traveled to the city via public transportation. I went to the courthouse alone at 5:15 PM to file the Protection From Abuse order (PFA/restraining order). I went to the front desk to request a certified sign language interpreter to explain the event because I wanted to explain my situation in my native language. Writing back and forth would take away the context I wanted to convey in this delicate situation. The security guard told me the court does not provide interpreters. He called the employee to serve me. I demanded an interpreter. I got the “We do not provide interpreters” response again. That was a lie because I knew the city has the list of interpreting agencies. I persisted again. The employee gave me an unpleasant look. I snapped and told her to come back because I was becoming a loose cannon. It did not help that I was terrified and an emotional wreck. I ranted through the videophone to my mother who was thousands of miles away. My mother validated my frustrations and told me to use this experience as a “testimony.” She told me to go through the process and write back and forth with the employee. She hinted to me to take care of this afterwards. I did not want to do this because it means they have won. The more I pondered, I realized I had no choice but to protect myself by having the PFA. I asked the guard to dispatch the employee back. I wrote what happened. I was almost rejected because my statement was not urgent. Would it have made a difference if an interpreter was present? I asked myself. I became upset again. By having the privilege and ability to write, I quickly articulated the words that will eventually convince her to allow me to pursue the PFA. She escorted me to the basement to be seen by a judge.
I sat alone with the growing anger inside me. I saw people coming in and out of the courtroom within 30-45 minutes. The anger built up along with the time. After an hour of no communications, I wondered when I would be seen. I spoke to my friends to keep my sanity. I gathered the resources for the courthouse to contact the interpreting agencies that are available 24 hours. It was around 6:30 PM when I gave them the contact information of the interpreting agencies in my city. The employee got the information. My mother called to check on me. I told her I have neither been served nor given the paperwork. My mother was puzzled because it was 7:15 PM and asked me why I hadn’t been served. I could not give her an answer because the mental exhaustion was kicking in. It has been two hours (7:15 PM) I have been sitting and waiting anxiously to be seen. My mother ordered me to give them her phone number. You know how black southern mothers are when it comes to someone messing with their children. She. Was. Not. Having. It. I thought, “Oh great. She’s gonna embarrass me in the court.” I hesitated and asked if she was sure. She said yes with a firm “I don’t play” voice. I did not have to ask twice. I signaled the employee to come here, told her to call my mother, and gave them her phone number. I watched the employee on the phone with my mother with the “I’m gonna get cussed” look. In the midst of the audistic oppression, I was intrigued to know what my mother did. I called my mother again. She said she told them she could not comprehend why the court did not serve her child. She insisted to the employee I have no problems completing the paperwork because I can read and write. She demanded them to give me the paperwork. I was surprised she told them. Is that what they really thought about me when they first saw me? That I cannot read and write just because I am deaf? So because I am black, I am deemed illiterate? Because I am not rich, I’m not supposed to be treated properly? I was flabbergasted. I was served after 3.5 hours. At 8:00 PM, I was told the interpreters will show up between 9:45 PM-10:00 PM. I was getting agitated and I literally wanted to bust my head on the wall. I started filing the paperwork after four hours (9:30 PM) with the interpreters. The employee gave me the instructions and answered one of the questions for me when I never asked her to. I sternly told her I can read and will ask for assistance if I need. I was happy a team of interpreters (both hearing and deaf interpreters) were here but mad I waited too long.
I was finally seen by the judge at 10:15 PM. I shared my story and pleaded for the PFA. I got slapped with “I am sorry. I did not know what to do” statement by the judge. I was tired, hungry, and angry. I usually brush the statement off, but I could not with this one. I told the judge I cannot accept the apology because it was unacceptable. I added this should never happen to any deaf survivor of color who wants protection from the system. I was granted the temporary PFA. What I did not know next pretty much set me off. I was told to go to the police precinct afterwards to serve the abuser. I informed the judge I depend on public transportation daily and feared for my life especially at night with the abuser possibly roaming on the streets. I left the court at 11:20 PM. The first battle did not end until 2:00 AM the following morning. I was sleep-deprived for the first time in a long time. My deprivation of sleep drove me to rage. I wanted to put the court on blast for what I endured.
6.75 hours is the time I spent alone in the courthouse to get a temporary protection order simply because I wanted a certified sign language interpreter to make sure I am not misunderstood and ignored. You might feel or think I had a celebratory mood because I finally got what I asked for after 6.75 hours. That was not my reality. The advocacy I knew at 12 was not the reality I witnessed for 6.75 hours at age 29. The advocacy I put in with my mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion for 6.75 hours was constantly and blatantly ignored. Looking back and reading Dr. Crenshaw’s article again, I could not believe the precision of the article because it fits everything I went through. Ableism was not mentioned in her article when discussing structural intersectionality; however, she stated that language barriers also present limited opportunities for women of color to receive support services. After the first court experience, I realized I could not do this alone. I hesitated at the idea of reaching out to a domestic violence-based organization because I knew they are limited to serve intersectional deaf survivors of color. Once again, I had no choice but utilize the resources available to me. Thankfully, the organization was amazing to work with. I had a solid lawyer who recognized my oppressions and supported me through my court ordeal. Ultimately, I was granted the PFA.
It angered me to see the scarcity of accessibility within the support services organizations when I truly believe they can do so much more. At the same time, I acknowledge the limitations of the organizations. They recognized the barriers of survivors of color as well as know they’re limited with accessibility to linguistic needs for the intersectional deaf survivors/victims of color. Racism, audism, misogynoir, test of my intelligence, ableism, and classism I experienced from the court are something I cannot forget for the rest of my life. The ADA failed me as a Black, Indigenous, Deaf woman because it did not protect me from the violence I experienced for 6.75 hours. Due to the lack of proper training and understanding of the ADA, it indirectly enabled the court to be abusive to me. The 6.75 became the added layer to my trauma that has not left the soul completely. I can only imagine how many deaf survivors of color experience because I lived through it. I can only imagine how many deaf and disabled people experience the neglect from the court system because I lived through it. Each deaf person should not live through a situation like this daily. It is exhausting on so many levels. I understand why some of us will just give in to their selfish needs of not accommodating us because dealing with this in 2020 is truly stressful. I will never get my 6.75 hours back.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was designed to protect and preserve the lives of each visible or invisible disabled person in America. No one should be excluded from the law. Everybody knows the law exists, but people forget we exist among the society. I am astounded to see the negligence and ignorance of disability rights from every angle in 2020. As a lifelong advocate who is working in a field where advocacy is critical, I am outraged to see deaf people continuing to implore for accessibility in various events and appointments. I am also pissed that some deaf people will settle down for what is suggested by the institutions and systems because of “financial burdens.”
We are not burdens; we are humans who scream for accessibility. It is a matter of life and death. Demanding for a certified sign language interpreter for any type of intense emergency which puts a person’s mental health at risk should never be an issue for any institution. It should be GRANTED with no questions. The ADA could serve as a stronghold for the deaf and disabled communities, especially the marginalized communities but it’s not for me and many others who experience multiple oppressions.
Lately, the ADA is being challenged because it is considered weak and full of loopholes. The lives of each disabled and deaf person are at stake when institutions and systems inflict such harm toward us. An instance of the inhumanity deaf people experience are the disabled and deaf inmates experiencing the ongoing violence from the system. HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities) is an organization co-founded by the fierce maverick, Talila A. Lewis, who is tirelessly fighting for the deaf inmates to be treated as a human because the system is not granting them the accessibility to communicate with their families and friends. If we are truly going to do the work, we need to unpack all the isms and defend the ADA from attempts by Congress to weaken it. Not only would I like to see this happen, I would like to see us working towards dismantling the 6.75 in our lives.
A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Teefloetry received a bachelor’s degree from Gallaudet University. She shares her love for history, herstory, poetry, storytelling, and art of writing as a source of her existence. She utilizes self-love and self-care as her activism in honor of Audre Lorde, Zora Neale Hurston, and many warrioresses before her. When she is not working, she continues to pursue learning about herself and the communities by actively involving in the works for the community. Without a village, she is not who she is today.
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