Sometimes all that it takes to connect with a stranger is to walk up to them, look them in the face and introduce yourself, but it’s not that simple for someone who’s deaf.
Rae RezWell is a Dominican-Canadian mixed-media photographer who uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate, but in order to connect with others who don’t know the language, she sometimes has to resort to other means, such as using her phone to text or writing notes on paper.
“If I explain to somebody that I would prefer to use an interpreter, sometimes that can be kind of frustrating because somebody will walk up to the interpreter and speak to them instead of even making an effort to communicate with me,” said RezWell.
That’s one of RezWell’s daily struggle as a Deaf person, so in terms of her experience going to school and post-secondary education, she said “it can be really isolating sometimes.”
RezWell is in her fourth year of the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at NSCAD University in Halifax.
“I’m used to putting myself out there as somebody who uses sign, but then you don’t see other people making much of an effort to learn,” she said.
RezWell also finds herself helping to alleviate people’s concerns or fears when they try to approach her.
There’s so many misconceptions people have about ASL and how it’s used. One of the most common is people thinking it’s one universal language, when it reality there’s more than 6,000 sign languages that are part of Deaf culture.
Some may also see ASL being used and make fun of it out of ignorance, RezWell said.
This is why she has created a series of artwork using an ASL font for her “Why I Sign” series.
“(I want to) encourage people through my work to develop relationships…and approach me on seeing that work,” said RezWell.
“I think my artwork provides an entry way into connection and to sharing information about Deaf people and language. And it also has provided a wonderful opportunity for other Deaf people to be in contact with me,” she added.
The “Why I Sign” is a hashtag on Instagram created by Stacy Abrams in 2015.
According to Abrams’ LinkedIn page, the goal of the #whyIsign movement was for families to see different stories and experiences of why people sign being shared. That also includes the Deaf communities sharing their experiences and maybe some advice and tips.
“So for me, I sign to be able to express myself. I sign to be able to value my own culture and history,” said RezWell, who got Abrams’ permission to use the hashtag for her art series.
But this ability to express herself limitlessly through ASL came at a cost. Throughout her childhood, RezWell, who grew up in Toronto, said she struggled with living in two different worlds.
“I have had a number of surgeries for cochlear implant (a device that partially restores hearing). I’m also a mixed race person, always struggled with my identity when I was younger and I did not have a way of expressing myself. I did want to be able to do that.”
She said she wanted to talk about the traumas she had from surgery and from getting speech therapy.
“Thinking about how to share those things, the physical traumas from the surgeries, the trauma of learning to just be able to speak in a language that allowed me to express myself. And so art has given me the opportunity to do that,” RezWell said.
Social media platforms, such as Instagram, has also allowed her to share her artwork with a broader audience, but there’s a negative side to it, as well.
RezWell says with social media, disinformation can spread quickly, and she often sees people who are not Deaf steering how they believe people should sign or how a Deaf person would be perceived.
“I did this research project and asked a number of people as to why they signed, why it’s important to them. And so then sharing that information with the broader population, I’m hoping (the project) will spark people’s curiosity.”
Having access to these platforms also means people can consume content created by Deaf creators who are sharing sign language and talking about their experiences, which can help bridge the gap between the Deaf and hearing worlds, especially during a pandemic.
RezWell said the impact of COVID-19 has been overwhelming on her and other deaf people in the community.
“Our language is a visual language, our language is a language that is spatial. So proximity is so important in the language and where things are in location to each other,” RezWell explained.
This is why wearing a mask is a barrier for those who use the language, because if somebody who can hear wants to connect with a Deaf person, they now have to use some means of either writing or using a phone.
Even as someone who has cochlear implants, RezWell said she still has a hard time hearing people when they have a mask on, especially since she needs to maintain a safe distance due to COVID-19.
“If people are willing to actually make an effort to write a note back and forth through that kind of thing, that’s helpful,” said RezWell.
“But it can be that much more stressful when people are ignorant of how to communicate with somebody who doesn’t communicate in the same way that they do.”
Sometimes she said people become visibly annoyed with having to make that extra effort.
“I think we are all struggling. It is a pandemic, but they need to also understand that we’re struggling as well,” she said.
Following graduation in September of 2021, RezWell’s hopes to look for more opportunities to exhibit her work and to share her childhood traumas and experiences as a Black artist through her art.
She’s also considering taking a master degree in fine arts to continue to do more research.
“I would like to be able to potentially be a teacher and to teach more courses in terms of Deaf culture and sign language at the post-secondary level,” said RezWell.
“We have people who teach sign language, but we don’t have people teaching other courses in sign language. And so that’s something that would be part of my future plans as I continue to share my work,” she added.