Spring Chill, Summer Thaw, Autumn Harvest

Last winter just a few days before the vernal equinox, I was enjoying being home in Albuquerque when I learned that a right-leaning blog across the pond had picked up a blog post I had written about genetics and the potential impact on the signing deaf community. (Note to self: getting a text from a high-level university administrator during Spring Break is best avoided.)

The post had been translated into ASL on a deaf community internet news site, and I knew that it was getting some attention in the signing community. As an academic, I was delighted that lively conversations were happening about gene editing in the deaf community. Also as an academic, I expect (and hope) that not everyone will agree with me. Part of the joy of being a member of the academy is partaking in thoughtful disagreement, and if that exchange sharpens my arguments, that’s all the better.

The conservative critique of my blog post spread to several sites, many of these located in the alt-right sphere. Once I realized that the “critique” (I use this phrase lightly) was much more sensationalized than thoughtful, frequently making points against straw men instead of what I had actually argued myself, I stopped looking at the blogs and news sites. Per my usual practice, I didn’t bother to read the comments. I did look to see what other academics wrote in response (mostly on social media), and in several cases, responded to their thoughtful critique via email or private message.

Perhaps I was naive, but I wasn’t prepared for emails threatening my person and well-being. These shook me up, especially those containing specific personal information that indicated the writer had taken the time to do some research. I followed the advice I’d been given by colleagues who had found themselves in similar circumstances. Keep everything. Tell campus security. Inform your local law enforcement. Being that I live in the ‘hood, I also told my neighbors what was up. I have fiercely protective neighbors who pay close attention when something out of the ordinary is happening. This is mildly annoying when someone I’m dating comes to my home and my neighbors grill me about it the next day, but the tradeoff of community is worth it. My neighbors know that I am deaf, and we have a number of different ways to get in touch and check in on one another given our various languages and language modalities.

After I returned to DC the next week, where I was living in temporary quarters for the semester, I felt a little safer. When I came back to Albuquerque at the end of the term, I was stunned to realize that this experience had thrown up a writer’s block for me like nothing before. I was embarrassed to discover that emails from people (most likely individuals living far from my either of my home cities) had generated such a chilling effect on my speech, and I simmered for weeks with self-directed anger that I had responded in precisely the way that these writers had probably intended I would. I don’t think of myself as someone who backs down from a confrontation; my life history arcs toward pressing for justice.

But this was different.

This wasn’t a matter of going up against an institution or organization that was violating the law by refusing to provide disability accommodations. Institutions and organizations may indirectly threaten my well-being by making it harder for me to do my job, and in my pre-tenure days, I was almost always worried about how my persistence would reflect on me.

Would I be perceived as a troublemaker? Would I be viewed as too expensive? Would I be passed over for opportunities due to the work involved in arranging for my accommodations?

I’m happy to report that now that I’m on the other side of tenure, these worries have subsided. That said, I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones, and that there are many colleagues with disabilities who are unemployed, precariously employed, or navigating the tenure process. And there are also others with tenure who worry about the impact of disability disclosure on the trajectory of a career.

This summer, I discovered that anonymous threats to one’s person or property are much harder for me psychologically than refusals to provide accommodations. I’ve been harassed online previously by people who weren’t anonymous, yet these things have a way of playing out over time, especially when one has incontrovertible evidence against their claims, such as (for example) having proof that signed language interpretation was provided at a diversity conference one attended, despite accusations to the contrary by someone not in attendance. But not knowing where threats are coming from is far more unsettling. Fortunately, I finally did get to a point where I could write again, although I’ve been reluctant to put any of my work out for public consumption these past several weeks.

But here it is, the end of the summer, and everything is due or (over)due, so my hibernation is over. It took me dozens of miles of hiking throughout the southwest for me to reach my conclusion, plus several nights of solo sleeping under the stars for me to put this in perspective. I needed a little time and space to reflect about this experience, and I’ve decided that I’m not willing to be the kind of academic who stops writing for the public when she’s threatened with bodily harm.

Besides, there’s a big debate ramping up about human gene editing and disability — something I’ve been writing and thinking about for over a decade now (see my 2011 University of New Mexico dissertation, The Quest for a Deaf Child: Ethics and Genetics), and I have a few things I want to say about a community I love — threats be damned.






About Teresa Blankmeyer Burke

Just another deaf academic/advocate/activist blogging about life.
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