Deaf Culture - Jonah Syndrome

When the Hearing World is Blind

In 1998, it was impossible to ignore the deaf and hard of hearing community's pain and anger over the fact that Phyllis Frelich was not shown on screen signing the national anthem during the Super Bowl. From what I understand, U.S. viewers were treated to no more than fleeting glimpses of Ms. Frelich.

When I first heard of this, my reaction was "uh, oh, another case of Jonah Syndrome." What, you ask, is "Jonah Syndrome?" Jonah Syndrome is a phrase that I coined to describe the insensitivity of the hearing world then and now, to the needs of deaf and hard of hearing people when it would otherwise so obviously be called for.

The Phyllis Frelich Super Bowl performance is one example of Jonah Syndrome.

History of Jonah Syndrome

How did I come to define and label this "Jonah Syndrome?" Back in 1979, there was a classic film about deafness shown on CBS television. Granted, it was the days before closed captioning which did not start until 1980, but open captioning (similar to foreign film subtitles) was available and could certainly have been used on this film to benefit the many deaf and hard of hearing viewers even if it meant risking angering hearing viewers. The film was "And Your Name is Jonah," starring a then nine-year-old Jeffrey Bravin.

In "And Your Name is Jonah," Bravin's character "Jonah" is found to be deaf and the film follows his discovery of himself as a deaf person, from the time he leaves the institution for the retarded to his learning sign language. I watched that film with my family, unable to understand much of what was happening.

There were no captions even though the film had been heavily promoted in the deaf community.

The next day on the school bus, a schoolmate came up to me and exclaimed, "Oh, Jamie! I saw 'And Your Name is Jonah!' I think I understand you better now!" I angrily snapped back, "I couldn't understand it! There were no captions!"

I finally saw "And Your Name is Jonah" with captions in the mid to late eighties, when I discovered a captioned version in the Gallaudet University library. At last, I was able to watch and understand the entire film and see what I had missed as a teenager. This film is not available on home video, and it should be, as it is a true deafness classic.

Surely the producers of the Super Bowl, almost two decades after And Your Name is Jonah, must have known that many deaf and hard of hearing people were going to watch. That time, they could have easily put an insert of Phyllis Frelich signing on the screen.

Modern Examples of Jonah Syndrome

So whenever there is something deaf-related, on television, the internet, or anyplace else, I call it a case of "Jonah Syndrome." Today, I most often see examples of "Jonah Syndrome" when television broadcasters put news clips online of deaf-related topics (for example, a news clip about cochlear implants) but do not bother to add captions for deaf and hard of hearing Internet viewers.

What examples of Jonah Syndrome can you cite from your own experience?

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