Recently the social media has been abuzz with this “heart-warming” video which was created by Samsung Turkey to promote their new video call center. Titled “Hearing Hands,” the video centers on a young Deaf man named Muharrem who lives in Istanbul, and the town’s efforts to give him one special day:
Since being posted to YouTube the first week of March, the video has gone viral, with over three million views in just one week. It’s popped up on many a Facebook wall (including several of my friends), and in Twitter accounts. It’s been discussed in many an article or blog post on the internet. And naturally, most of the comments surrounding it have referenced its “touching” content.
Yes, it’s a feel-good video. Sure, it leaves you reaching for the kleenex. Granted, it might make your heart grow three times bigger.
But I’m going to be brutally honest here, folks.
I didn’t care for it.
As a Deaf person myself, this video didn’t touch my heart or leave me feeling good. It just made me roll my eyes, heave a sigh and wonder when the world is going to stop exploiting sign language and Deaf people.
Yes, you read that right. Exploiting. Because like it or not…that’s essentially what this commercial is doing. It’s making full use of and deriving benefit from incorporating sign language and a Deaf person. Yes, one could say that it’s in a positive way – especially since the whole point of the video is to call attention to a service that provides access for the deaf and hard of hearing.
But I think Samsung could have found a better way to get their message across.
Let’s get real here, people.
First of all, more than one media outlet has referred to this as being “an entire town secretly learning sign language.” Newsflash, folks – this dude lives in Istanbul, which has over 14 million people. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t see that many people in this video. And even if he actually lives somewhere in the suburbs, I still didn’t get the impression it was the entire town…or even the entire neighborhood.
Nor did I get the impression that they all learned sign language for the benefit of this Deaf individual. They learned signs because someone came up to them and asked if they wanted to be in a commercial. They weren’t learning signs – they were learning lines. They were learning and using what they needed to know in order to make this video. But did they really learn how to actually communicate with a Deaf person? I highly doubt it. Call me cynical if you want, but I really don’t see these people taking the skills that they learned for the sake of this commercial and going out to Deaf events and gatherings to use their signs, learn more, make new friends, and become more inclusive. The majority of them will likely pat themselves on the back, proclaim “what a great thing we did today!” and then go home and forget it all. Sad to say, I have met many people who “took a sign language class or two,” rarely used their skills outside of the classroom, and a year later can barely remember how to introduce themselves, let alone carry on a conversation.
Touchy-feely adverts. You probably feel like you’ve seen them all, from soppy penguins to poignant First World War truces. Most of the time, it’s easy to feel cynical about the idea of big corporations manipulating our emotions. But in the case of the new advert from Samsung Türkiye, we’re prepared to park our cynicism to one side. Promoting a video call service for the hearing impaired, the advert, which uses dozens of hidden cameras, follows Istanbul resident Muharrem, who is deaf, on the most surprising morning of his life.
Yup, this is one of those “touchy-feely adverts.” It’s intended to be – that’s the whole point. But we have to remember…this IS a commercial. And as a commercial, its purpose is to try to sell you on something, to send a message where the prime objective is to convince you to buy it, use it, or whatever with it for business profit.
Sure, there can be some meaningful messages within commercials – they can educate, advocate, encourage, inspire. They can make us laugh, they can make us cry, sometimes they can piss us off. They can make us think and make us want to change the world. But we have to remember that they are written and filmed and presented that way. And oftentimes they do not necessarily reflect reality – but rather, a vision that has been conceived by the creators.
It’s pretty obvious that the vision here has been created by hearing people…for hearing people. And most likely done with little input from the Deaf Community itself. The whole tone of this video is doing FOR the Deaf person, rather than WITH the Deaf person. What comes across isn’t a sense of empowerment…it’s a sense of pity. We see Muharrem as this “poor deaf guy” whom we have to help, for whom we have to do these nice, kind things to help him have a “special day” – as if he was a child that we have to encourage to smile.
And why, oh why…do people still persist in using terms like “hearing impaired”??? The video itself uses this term, and of course the social network picked up on it. For whatever reason, the media persists in believing that “hearing impaired” is the proper, politically correct term – even though organizations here in the United States include the National Association of the Deaf, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, and the USA Deaf Sports Federation as well as a state agency right here in my home state: the Kentucky Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Deaf denotes an identity – a source of pride and community, not an affliction. But it seems like hearing folks will go out of their way to avoid using the term, as if it was some dirty four-letter word. “Hearing impaired”…”hearing disabilities”…”people with hearing loss.”
To promote their new video call center for people with hearing disabilities, Samsung Turkey put together a wonderfully touching moment for a young man who suffers from hearing loss.
Ahem…I do not suffer from hearing loss. I am Deaf. Period. Let’s stop taking this pathological view of deafness as a sort of wretched disease, stop fixating on my broken ears, and start seeing me as a person. Period. Just like Muharrem I go about my day doing the ordinary things that many of us do – which may include buying bagels and fruit. Yes, I might interact with people a little bit differently, using a different mode of communication…but that hardly constitutes suffering.
Clearly, the action had to be carefully choreographed so that he could encounter all the residents who had learned sign language. Still, my Turkish friends tell me that the ad should be seen in the context of Turkish infrastructure making it very hard for disabled people to live anything resembling normal lives.
It’s challenging enough for Deaf people living in the United States, where we have technology, laws, programs, services, organizations, etc. all designed to enhance the quality of our lives. We’ve had video relay services here in America for several years. We have captioning, we have sign language interpreters, we have a national organization, we have a federal law that prevents discrimination. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for those deaf and hard of hearing people living in areas without such assistance.
But at the same time, I have to wonder what is meant by a “normal life.” From what I could see, this young Deaf man was going about doing things that looked pretty darn normal. Yes, Deaf people may have more barriers when it comes to gaining a good education, finding a good job, interacting with others, and participating in various functions. But most of those barriers have a lot more to do with attitudes than with audiograms. As I am fond of saying, “Deafness is my disability. Society is my handicap.” I’m not hampered so much by my hearing loss, as I am by how people perceive me because of it.
Like I said…this is a feel-good story for hearing people – the majority of whom know little if anything about Deaf Culture. And please, don’t tell me that because you have a hearing loss or know someone who does, that qualifies you as knowledgeable on the subject. It takes actually living or working within the Deaf Community – utilizing their language, knowing their social norms, and recognizing their perspectives to truly understand. I have to wonder how much the folks who created this video really made the effort to try to understand. Developing that kind of deep knowledge takes a lot more than just a month of learning sign language and planning a commercial designed to shed light on the importance of removing barriers.
On reflection, I sought to empathize with the protagonist. It seems pretty obvious to me that when he turns to his sister and signs “WHAT’S GOING ON?” he is doing so out of confusion and discomfort, not satisfaction. I believe that a person with a disability does not want his disability to define him. He does not want to be confronted by strangers, each of whom has learned a single sentence in sign language. Because what each of these strangers is really saying is: “You don’t know me, and I know nothing about you — except that you are deaf.” And they are saying “I’ve learned to sign a single sentence, so now I understand your experience.”
~ Avi Jacobson, YouTube commenter
So please…put away that box of tissues. Stop feeling sorry for this guy and his obviously “anything but normal life in a silent world.” Stop applauding these folks who came together to help create an advertisement. Yes, this video might have gotten people thinking – but did it really change their views about Deaf people? Judging from what I have read…not really. We’re still being labeled with the wrong terms, seen as suffering from an affliction, viewed as objects of pity. We are still characters being used to make people cry and feel sorry for us, rather than making them cheer and feel proud of us.
I realize that Samsung had the best of intentions here. I do applaud their efforts at creating accommodations. That’s what we in the Deaf Community want and need – Equal Communication Access. I do wish the company the very best of luck with this video calling center. But I’m not sure that their approach here is as positive, as sensitive or as Deaf-Friendly as it could and should be.
Sorry Samsung…but I do believe you missed the mark.