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How Social Media Became a Game-Changer for the Deaf Community

It’s no secret that social media has changed the way people communicate with each other. Compared with just a decade ago, we know more about people’s lives (and their kids’ lives) than ever before. We’ve also become more adept at written and visual communication vs. purely verbal communication.

But there's one group for whom the advent of social media was literally life-changing, and that's the Deaf community.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there are approximately 1 million “functionally deaf” people in the United States, with more than half of that number being over 65 years of age. In addition, millions more have experienced some level of hearing loss.

Those who grew up without the ability to hear or speak have always faced significant difficulties communicating with the outside world, even if they learned sign language.

“While growing up, it was made clear from the beginning that I would not be accepted as an equal – condescending attitude from teachers, perplexing stares from retail employees, and my peers making fun of my sign language during recess,” says Ryan Commerson, 41, media strategist for Communication Service for the Deaf. “And because of the circumstances, my confidence and identity took longer to develop. Therefore, I couldn't figure out how to leverage myself in terms of communicating ideas with others who didn't know sign language.”

Technology was slow to adapt. In the 60s, a device called TTY - or a teletypewriter - was invented, but it didn’t become mainstream until the late 80s to early 90s. The TTY allowed one caller to type a message, with the other caller either receiving the “text” or a “relay” of the text by a person speaking, depending on whether the person on the other line could hear or not.

“In the 90s, I was able to make my first ‘relay call’ where I could call up a classmate from school through the use of TTY and a ‘relay operator’ would take my TTY calls (text-based) and relay my messages via voice to the other end,” explains Commerson. “It was awkward asking a girl out on a date through an interpreter.”

Fast-forward a decade or so, and social media was born.

Derek Troy, 39, owner of Derek’s Bikes and a Committee Member at Chicago-based Deaf Planet Soul, says that he first became aware of social media “many years ago when I saw MySpace and LinkedIn,” but that he “really never thought about using either one [because] I got nothing out of them.” It was only when a friend convinced him to join Facebook in 2010 that he first experienced what would be a total game-changer for how he communicated with the rest of the world.

Today, Troy posts almost every day, and Facebook has helped him grow his business by buying and selling bicycles and other items, while engaging with both hearing and Deaf customers.

“My customers usually don't know that I'm deaf,” Troy said. “I'm good with words and would like to use that to my advantage.”