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Vision & Hearing Loss

Tripping The Light Fantastic

After his own isolated childhood, professional dancer Antoine Hunter works to share the gifts of deaf and hard of hearing dancers with the world.

In his more than 15 years as a professional dancer, California artist Antoine Hunter has played many parts: performer, choreographer, director, poet, advocate. Although he is quick to emphasize the significance of family above all else (“nothing is of greater importance,” he says via email), he cites his roles as teacher and producer as his most professionally notable, both for their potential to pass on knowledge and to create opportunities, building bridges and providing platforms where they aren’t typically available to Deaf people like himself.

“I love to see the world come together,” he explains. “Being broken apart is really lonely.” Hunter understands loneliness all too well.

Photo: R.J. Muna

Hunter is the founder and artistic director of Urban Jazz Dance, a company of deaf and hard of hearing dancers based in San Francisco’s East Bay Area aimed at empowering underserved artists and communities. Under Hunter, Urban Jazz Dance produces the annual Bay Area International Dance Festival, a showcase for deaf and hard of hearing performers that grew in such popularity that he had to add “international” to its title to represent the numbers of artists from abroad interested in participating. Hunter has won numerous arts and advocacy awards; maintains what appears to be an exhausting schedule of local, national, and international teaching and touring; and has performed in venues as varied as the Kennedy Center, Disneyland, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But Hunter spent much of his childhood in West Oakland struggling to connect with people. Born completely deaf in one ear and with 5% hearing in the other, he felt like an outcast, mocked and rejected by both adults and children: at times for being black, at times for being deaf, at times for not being deaf enough.

 

Hunter does not equivocate about the deep loneliness he experienced growing up. By the time he was a teenager, a lifetime of social isolation and the struggle to be heard had driven Hunter to contemplate suicide.

“When you can’t express yourself, you lose your mind,” he says. “Dance saved my life and gave me the ability to communicate with other people.”

“Dance saved my life and gave me the ability to communicate with other people.”

Hunter had been fascinated by dance since even before his mother had taken him to a performance of the Oakland Ballet’s The Nutcracker at the age of eight. He marveled at the communication and interaction inherent in dance and determined to become a professional dancer despite the myriad voices telling him it would be impossible. Too poor to afford lessons, Hunter didn’t take his first dance classes until they were offered as part of his high school curriculum.

Dance’s salvation, however, was far from instantaneous. When Hunter’s teacher instructed his class to pair off for a group project, he found himself with no one to partner with. Alone, he poured his struggles and frustrations into a solo choreographed to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” When he finished the performance, his classmates responded, saying they could feel the pain and confinement he had sought to convey.

He had finally broken through. Through the movements of his body, Hunter had found his voice.

Photo: Matt Haber

Hunter strives to create a space in which his students and colleagues can feel that kind of freedom, where they are able to express in their own ways and thrive as their best, most authentic selves.

“Some people say I’m like Professor Black Deaf Charles X, helping mutants understand about their powers,” he says. “Well, I’ll tell you this: you don’t need to be a mutant to understand your gifts.”

“You don’t need to be a mutant to understand your gifts.”

That’s not to say achieving success as a deaf dancer in a predominantly hearing industry is easy, however. Hunter estimates he’s had to work eight times harder than most to get to where he is.

Without the benefit of sound to synchronize movement, dance relies more heavily on visual cues, which can range from the conspicuous – like following one dancer’s lead or an offstage prompter – to the subtle, like the way a particular light trembles with the music’s vibrations.

Photo: Richard Downing

For a scored piece, Hunter spends many hours up close and personal with his speakers, memorizing a song’s rhythms and incorporating its structure into his body like a muscle memory. He says he spent most of his high school and college learning years waking up at 5 a.m. to rehearse for hours before classes began at 8.

“People would ask me how I warmed up so fast before class,” he says. “No one knew I was always there early in the morning.”

Without an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter on hand, Hunter says learning can become like an exercise in “try[ing] to feel or read the mind of every teacher you have.” That difference in communication can create an unnecessary barrier to progress.

 

By conducting his classes in ASL and creating an inclusive, encouraging environment, Hunter raises the bar on what Deaf dancers can expect, not only of themselves but for themselves.

“Sometimes in the Deaf world, we who are Deaf … we don’t get to experience high expectations from others. Many have low expectations for Deaf people,” Hunter says. “So sometimes when I work with a dancer, they’re shocked how much attention they are getting from me and how much work they are doing. Some Deaf dancers are like, ‘My teacher would never encourage me to keep going when I felt like giving up, but you tell me, “Don’t stop,” and [that] I’m almost there. I can actually be Deaf while taking a class from a Deaf man.’”

Hunter notes that hearing dancers could also learn a thing or two from their Deaf colleagues’ methods. Dance is, after all, its own form of communication through signs, and when music is purely optional, a dancer must find their motivation in an internal message and melody rather than from the regimentation of an external metronome.

Photo: Matt Haber

“Many hearing dancers take their hearing for granted when they dance. Sometimes they don’t really dance to the music or with the music; they dance without expression,” he says. “With deaf dancers, we try to be alert to everything around us and dance to every beat we feel. It’s hard not to be expressive, because with American Sign Language or Deaf culture, it means to communicate. And in dance we love to communicate.”

That drive to communicate underlies all of Hunter’s work. He teaches and performs a variety of styles, including ballet, jazz, African, and hip-hop, using his full body to express his message and often incorporating ASL into his choreography.

Perhaps the greatest message Hunter strives to convey to both deaf and hearing audiences, whether through his work or his conversation, is that Deaf culture represents not a disability but a difference: an identity and an intrinsic way of experiencing, negotiating, and interacting with the world.

Deaf culture represents not a disability but a difference… an intrinsic way of experiencing, negotiating, and interacting with the world.

“Being Deaf doesn’t mean you can’t do things and that you need to be fixed. I strongly believe that being Deaf is alive in me, and it is a gift. It’s in my roots. It gives me a reason to create,” he says. “When I see Deaf people from all over the world, I notice we do many things the same or in common as every [other] Deaf person. It’s like being black. We maybe have never seen African dance, but when the music comes on, we can’t help but shake our hips. It’s in our DNA. Being Deaf makes me powerful, and I know it’s my duty to use this power well to change the world into something a little more beautiful.”

 

Disability Vision & Hearing Loss

The Deaf Politician Who Listens To Everyone

Mojo Mathers says one of the hardest things about her job as a Member of Parliament is learning to “accept the bouquets, and discard the brickbats.”

Mathers, who made history when she was elected in 2011, is New Zealand’s first deaf member of parliament, and only the fifth in the world. But she never intended to become a politician.

“I always thought I’d be a scientist!” she says. “Until I got into parliament I didn’t have a television, and only rarely bought a newspaper. I was very focussed on being a mother to three small children. I could have named the prime minister, but that was about it.”

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Mojo Mathews. Photo: Kirk Hargreaves

Mojo’s deafness was caused at birth, but it wasn’t discovered until she was two and a half. Her mother worked hard to prepare her for school, and she learned reading and lipreading early on. She now has an Honors Degree in Mathematics and a Masters in Conservation Forestry.

Mojo lives in a remote area of New Zealand’s South Island, which means a lot of travel back and forth to parliament in the capital city. Her role as the Green Party’s spokesperson for Disability Issues, Conservation, and Animal Welfare gives her the opportunity to pursue many issues close to her heart.

“Disabled people are the single most disadvantaged minority in New Zealand, according to the Human Rights Commission,” she says. “As a deaf person who lives and breathes green issues, I am a strong advocate for inclusion for everyone.”

Disabled people are the single most disadvantaged minority in New Zealand.

Over 8.5% of New Zealand’s population is deaf or hearing impaired. According to the World Health Organization, 360 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, a number that’s on the rise. But many jobs aren’t open to catering to people with disabilities –including Mojo’s own.

When she began her political career, Mojo says had “no concept of the challenges that lay ahead for me as a deaf candidate and activist.” For the first few months, she suffered heavily from concentration fatigue as she tried to keep up with the fast-moving debates that happen in and out of parliament.

Mojo is proficient in lipreading and is learning sign language, but this wasn’t enough. Her very first battle as an MP was to get the technology she needed to do her job.

“I needed a laptop or screen directly at my desk, and a sign language interpreter. New Zealand Sign Language is one of our three official languages, along with English and Māori, but it wasn’t represented in parliament.”

People with disabilities have a 59% unemployment rate in New Zealand, and while the majority may need no extra assistance with workplace modifications or support, about 19% do.

Mojo’s battle was closely followed by the public, who put pressure on the government to give her the tools she needed. Eventually, she was provided with an electronic note-keeping assistant, but the time it took for this to happen remains controversial.

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Mojo and some special constituents.

As an activist, controversy isn’t something that stops Mojo. She engages frequently with the public on social media, and shares a lot of her personal life as well as what she’s doing at work.

“One of the tough things about my job has been learning to accept the bouquets and discard the brickbats,” she said on Facebook. “Today I got told by a lovely older woman that my maiden speech had made her cry and it was a “must watch.” A few hours later I got told by a male that my voice was ‘too flat’ and I needed to get more emotion into it without being ‘creepy intense.’ I’ll just take the first, thank you.”

Mojo and her partner Don are busy transforming their new home in Peel Forest, a small community in the Canterbury region of New Zealand. It’s a hefty job, requiring the renovation of nearly two hectares of land. The area is filled with native birds, trees, and other wildlife, all of which Mojo is passionate about protecting.

“When a local farmer heard we’d cut down 17 trees he very earnestly informed me I needed to plant 10 trees for each one felled. So today we planted our first tree, a heritage apple gifted by a friend. One in, a hundred and sixty nine to go!!”

It was this commitment to the environment that led Mojo into politics. Sixteen years ago, she moved with her family from Christchurch City to the small village of Coalgate, not far from Peel Forest.

“The location was ideal for us,” she says. “It was close to a small country school, with the peaceful Waikirikiri river flowing past our doorstep.”

But Mojo soon discovered that there were plans to build a massive water storage dam for irrigation, just upstream from her new home. She became spokeswoman for the community’s opposition to the plan, and helped found the Protection Society which stopped the dam from being built.

“It was the desire to save the Waikirikiri which led directly to my involvement in politics.”

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Mojo with her son, Tim.

Now, Mojo’s role as an MP doesn’t leave much time for local activism, but it does give her an avenue to work in the areas she cares for.

“Being an MP means media calls, caucus meetings, campaign planning, question time, select committees, house duty, speaking on bills I am leading, answering correspondence, writing blogs, posting on social media, researching my portfolio areas and so on. But one other important thing I do is provide advice to and support the work of individuals and groups who are lobbying for change in my portfolio areas.”

During this year’s International Week of the Deaf, Mojo was visited at Parliament by some special friends from Hearing Dogs for Deaf People Aotearoa.  She says that while she doesn’t have a service dog herself, she knows just how important they are for many people with disabilities.

“These dogs are highly trained and play an immensely important role in the lives of many people,” she says. “Guide dogs for blind, hearing dogs for deaf, and service dogs for children with autism are just some of the diverse roles they can take on. I have a friend who uses a wheelchair who has a service dog who picks up and bring her items, opens fridge doors and other stuff.  Unfortunately only guide dogs are explicitly recognized in the Human Rights Act , which has caused some problems for some people. I have a member’s bill in the ballot to expand this to cover other disability assist dogs.”

Mojo’s own dog, Kea, was adopted from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals earlier this year, and is an important member of the family.

“She’s won the heart of all our extended family with her gentle and friendly ways. Kea is easily one of most intelligent, gentle and affectionate dogs I have ever had. She loves participating in everything we do. The only difficulty we have is that she has serious separation anxiety issues, possibly as a result of being left at the shelter for two months,  which makes it very hard to leave her at home alone!”

Another area of accessibility Mojo champions is the provision of captioning for television.

“Many countries have mandatory requirements for TV to be captioned, but New Zealand falls way behind. In the US and the UK, 99% of programs have optional captioning. We only have about 25%. It’s not fair to lock out people who are deaf from information on television.”

The issue came to a head this year when the National Foundation for the Deaf ran a fundraising drive to ensure the Olympics was captioned. Mojo says it shouldn’t have been left up to them.

“Deaf and hard-of-hearing people should not have to be fighting for something as essential as captioning in this day and age.”

When Mojo is at home ––which is as often as possible–she grabs Kea and heads out to the garden.

“My children and family are hugely important to me. My two eldest daughters are at university, and my son is still at high school. I highly value any time I can get with them. I love just pottering around at home with Don and Kea. We are about to get some goats… which I am hugely looking forward to!”

Disability Vision & Hearing Loss

Hearing The Call Of The Tuba Thieves

The binaural hearing loss of visual artist Alison O'Daniel informs every aspect of her serene and sometimes surreal art.

When Alison O’Daniel was a toddler, her parents knew something was wrong. Biting, pinching, kicking, and screaming, she constantly showed intense signs of frustration. It wasn’t until Alison was three, and they moved to the family’s first two-story house, that they figured it out. Alison fell down the stairs, and they realized something was off with her equilibrium. That led them to discover that Alison is hard-of-hearing.

Now grownup, Alison is a visual and performance artist and filmmaker whose installations mix both mediums together. Her work is informed by her hearing, and the unique way it shapes her experience of the world. Although still sometimes frustrated, it is no longer about an unknown condition, so much as it is by large existential questions such as the political nature of the art world, what it means to be an artist in a classist system, and how to observe the stars.

Folks sat down with O’Daniel to talk about the intersection between her hearing and work, as well as things  that are “not meant to be articulated.”

When did you start making art? And when did it go from making art to deciding, “I want to be an artist”?

I grew up with my grandma, who was an artist. She made Swedish folk crafts and paintings. My aunt and uncle are super ’60s hippy potters. They built their own house with a studio in the basement in the countryside in upstate New York, so that was my example of being an artist. I aspired to be like them. I thought they were the coolest people ever. Their lifestyle was super attractive.

When I was a kid, I was a figure skater, and I think that’s when I really started being an artist. When I was in high school, I stopped figure skating ,and moved into theater. I didn’t understand performance art yet, but I was trying to pull theater into that, because maintaining a central focus on the body in space was the way I began my art.

I also started taking visual art classes in public school, which was liberal but very two-dimensionally focused. Then I went to art school. I never even questioned being an artist, but now I do, with practical questions.

What are those practical questions?

I have a thousand million questions. What are the politics of the art world? Why is it such a class-based system? What do you do a few years out of art school when you are faced with the demands of daily life? Like I said, practical questions.

Any recently stumbled upon answers?

Not fully formed answers, but some suspicions that I have to turn this part of my brain off for a while and give myself a break. How do you prioritize love and making? I’m thinking a lot about a statement that’s in my film, The Plants Are Protected. The closed captions are a quote from a physicist who once wrote to [famed Russian director Andrei] Tarkovsky about the experience of watching his film: “You have to watch it like you look at the sea, the stars, the landscape.” The answer for me now is in this sentence.

Can you tell me about your hearing loss?

Sure. I have what’s called binaural hearing loss. It’s in both ears, about the same degree in both. I have to use hearing aids, and I read lips. 

Every person’s hearing loss is radically different, and that’s interesting to me. I have “moderate to severe hearing impairment.” I have a hard time hearing consonants. I lose a lot of what’s said in speech, but I’ve compensated with a highly developed skill set. I fill in the gaps, so I can keep up really well… so well that most people have no idea that I’m hard of hearing. I have long hair, so you can’t see my hearing aids, and I don’t have a speech impediment.  I’m losing a lot with speech all the time, but I have a highly developed skill set for compensation. I can fill things in and keep up really well. 

How does it play into your day-to-day life?

It plays out in miscommunications. I’m constantly having awkward interactions and it takes people a while to realize what’s going on. I’m not shy about it at all; I’m a total advocate for myself. But I’m 36, and I still experience daily  frustration trying to get things to work. 

First encounters [with new people]–I would go as far as to say they can be traumatizing. I feel like I have a cumbersome relationship to social interaction. People often feel I’m cold or standoffish or bitchy, just because I’m missing many of the things that are being said. I overcompensate by being nicer than I necessarily have the impulse to be, but really, I just want to stand and observe. 

Does it bother you when people are always asking how your hearing informs your work?  I want to ask that but I don’t want to pigeonhole you.

We’re in a cultural moment that’s so much about diversity, which is fucking awesome. But at the same time, I don’t want to be a woman artist, I just want to be an artist. But I think the awareness is good because, for example, it draws attention to the language we use. For example, for those who are hard of hearing, the term “hearing-impaired” is super offensive because impairment implies something has been taken away. I want my experience to be my own starting point, like it is in my art. I start from where I am, and it has opened me up visually to being able to perceive the world in beautiful ways. How is that impairment?

OK, take your film, Night Sky. How is it informed by your relationship to hearing?

I kind of consider that a self-portrait. I was trying to get to the bottom of the ambiguity of my experience [as a person who is hard-of-hearing]. The choices about the characters, their relationships, the visuals: they’re all designed to be hard for the viewer to place.

There’s a scene where a girl puts her hands on a fence, and when she does, the fence becomes a transmitter, almost like hearing aids. The voice that comes through to her then is a monologue by a deaf woman.

There are parts of the film that a hearing audience won’t get, and parts of the film that thee deaf part of the audience won’t understand. I consciously chose  to make the film so that, deaf or not, you’re still not given total access. That mirrors my experience. But I want my next film to be accessible to everyone.

So you’re changing that in your current work? What’s the new direction?

Yes. My current project, The Tuba Thieves, is unfolding in an untraditional way. I started this one in 2013 and I have no idea when the end is. It’s a direct reaction to Night Sky.

My good friend and collaborator Ethan Frederick Green died this year, and that’s on my mind a lot. So he is 100% not accessible to me any more and I’ve been thinking of how to honor that relationship.

Ethan worked for me over a long period of time on the music in Night Sky. He made changes as the edit went along which is a long, laborious relationship for a composer. I was touched by that role, so for The Tuba Thieves,  I wanted to flip our roles. I had him write music, and then I would direct a film that responded to his audio.

What’s the meaning of the title? What’s are the ideas you’re exploring in The Tuba Thieves

A while back, I started hearing about tubas being stolen from high schools. I thought that was a weird and crazy crime epidemic, so I started keeping notes. The press always talked about the thieves, but I wondered about the students: what happened in their band classes, and how did the music they had to play sound without tubas? You know, the micro-narratives nobody was talking about. So I started reaching out to band directors, and visiting the schools to talk to the students. That’s where the title came from, even though the film itself has neither tubas nor thieves in it.

The film is based around a woman who is a deaf drummer who was featured in Night Sky. I asked two other composers besides Ethan to write a musical score, then gave them a random list of things to consider, which I would write the film about. The goal was to do the film backwards; I wanted the elements of real-life and the relationship of the drummer and the composer to be what pushed the film into shape.

It’s not done yet, but I have a finished screenplay, and I show it at installations, even though it has missing parts. It’s like that quote that obsesses me: the experience of watching it is how you look at the sea, the stars, a landscape. It’s experiential beyond language. Everything is touching and connected, but the way it is connected is ephemeral.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for grammar, length, and clarity.