Reflections on That Deaf Guy
It is my belief that the web comic,That Deaf Guy, has opened up the conversation of disability studies. Using the comic as a teaching device, teaching institutions can facilitate conversations between people of all ages and levels of education.1 Disability studies aims to reshape how some individuals in the academic field have had a negative approach to discussing disability as well as looking for a more accepting and equitable world for Disabled people.2 The author, or authors, in this case, are the husband and wife duo, Matt and Kay Daigle, who write about their life in a comical way that makes its readers laugh, similar to a Sunday comic strip. It can be inferred that Matt Daigle is deaf, and his wife and son are hearing. This unique family setting gives viewers a different and essential take on family life and how disability is viewed from an insider’s perspective. The majority of the comic strips allow readers to learn more about deafness in a family setting and some of the struggles the Daigles face in their daily life. That Deaf Guy usually approaches life with a comedic and witty approach, as shown in many of their illustrations.
Matt Daigle is usually perceived as a lighthearted, kind husband and father who lives his life in a situation that is normal to him. However, to some, the Daigles’ situation may seem out of the ordinary. This itself is quite interesting as it shows audience members how one person’s normality is subjective to the person experiencing life. Although many of his comic strips have something to do with deaf insider humor or deaf education, some do not, and depict the Daigles’ day-to-day lives, which show readers how disability is not something out of the ordinary. One other facet that makes the comic much more complex is the multiple points-of-view the readers get to experience. Therefore, audience members get the experience of Matt who is deaf, his wife who can hear, and their son who is a CODA (child of deaf adult). These multiple perspectives give a holistic approach to the overall comic and boost the argument as to how the Daigle family perceives their situation as normal to them. Approaching disability studies this way, one can see the many powerful and positive impacts this graphic memoir style comic can have. We, the audience, are allowed to view another family’s life in moderate detail and put ourselves in their situation, to an extent, and come to a realization that normal is a term that is paradoxical.
When I say paradoxical, I mean that although normal describes something that is often occurring, we can see that in our world, families have different approaches to living their lives and each one is acceptable and valid. After careful thought and deliberation, I have come to believe that Matt does not perceive deafness as a disability. My reasoning for this is the way he and his wife portray him in the comics. He is perceived as more of a husband and father figure who uses American Sign Language to communicate with the world. The ability of Matt and Kay to write the storyline in this manner creates a healthy and educational environment around deafness and removes the negative connotation some people associate with disabilities. Consequently, That Deaf Guy allows viewers to focus more on the Daigles’ day-to-day activities rather than how disability alters their life in some negative aspect.
Matt and Kay use their comics in order to educate people on what to do and what not to do when approaching or communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. Because of the unique ability to post comments on the bottom of each of the comic strips (as they are online), I am fortunate enough to experience, some, but not all, of the readers’ thoughts on the comic strip. Many of these comments provide insight on how some of the audience members view Matt’s comics and provide me as well as many other readers with a more engaging experience than might otherwise be the case. One reader’s comment really sums up my argument for this point: “This will help others to understand [the] Deaf and their Language.” Although I do not know if this person identifies as deaf, the comment is important, as it shows how people can learn more about a commonly misunderstood culture and as a consequence, many members of our society could have a more accepting outlook on a disability. Matt is deaf and proud and although he self identifies as deaf, there is no mentioning that he or his family believe that deafness is either a burden or a disability, which serves to further increase the acceptance of deaf culture.
Since I have not met Matt Daigle, the only thing I can accurately say is that he is indeed culturally Deaf and does self-identify as deaf. This being the case, however, is quite different than portraying himself as someone with a disability. Therefore, I feel it would not be ethical to say he is disabled if I do not know if he is or is not, based on interviews with him and depictions within That Deaf Guy comics. Ethics, as described by the Oxford dictionary is, “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.”3 The ethics that govern me to make the choices that I make while reading are attempting to get an answer using the most logical and objective data. This way of attempting to figure out who Matt is can only be found in an ideal world, at best, and is something that cannot be done without interpreting some aspects of Matt Daigle. For example, when I made the claim that Matt Daigle is someone who is deaf, I made it with an objective truth in a way that he perceives himself. That is, my claim came directly from a fact the creator and character of That Deaf Guy said.
Labeling someone or something, however, can be considered non-ethical. I have the mentality that labeling someone as disabled, or deaf, takes away much of the “disabled” person’s personality from the (often but not always nondisabled) labeler’s mind. To try and explain this in a realistic scenario, suppose someone is convicted of a felony, they are regarded as a felon by some and the label sticks with them on personal records that can be publicly seen. When the person labeled as a felon goes to a job interview, they are usually 15-30% more likely to be rejected from an employer than people who have not been convicted of any felony.4 Why are felons more likely to be rejected by an employer? This can most likely be attributed to psychology and the ethical dilemma labels bring. Human beings process approximately 34 gigabytes or a few hundred thousand words of information a day just when we are not using our critical thinking skills. To reduce our level of input, some people label other individuals and items on a daily basis. When someone does this, it usually leads to stereotypes and can create a biased image of the labeled individual. As a consequence, this can lead to the labeled person being negatively impacted simply for being who they are. Although labels make things easier for some of us, that does not mean doing so is ethical.
I clearly remember when I was in first grade, I went to the local supermarket and saw someone using a wheelchair. I could not help feeling bad for them, at the time. In my mind, I automatically labeled them as disabled and I recall having in my mind, as well, the stereotype that all people with disabilities are weak. Revisiting that memory, I did quite a few unethical things during that one encounter. I automatically assumed that person was indeed disabled, even without knowing, and I grouped said person into one faction and thought of them that way. Moreover, I thought every person with a disability is considered disabled. Because of this, while reading some of That Deaf Guy, I had to consciously make the effort not to label Matt and Kay as one particular “thing” or aspect. Instead, my mentality shifted toward thinking about them as a family that goes about daily life. While reading the comic in a more subjective and critical way, I got to experience much more pleasure and not have any preconceived notions of Matt, Kay, and their son, as they write about their daily life and some of the unique encounters they deal with, some of which are “insider” humor that corresponds to being deaf or hard of hearing.
A large part of why That Deaf Guy drew my attention was the fact that it normalizes deafness and other disabilities. The comic does not focus on deafness, even though the title of the online graphic memoir is called That Deaf Guy. It focuses on Matt, who just so happens to be deaf and his wife and son. Many of the comic strips resemble a newspaper cartoon-like animation and have a comedic approach to his day-to-day living. Matt documents his events in a logical sequence, and, sometimes, he writes about his experiences of being deaf–which are highly relatable to other people who experience deafness. Matt’s comics not only help those who experience deafness to relate to him and find community with other readers, they comics also help by normalizing deafness and teaching people, as suggested by his “Do’s and Don’ts 5 ” portions of the comic. This is quite amazing to think about as Matt has been able to educate people and normalize deaf culture which further creates a community of people who identify as Deaf. On top of this, the medium in which it occurs is genius. Comics allow the use of emotion to be expressed in a powerful way to get the reader to have a personal experience with the characters 6. The use of comics and drawings attract people of all ages as comics are more accessible to people who lack that patience to read a lengthy academic paper. The comics’ images, even though they may be simplistic in nature, express the characters’ emotions. On a similar note, That Deaf Guy is creative in a way that is informing the public and creating a healthy and educational experience for those who do not yet understand the cultural significance of deaf culture; its work creates a safe space and a sense of belonging. Comics like Figure 1 shows one of the common, yet offensive misconceptions people have of deafness and encourages them to learn from these mistakes in order to ensure Deaf people do not feel left out, embarrassed, or become the recipients of negative emotions.
These figures are one of the many inThat Deaf Guy that show many different potential learning experiences one can get in order to be knowledgeable and aware of how different people perceive experiences. Implicitly, however, this comic can act as a step towards Disability Rights and a greater appreciation for American Sign Language. In the 20th century, there were multiple acts passed that allow People with Disabilities to have an equal life that is protected by the government. One of the greatest of these acts came in 1990 as the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits any discrimination of any kind and provides equal opportunity for Disabled people to work, to be accommodated, and to have access to the same rights as those who are not considered disabled.7
There are, however, still many problems within Western society that can bring about difficulties for those with disabilities. Some of these problems include biased-based opinions that are long outdated such as believing that people with disabilities are weak, less than human, and a burden 8. While many of these stereotypes have diminished or been frowned upon by Disabled people and non-disabled people alike, there is one that is quite prevalent in many forms and media outlets: the idea of the supercrip. Someone who is labeled as a supercrip is seen by people as overcoming their disability and living “normally” or going above and beyond to achieve greatness9. Although labeling deafness as a disability is somewhat controversial, legally speaking, deafness is considered a disability by the U.S. government10; That Deaf Guy removes the idea of the supercrip and, as noted, normalizes deafness and other Disabled people in society by not only writing about being Deaf, but about Matt’s life in general–which includes some of the humorous moments he experiences as a result of being deaf.
Image Description: The image shows Matt and Kay eating at an establishment when a server comes in and questions why they are moving their hands. Kay replies that they are using sign language and the server steps out and brings a Braille menu for them both. Kay looks visibly annoyed as Braille menus are intended for people who are blind. The server looks happy and does not understand the difference between deaf and blind.
As comics and comic-style graphic memoirs increase in popularity, so does the acceptance of the topics being discussed in said comics/graphic memoirs, and the more people in society discuss the errors memoirs like That Deaf Guy address. To show this point in a historical perspective, I will talk about the Disability movement that first started in the 1960’s12. Although organizations and clubs have been made available for Disabled people since the 1800’s, not much progress was made on a state or federal level to provide equal rights for people with disabilities, much less have a positive or neutral idea in people’s heads toward the word “disabled.” As the popularity of mainstream comics such as the X-Men grew and the rise of prominent disabled people like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Frida Kahlo appeared in society, more people started to talk about disability and the flaws in the legal system and the popular views people held onto. As people with disabilities grew more tired of the way they were being treated by others, more was being done to combat these issues and so, a Disability Rights Movement came into effect that paved the way toward progress and rights that many Disabled persons have today. Just like the great defenders of the Disability Movement in the 20th century, many Disability activists today are fighting for the people in society to have a greater understanding of disabilities. Individuals like Matt and Kay Daigle documenting their life and showing how a person with a disability goes on about their day in a regular fashion help spread awareness and understanding that a disability is not something to fear or think of as “irregular.”
In many cultures, a disability is still seen as a burden for families, friends, etc. For example, a colleague and I were discussing the pandemic and how this may or may not affect Disabled people. When my friend gave her side of the argument, she mentioned that Disabled people may be in danger, as they could not take care of themselves or go and buy essentials. I responded by asking her a simple question, “How do Disabled people normally go out and experience the world?” She was struck and could not find an answer, which made her think of her statement more critically. Afterwards, I mentioned to her my graphic memoir analysis of That Deaf Guy and a couple days later, her response was completely different. She realized that disability does not mean one is unable to perform daily tasks. In addition, she saw how disabilities like deafness are not much different than someone without a disability. That Deaf Guy shows its readers/viewers that a disability is not a burden; rather, disability is another part of a person’s life that makes up the uniqueness of said person and is not a dominating aspect. As the great author Dan Brown once said, “We often fear what we do not understand; our best defense is knowledge.” The quote summarizes how and why events and discussions can change the course of history. By delving into something that people are unsure of the people in society can lead to great strides of progress and create a more equal and fair opportunity for all.
The main focus of this paper is to talk about That Deaf Guy and, in this web comic, two of the most known characters are Matt and Kay Daigle. Matt and Kay are assumed to be in a closed, heteronormative relationship and have a child together. While the views they hold are not explicitly stated, one can argue that Matt and Kay are fighting to introduce a more open conversation that involves many facets in society. Intersectionality is quite an important topic, yet can be a lot to unpack, as it involves race, class, gender, and many aspects of a person’s life. When Matt and Kay write about their life in particular and the experiences they have with people ignorant of what is considered appropriate when interacting with someone who is deaf, they give the readers the capability to think more critically about how this kind of consideration can apply to other marginalized experiences and identities.
Questions such as, “If given the opportunity, would you choose to be deaf?” might come up more often; it is shown in both That Deaf Guy and out in the world that many Disabled people find it to be quite upsetting—namely, the question underscores that some able-bodied individuals still view disability as a burden. However, people would be more cautious to ask the question, “Would you choose to be white?” to a Person of Color. Matt and Kay highlight this very point and show how questions like the ones above are rude and can create a feeling of oppressor and suppressed within able-bodied and Disabled people, respectively. Within the comics, there seems to be a focus on deaf culture and how the Daigles go about their business in the world. Although not much is known about them, there is knowledge of how they met, which can help provide greater insight to why they started writing a graphic memoir in a web comic form, and their humoristic approach to it.
Matt and Kay first met at a Deaf/hearing touring company13 and are quite comedic, as shown in their presentation at the 2016 “Cripping” the Comic Con at Syracuse University.14 As demonstrated in many of their comic slides, Matt and Kay take a learning and comedic approach to some of the misconceptions or ignorant questions they get asked. While such examples occur in multiple comic slides, the one that sums up my explanation are the “Do’s and Don’ts” of That Deaf Guy. It is clear that although Matt may be annoyed at some of these interactions, he shows a calm and collective expression, which gives the readers the impression of understanding on his part. Matt and Kay’s comedic experience allows them both to take a light-hearted approach to some of the more serious topics and allow these illustrations to be learning moments, something relatable, or a way to think about deaf culture in a new perspective without a way of feeling uncomfortable. Most, if not all of, That Deaf Guy is humorous and light-hearted, and mimics a cartoon one would find in the comics section of a newspaper. This approach is important, as it addresses complex bioethical dilemmas–such as the pervasive question, “are disabled people normal?”–in a witty and fun way that excludes the heavy emotional toll it may bring on readers. This matter brings me to the next topic: the use of images to describe what is going on and, more importantly, to express emotions that the characters have during one specific event.
There are many instances where the use of imagery helps the audience understand more of Matt and Kay’s specific experience in their life. In almost every comic I have read, there seems to be no negative emotion or troubling expressions, as shown by smiles on Matt and/or Kay’s face(s), laughing, or any other positive or neutral facial expression. This nuance is quite important, as it shows how the husband and wife duo go about their day and their lighthearted approach to their situations.
Matt and Kay Daigle appear to be quite proud of their identities and being a bilingual family. Like many things, disability is not a black and white subject, and although deafness is considered a disability, federally speaking, in the social aspect, one could argue this point for days. Importantly, some individuals do not consider being deaf to be in any way disabling. In the case of Matt and Kay, their view is not shown directly; the audience can conjecture that the parents (Matt and Kay), along with their child, are quite content with the way they live. As Figure 2 suggests, Matt and Kay’s son is quite discontented, as he WANTS to be deaf, just like his father. This scene, in my opinion, “speaks much louder” than anything in the graphic memoir as a web comic, as it expresses the pride that Matt’s son has of his dad. He looks up to Matt Daigle and hopes to be like him, which provides significant evidence that their family is proud, and, in their own way, “normal,” as Matt’s son believes being deaf is a part of life.
Image Description: Kay and her son are having a conversation during which her son is explaining to Kay how he wishes to be deaf. Kay replies, “I KNOW HONEY, BUT THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS.” Matt steps in and asks what is going on. At this point, Matt and Kay’s son looks upset and Kay responds to Matt by saying their son wishes he would be deaf like Matt when he will be older.
- McQuillan, G. (n.d.). The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. Retrieved May 3, 2020, from http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-1/considering-ethical-questions-in-nonfiction-reading-and-writing-about-graphic-novels/.
- Linton, S. Reclamation. In Claiming disability: Knowledge and Identity. Retrieved May 5, 2020.
- DK Pub. (2003). DK illustrated Oxford dictionary. London.
- Study Shows Ex-offenders Have Greatly Reduced Employment Rates: Prison Legal News. (2011, December 15). Retrieved May 1, 2020, from https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2011/dec/15/study-shows-ex-offenders-have-greatly-reduced-employment-rates/.
- Daigle, M. (2016, March 24). That Deaf Guy – 03/02/2010. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from http://www.thatdeafguy.com/?p=102.
- Brown, M. Duncan, R. and Smith, M. (n.d.). More Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods. Retrieved May 3, 2020
- What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? (2020, May 6). Retrieved April 29, 2020, from https://adata.org/learn-about-ada
- Block, L. (n.d.). On the Image of Disability. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/programs/disability/ba_shows.dir/children.dir/highlights/stereot.html
- Benham, J. (2016). Reframing Disabled Masculinity: Xavier as Marvels Supercrip. Retrieved April 29, 2020.
- Disability Benefits Help. Filing for Social Security Disability with Hearing Loss Available at: https://www.disability-benefits-help.org/disabling-conditions/hearing-loss-and-social-security-disability. (Accessed: 29th April 2020)
- Daigle, M. (2016, March 24). That Deaf Guy – 03/02/2010. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from http://www.thatdeafguy.com/?p=102
- A Brief History of the Disability Rights Movement. Anti-Defamation League Available at: https://www.adl.org/education/resources/backgrounders/disability-rights-movement. (Accessed: 29th April 2020)
- Kimmery, K. (2020, April 8). Start ASL. Retrieved May 2, 2020, from https://www.startasl.com/matt-and-kay-daigle/
- 2016 Symposium Schedule. (n.d.). Retrieved May 2, 2020, from https://crippingthecon.com/2016-symposium-schedule/
About the Author
Diego Luna is currently a junior studying Biotechnology at Syracuse University. He is pursuing a career as a medical doctor and has a passion for social justice and bringing unrepresented groups to light through activism. Currently, Diego is conducting research at the Althoff Lab at Syracuse University looking at species interactions and the driving factors of said interactions. His hobbies include reading, being in the great outdoors, and catching up on popular Netflix original shows. Diego Luna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.