Deaf Chicago Artist Bridges Sign Language and Art Online

“It’s not very well-made,” said Quinn West, grinning down at their first photography book, displaying black-and-white photos desperately bound in a half-inch black binder. “For a lot of us in class, it was our first time making a book.” They leafed through pages textured with braille, which West learned in the process of creating the inaccessible book for abled people.

Visual communication can mean myriad things, but for West, it’s a manifestation of two of the most important corners of their identity: American Sign Language and art.

The 24-year-old Deaf visual artist is constantly finding ways to empower and express the intricacies of disability through their work. One of these ways happens to be social media, where West uses their platforms to promote their art and connect with their various communities.

Although Chicago has been home to them for over two decades, West’s roots extend across the Pacific. Originally from China, they were adopted as an infant and brought to Illinois, growing up as a transracial adoptee in a white family.

“It’s a really interesting situation because I experienced a lot of racism, but my parents didn’t know about it and didn’t know how to teach about it,” West said.

However, race didn’t serve to be the only disconnect in West’s early life. They were also mainstreamed, a Deaf community term to describe someone who attended majority hearing schools instead of Deaf schools, where the primary mode of instruction is sign– in the United States specifically, American Sign Language.

For many, mainstreaming goes hand in hand with language deprivation. Language deprivation occurs when Deaf and hard-of-hearing children don’t receive accessible language exposure during critical early development periods, but this circumstance also often extends into late childhood and adolescence. More than 90 percent of Deaf children are born into hearing families, making this phenomenon everything but a head-turner in the Deaf community. Hearing parents often cling to dreams of their baby’s first spoken words, wasting what could be fruitful exposure time to manual and visual communication, something much more attainable for Deaf infants.

With an absence of sign language in their everyday life, West didn’t establish a deeper connection with their deafness until they began attending Deaf camp. Across the U.S. alone exist hundreds of Deaf camps, immersing Deaf and hard-of-hearing children and young adults in their identity and providing the opportunity to discover what it means for them.

“[Deaf camp] is where I was really introduced to Deaf culture, and learned to sign. It’s the reason I got involved with Deaf culture to begin with,” West said.

Carrying this new connection through their adolescence, West’s Deaf identity eventually collided with their artistic self-discovery, leading them to pursue a Media Arts degree at Northern Illinois University. Very quickly, their undergraduate studies emerged as the arena where they would conceptualize themes of ableism through various media.

“I’ve always been an artist and a very creative person. I had some concepts in mind regarding ableism and that part of my life as a disabled person… it’s not something that you see a lot, generally. It’s a real injustice that I don’t think people talk about enough, so with my art I’m trying to provide some representation in that area.”

West recognizes a photographic series, “All Push, No Pull”, as their most personal piece to date. In one photo, a young Deaf girl in speech therapy– in the next photo, the same girl timidly looks away from the camera, revealing a cochlear implant resting on her right ear. West spent a semester mentoring and photographing Deaf children to show what language deprivation looks like in practice.

A young Deaf girl works with a speech therapist. / Photo: Quinn West

“Working with kids, I was really able to create those bonds that would allow them to trust me. I spent a lot of time that semester with them, just hanging out, talking, signing. I felt a real connection with that project because the concept was so close to me to begin with.”

Even as a mentor, their Deaf journey continued to evolve well into their adulthood: at the age of 20, they received bilateral cochlear implants. The procedure imbeds electronic devices that stimulate the auditory nerve, mainly serving individuals who no longer benefit from hearing aids or who wish to enhance any levels of hearing already present.

Upon getting the implants, however, West was made privy to the existing controversy and discourse around cochlear implants, which continue to cause doubt in many Deaf individuals’ self-image.

“It was tough because there were people that would say, ‘If you choose a cochlear implant, then you’re not Deaf,’ so there are issues there within the Deaf community,” West explained.

However, succumbing to negativity and external analyses of their identity was not an option– West found a way to use their art to embrace their CI not just for themselves, but for CI users everywhere. On January 25, they uploaded a video to TikTok, the popular short video app, explaining how they make their CI truly theirs.

“Growing up Deaf, I always wished hearing aid and cochlear implant companies didn’t focus on hiding your devices,” West said, pulling from an envelope a sheet of multi-patterned cochlear implant skins that they had designed, contrasting the plain CI device aside them. 

“I made my small business to combat feeding into the shame of hiding accessibility devices… I don’t think people should ever have to feel they need to hide who they are.”

West said that they initially intended to just create something for themselves, citing a “selfish” venture, but once they discovered that there were no skins widely available for their specific, relatively-new device, they felt a calling to amplify their artistic support on Deaf issues from conceptual to practical. They operate an Etsy shop under ‘DazzlingDeaf’, selling skins, stickers, and even downloadable SVG file templates so that other artists can customize skins with their own designs.

The TikTok promoting the small business has reached over 16,000 views, with almost 8,000 likes and hundreds of comments in support and inquiring where to buy the skins. It was especially unexpected for West because they had barely been posting on the app for a week.

West produces colorful designs to brighten up what would otherwise be an unadorned device. / Photo: DazzlingDeaf on Facebook

They then took to Twitter, showing their humorous side on the issue while directly addressing Cochlear Americas, a popular cochlear implant company in the U.S.

“@CochlearUS your devices work great but your color selection is shit. No thank you i do not want a piece of beige machinery on my head. Make me look cool like the old 90s clear phones or like not something that looks ugly. ok thanx,” West wrote.

For them, social media exists not solely as a business tool, but rather a community tool as well. Since they joined Twitter in 2018, they’ve grown an audience of over 2,400 followers by spreading and endorsing information from the Deaf community and the adoptee community, all the while doing so with a light-hearted sense of humor and pictures of their cats.

“Twitter is a little bit strange. I started it as just a personal account, and now it’s slowly becoming an activist account, so that’s interesting,” they laughed. “It really helps me not to feel alone. My roommate is hearing, my family is hearing… with social media, it’s kinda more accessible for Deaf people in general. I can communicate with hearing people who don’t sign.”

With COVID-19 following the world into the new year, it’s no surprise that social media use has continued to skyrocket for Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing people alike. There’s not much of a community in their immediate area, West said, so online connections have proved crucial to enduring times like these.

As West navigates the internet and the world as a young Deaf artist, the journey that brought them to present days foretells an adventure for what lies ahead. Opposite to the black-and-white pages of that same poorly bound photo book, they’ve demonstrated with the evolution of their Deaf identity that shades of gray are valid as ever.

Cover photo courtesy of Quinn West.

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