Deaf & Sober by Betty G. Miller

Best known as a Deaf artist who was a leader of the De’VIA movement, Betty G. Miller (she/her) has created wonderful art capturing the Deaf experience, both joyful and negative. When I Googled her to see if there was more information about her life and work in a book, I found Deaf & Sober: Journeys Through Recovery. Thinking it would be a memoir about her life in relation to addiction, I went in ready for a narrative. Instead, I got an instructional, informational book about the D/deaf community and sobriety. Miller, a Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor, had worked as an addiction counselor for twenty years at the time of publication (1990).

Because I had gone in thinking Miller’s book would be a memoir, it was slow going at first. I had to change mental gears. She describes who D/deaf substance abusers are, the impact Deaf culture has on rehabilitation, types of treatment and aftercare programs, the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), problems with interpreters, what U.S. disability law says about AA/NA situations, and how family and friends react to D/deaf people in treatment.

Some of the interesting aspects to me were the relationship between interpreters and D/deaf people in recovery. For example, if a volunteer network of interpreters show up to AA/NA meetings, they may be more unreliable because they aren’t being paid. What if they don’t show? What if they come late? And what does it mean for other interpreters who see interpreting as a profession (like doctors, lawyers, etc.) that shouldn’t include free services in the name of “helping those poor Deaf people”?

If an interpreter is paid, who pays them? I learned that AA was designed purposely to make each group its own thing. They do not have a spokesperson or national organization leading everyone. Each individual group must be self-sustaining. For this reason, United States disability law (Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA) does not apply to AA/NA. Thus, the group is not required to pay for an interpreter; the D/deaf person in recovery is responsible for doing so unless he/she can convince the group that it is to all members’ benefit to chip in. The only exception is if the AA or NA meeting takes place in a hospital or recovery center, where ADA law applies. Hearing people may argue they shouldn’t have to create access for D/deaf people, and when one Deaf AA member in the book sought out a lawyer for advice, the response was there are no legal protections. However, the lawyer emphasized that one of the tenants of AA is to give mutual support and help each other.

Should an AA or NA group get a newer interpreter, young in his/her career, confusion and mistakes may happen, especially among a group of people with traumatizing stories and a lot of emotion. Between all the words is also the cultural mediation an interpreter must do. For instance, “if you don’t mind” in Deaf culture is answered “yes.” They interpret the statement as “are you able to?” In contrast, English speakers answer “no,” with the implied “I don’t mind.” These are cultural differences that must be navigated by a good interpreter.

Because the focus is recovery and Deaf culture may challenge the process, Miller recommends three rules D/deaf addicts in a mixed group with hearing people should keep in mind: “1) The goal of the meeting is to stay sober and help others to achieve sobriety; 2) There will be no judgement nor discussion about Deaf culture or deafness in meetings, and; 3) Confidentiality will be rigorously observed to ensure privacy in the small d/Deaf world.” Miller’s suggested rules surprised me. I trust her wisdom, both as an addiction counselor and a Deaf woman.

Yet I wondered about recovery without culture — the stuff that makes up a person. Perhaps she means that when it comes to choosing an AA or NA group, culture can’t play a role in that decision? For instance, in Deaf culture people want to know who you know, what kind of school you went to (school for the deaf or mainstream), they care about cultural differences among races, and also engage in “Deaf gossip.” The community is so small, and information doesn’t get to D/deaf people the same way it does hearing folks, so part of the culture is to share everything they know. What if a Deaf person wants to become sober, but fears the community will find out? Miller wrote extensively about how the Deaf community does not expect someone in AA or NA to actually change (again, the book was published in 1990 and lots may have changed).

Although Deaf & Sober is more an educational book than entertaining or emotional, it clearly explains the cultural and financial difficulties of addiction recovery while D/deaf, and I learned a great deal. The most enlightening section was where Miller breaks down the 12 Steps of AA and how you cannot interpret word-for-word due to cultural differences. In the appendix, she submits her own translated version for D/deaf people.

CW: Self-injurious behavior (addiction).

19 comments

  1. I wonder if Miller is the only authority on AA and Deaf culture. You say D/deaf but it would seem to me that deaf people might wish to engage with AA in the ‘usual’ way. Your review makes one think about AA and other small cultures, or for that matter, small towns, where it must be very difficult to keep attendance secret. And surely at least one person goes home and tells their spouse what was said.

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    • Of course no one is the one authority on AA and Deaf culture, but she has an insider’s perspective as both a Deaf woman and an addiction counselor. It will also change depending on where she is. Bigger cities, she writes, tend to have more D/deaf people who need services, whereas small towns may only have one person. Enough people could have their own group, but that doesn’t change that the sober folks in the Deaf community already have opinions about people they know struggle with addiction, and knowing an addict is in a group doesn’t change the community’s perspective, according to this book. I’m not quite sure what you mean by the “usual way.” Perhaps you mean a group of hearing people? That comes back to interpreting services. They get very little out of a meeting that isn’t interpreted, but the book describes how some addicts attend meetings 5-6 times per week, while Deaf folks may be able to get to an interpreted meeting 1-2 times per week.

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      • By usual, I meant without an interpreter, by lipreading, ‘passing’, as deaf people often seem (or are forced) to do. But as you say, “They get very little out of a meeting that isn’t interpreted”.

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  2. This sounds really informative. I read the rule about not engaging with d/Deaf culture within the meeting as a way to shield that person from a (presumably) hearing group that may want to form opinions on how being d/Deaf intersects with addiction. But it does seem hard to completely separate the two.

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    • I think that maybe the rule is meant to focus the group on recovery and, for the time, distance themselves from subcultures within Deaf culture, because there are a lot of those. If folks keep dividing, they’re going to have such a harder time in recovery.

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  3. This was super interesting. My husband has been in recovery for over 30 years and has attended his fair share of AA/NA meetings and I have gone to few with him when we started dating. AA/NA is a fascinating animal all on it’s own. I had not thought about what happens for a d/Deaf person, so thank you!

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    • Thank you for sharing your and James’s personal experiences, Stefanie. Historically, Deaf people did not get information until they saw other Deaf people. They would share EVERYTHING because it could be life-saving (“I had that weird more removed! Do you have moles?”) or news about politics or family members, etc. Think about how much information hearing people absorb just standing in a line, whether it’s small talk about the last election or an advertisement on the car radio about a good deal on car tires. Thus, culturally Deaf people are very “gossipy.” I don’t like calling it gossip because we have a mean connotation when we say “gossip.” So, heading to an AA or NA meeting means everyone is going to know, and they’re unlikely to accept that you’ve changed, according to this book.

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  4. This is so interesting. There is a centre for D/deaf people with mental health difficulties in the psychiatric hospital near to me which I’ve visited a fair bit when a friend has been in the eating disorders unit, so I’ve thought a bit about how that extra level of culture and difficulty navigating the world would come into play there, but it’s not struck me about recovery meetings. Thank you for sharing this!

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    • Those both sound excellent! Folks sure live Nyle, and they also enjoy pointing out that his twin, Nico, looks nothing like him (and then they frown because it’s obvious that Nyle is the more traditionally pretty one and feel bad for poor, poor Nico). That family has a bunch of Deaf folks in it.

      Thank you for pointing these out to me!

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  5. Whoa! This is so fascinating. To mine all these different life experiences and see them through the lense of a deaf person is incredibly educational for someone like me who doesn’t have any deaf people in her day-to-day life (except for you now Melanie) 🙂 I so appreciate you reading these books and writing about them, it’s so valuable for me.

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    • Haha, I’m not Deaf, I’m hard of hearing, but I am trying to be a bridge between D/deaf and hearing people, which is a lot of what interpreters do, I am learning. I know some people, Karissa comes to mind, have mentioned that what I write about affects their interactions with others. For instance, Karissa wanted to know how to communicate with a Deaf patron at her bookstore job.

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