Here at We ❤️ Health Literacy Headquarters, we’ve been thinking a lot about disability and communication. And we’ve just come across a book that captures those themes perfectly. In today’s edition of We ❤️ Health Literacy Book Club, we’re exploring a must-read novel: True Biz by Sara Nović.
True Biz follows a diverse cast of characters at the River Valley School for the Deaf. We meet Charlie, a new student who’s never met another Deaf person before; Austin, a popular teenage boy from a Deaf family; and February, the school’s headmistress and a child of Deaf adults (CODA). When the local superintendent decides to close River Valley, Charlie, Austin, and February must decide how far they’re willing to go to save their school.
True Biz is a fascinating introduction to Deaf culture and activism. With short, easy-to-digest lessons between chapters, readers learn about American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf history alongside the characters. And we discovered a few lessons that apply to our work as health communicators, too!
Give people tools to advocate for themselves. Growing up, Charlie always struggled to understand conversations with her doctor. At River Valley, Charlie learns that she can ask for a medical interpreter at the doctor’s office. This simple accommodation allows Charlie to learn more about her health, advocate for herself, and take control of her care. As health communicators, we can foster self-advocacy by letting people know what accommodations are available and how to access them. This might look like educating people about their right to a medical interpreter, informing hospital visitors about accessible seating and quiet rooms, or clearly labeling accessibility features on a website.
Consider historical context. Did you know that the inventor Alexander Graham Bell played a key role in the early days of deaf education? Did you know he promoted oralism — a philosophy that pushed Deaf children to learn spoken English instead of ASL, denying them access to a shared language and culture? We didn’t!
When you’re writing about a specific disability, it’s helpful to understand historical events that have affected the community and to consider how your messages may fit into that context. As the old saying goes, if we don’t know history, we’re doomed to repeat it — or, when it comes to health comm, we’re likely to write something that will alienate our audience.
Understand that people may disagree about treatment. In True Biz, cochlear implants create conflict between Deaf teens Charlie and Austin and their parents. In many cases, parents of children with disabilities must make big treatment decisions before their kids are old enough to give consent. Last year, parents of children with dwarfism faced a difficult decision when a breakthrough drug came to market — a treatment that could help their kids grow a few extra inches. Medical advances like these often spark big questions about disability and identity. Where’s the line between helping a child thrive and helping the child assimilate into a society designed for nondisabled people?
Even within disability communities, people may disagree on what treatment options are helpful or harmful — or what conditions should be treated at all. So when you’re writing about these emotionally charged topics, take time to learn about different points of view. Which brings us to…
Learn from the experts. Throughout the novel, hearing people impose their own ideas on Deaf people without taking time to learn from the Deaf community — or simply ask Deaf people what they need. When you’re communicating about disability, seeking out community-led organizations (like the National Association of the Deaf) and reading books by authors who share that disabled experience (like True Biz!) is a great way to learn. And be sure to get input from your priority audience, even if there’s not much room in your budget.
The bottom line: True Biz is a fascinating introduction to Deaf culture — and it’s full of lessons for health communicators!
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