Since she first entered the workforce as a senior in high school, Kaylah Vogt has had to fight to get fair treatment. As a person with deafness, she has faced “systematic employment discrimination and dead-end career paths.” This Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH) student is on a mission to make the world a better place for people like her.
Kaylah was denied her first real job at a drugstore because she couldn’t answer the phones. “Looking back, I realized that was a case of unlawful discrimination, because a reasonable accommodation could have been made,” she says.
She was eventually hired by a different manager but was discouraged from becoming a pharmacy technician. “Their training videos did not have closed captioning, and they threw me out there without sufficient training.”
Kaylah worked for five different companies after that. When the pandemic hit, she applied for an entry-level position at a hospital. “I was hired on the spot through the phone (video relay service with an American Sign Language, or ASL, interpreter). After I self-identified as an individual with deafness and requested a reasonable accommodation, I was fired instantly without their further attempt to work with me,” she says.
“This time, I took legal action... Ultimately, it affected my career choices and how I navigate the world.”
Driven to carve a space for herself, Kaylah began taking different courses to “explore and establish” her place in the world. She studied psychology, social work, criminal justice, and sociology, knowing that she wanted to eventually attend graduate school for mental health counseling.
But it was through art that Kaylah found an outlet for expression. Although she was interested in the social sciences, she finally picked art as her major. Art, she says, was a way that allowed her “to make sense of the world.”
But Kaylah still has to work to be understood. “My main struggle has always been attempting to express myself in ASL and bottling up my emotions when people suppress ASL. Oftentimes, I feel people may see me, but they do not know me. I compensate by having a strong and opinionated voice to ensure I am being heard.”
That voice was heard very publicly when Kaylah called out an advertising agency in Minneapolis earlier this year for appropriating ASL. “They hired a hearing designer to create a poster of the IRLY (I Really Love You) hand symbol,” she says. The project should have been awarded to a Deaf artist “because American Sign Language belongs to the Deaf community.”
Kaylah proposed that they replace the poster with one created by a Deaf designer. The agency did take the poster down, but the effects linger. “We have to live with the ramifications of the poster and their exploitation of the Deaf community,” she says.
Healing and Empowering
Kaylah recently founded a nonprofit organization called Healing Signs that will provide mental health services, including art therapy, for the Deaf/HH (hard of hearing) community. She is currently working on acquiring 501(c)(3) status.
“Deaf/HH people deserve to find a therapist (that’s the) best fit for them and to have the option of therapists.”
The name has multiple meanings, she explains: “to recognize signs of healing and (to provide) American Sign Language based therapy for Deaf/HH clients.” Services would be offered in person and remotely based on client preference. It would provide therapists who specialize in trauma, addiction, co-occurring disorders, family, marriage, existential crises, grief/loss, and other issues.
She would encourage Deaf therapists and social workers who identify as BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ to join Healing Signs. “Deaf/HH people deserve to find a therapist [that’s the] best fit for them and to have the option of therapists.”
The organization’s main mission, Kaylah says, would be to “heal and empower the Deaf/HH community to live their truths in the hearing world. This is the way I can live a meaningful and fulfilling life.”
Kaylah herself has a Deaf therapist, who has helped her recognize that she is not helpless during this time of increased trauma for Deaf people—communication barriers, employers using the pandemic as an excuse to discriminate, and feelings of abandonment. “It’s quite the opposite,” she says. “I am humbled by the discovery of my power.”
This discovery has led her to start a novel called Becoming Me. It tells the story of a Deaf woman who overpowers technology and unites humanity by designing a virus using her body’s biology. The virus heals the sick and creates world peace, but it comes with a price: becoming deaf.
The book focuses on challenging the socially constructed definitions of disability and power. “Writing this novel is a way for me to preserve memories of my life during a traumatic era.”
All photos courtesy of Kaylah Vogt.