In Honor of ADA at 30 and Jerry Garcia at 78–A Look at DeafDeadheads

Apologies for not posting for a few days due to storm-related power and internet outages.

It is not often that my disabilities inclusion world and my Grateful Dead worlds come together.  Yesterday was a wonderful exception.  Yesterday was August 9th.

Yesterday, I was honored to present and participate in a several hour long webinar on Accessibility and Inclusion for Birthright Israel and Israel Free Spirit.   The 50 plus participants learned about inclusion of people with disabilities, people with various medical issues and people in recovery on Birthright trips.  The participants were delighted to see two ASL interpreters on the Zoom webinar, taking turns interpreting the many sessions of the day.  It is so important that Jewish communal events continue to become more and more accessible.  The Jewish deaf need to feel welcomed and truly belong in our Jewish communities.

Yesterday, I was delighted to learn more about the Deaf Deadheads community!  There has been a lot in the news this first week of August about Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.  Last week was the Daze Between, the days between the August 1, 1942, birthday of legendary Grateful Dead guitarist and singer, Jerry Garcia and the August 9, 1995 date of Jerry’s death of Jerry.  The event, announced by The Jerry Garcia Family and The Rex Foundation, included musical performances and storytelling for nine days!

In honor and in memory of Jerry Garcia, CBS Morning News decided yesterday to rerun a 2017 broadcast of a segment on “Long Strange Trip,” a four-hour documentary about the Grateful Dead.  I loved this movie and wrote about it when it came out for the Jerusalem Post.

I was familiar with most of the things mentioned in the CBS segment–those Deadheads who sat in the PhilZone, those who sat in the Jerry Zone, the Wharf Rats, the Tapers, the Twirlers and more.   I have to say—I had not heard of the Deaf Deadheads!  Of course!  Why shouldn’t people who are deaf also enjoy Jerry, Phil, Bobby, Bill and Mickey (and others like Brent, PigPen, Vince, Donna, Keith—and sometimes Trey and Bruce) as much as the rest of us.

The footage showed deaf people close to the stage, holding balls, and enjoying the music through the vibrations.  When the date of “Fare Thee Well,” the three days of concerts in Chicago celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead, neared, Deaf Deadheads approached concert organizer and major mensch, Peter Shapiro, to ask about a section at the show for people who are deaf.  There was a wonderful Wall Street Journal article reporting on Deaf Deadheads.  It is entitled, “‘Deafheads’ Marked a Milestone of Their Own at Final Grateful Dead Shows.”

It told the story of 40 deaf and hard of hearing fans in a “Deaf Zone,” a gated off area on the stadium floor about 60 yards from the stage.  There were three sign language interpreters, standing on a lit platform, working in rotation, translating the meaning of Dead songs—no easy task given the nature of the lyric!  Some Deafheads held balloons which helped catch sound pulses in the air.

It is amazing that Deafheads got their start in the 1980s—approximately 10 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in July, 1990!  According to the Wall Street Journal article, Deafheads say their cohort emerged in the 1980s in Washington D.C., home to Gallaudet University.  “As they found each other in a pre-Facebook era, they also sought out like-minded interpreters and connected with the Dead’s longtime sound man, Dan Healy, who helped carve out space for them at shows.”

I am pleased that we continue to make strides toward greater inclusion of deaf people at Jewish events and conferences.  I am even more pleased to learn that the Grateful Dead has been including people who are deaf since at least the 1980s!

Looking forward to seeing Deafheads at the next show—once this pandemic passes!

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