How Not To Be A Dick To A Deaf Person

Don't whisper. Also don't shout. And if you... speak... like... this... I will punch you.
Publish date:
May 29, 2013
relationships, disability, etiquette, how not to be a dick, deaf, hearing

I was never very good at advocating for myself.

Ever since my hearing mysteriously started dropping in elementary school, I’ve been coached on how to speak up for what I need. I need you to wear this FM system, I need you to speak up, I need you to face me, I need you repeat that. I hated it.

I was always the shy kid who’d rather be invisible in the corner with just her book for company. I hated being in the spotlight.

Now, however, I’m a grown-up (sort of!). I’ve had almost two decades of putting up with bullshit when it comes to people trying and failing to figure out how to handle my hearing loss. I no longer have any problem with being frank about what’s helpful and what’s just plain dickish. If you have a deaf or hard of hearing friend/loved one/brand new acquaintance, maybe keep the following in mind.

Don’t apologize when I tell you about my hearing loss.

One of the biggest reasons why I hesitate to tell new acquaintances about my hearing loss is that so many people exclaim “Oh, I’m so sorry!” I just smile and assure them that their apology is not necessary. Nobody wants to be pitied, and honestly, my hearing loss is something I only think of when it inconveniences me. I don’t spend all day in bed sobbing, wishing for a normal life with hearing. My life is pretty normal as is. Not being able to hear a lot of things can be super annoying, but having you pity me is even more annoying. It’s not life threatening; I’ll be okay.

Don’t immediately start signing to me, either.

I get it; you learned sign language ages ago and never get a chance to use it. Naturally when you meet me, you’re excited to have someone to sign with. However, not every deaf or hard of hearing person signs. Many, like myself, prefer to rely on reading lips. I do know some sign language, and if you ask me, I’d be happy to try having a conversation with you in sign. Randomly breaking into rapid ASL the moment I tell you that I’m hearing impaired is just going to exclude everyone else and make me feel awkward.

Don’t box me into the deaf girl label.

That’s all I was in high school, possibly because of a former best friend and an older brother who would introduce me to everyone as, “This is Kelly, she’s deaf.” With that information, most people assumed I was totally deaf and didn’t even try to talk to me. It’s no surprise that I practically kept it a secret in college. I was tired of being defined by something that, in my eyes, has almost nothing to do with me as a person. I write, I paint, I’m a bookworm, I’m addicted to a million TV shows, I love fashion and I buy too many shoes. Yes, I need to read your lips, and you need to wear glasses. Moving on.

Don’t mute your voice to see how well I can read your lips.

People love to do this. My eight year old sister especially thinks it’s the most hilarious game ever. I indulge her... because she’s eight. If you are over the age of eight, please do not do this to me. Yes, I am very skilled at reading lips, having been forced to rely on it all my life. No, I am not going to be able to catch everything without some sound (only 30% of English is visible on the lips) and it will only piss me off. It’s not a party trick for me. Use your voice. I need every bit of sound that I can get.

Don’t insist I join you for a movie without subtitles to “just enjoy the visuals.”

My dad said that. I was pissed. Without subtitles, I’m lucky if I manage to catch one line of dialogue in a movie. It’s like going to a foreign film without subtitles. Why pay money to do that to yourself? I knew my boyfriend was a keeper when he refused to see movies without me when they weren’t captioned. Solidarity!

On a similar note, don’t make a big deal out of having to put captions on the TV. This has never happened to me personally but apparently there are still some really big dicks out in the world.

Don’t say “Nevermind,” when I don’t hear you.

This drives deaf and hard of hearing people crazy and it happens so often because it’s so easy to do. I know it is, because I once did it myself to my deaf friend and she called me out on it. I was ashamed, because I hate when people do it to me. I know it’s annoying to have to repeat yourself, and it probably was just some offhand remark that you find yourself regretting when asked to say it twice. But everyone else got to hear it; don’t exclude me. At the very least, paraphrase it.

Don’t whisper. Also don’t shout.

Duh, I can’t hear whispering (and I work in a library! The cruel irony). Shouting is just going to annoy me and everyone near us, and it doesn’t make it any easier for me to understand speech. For me, at least, it’s much more of a clarity issue than a volume issue. Just try to speak in a normal volume (if I need you to speak up more, I’ll ask!) and a little more slowly if you’re a fast talker. For the love of God, if you... speak... like... this... I will punch you.

Don’t talk about me to others right in front of my face because you think I won’t hear you.

I’ve had both friends and family do this to me. Friends usually do it in a jokey way. My siblings have totally done it in a mean-spirited way. Either way, I can usually tell you’re doing it even I don’t hear exactly what was said. If you want to make a gentle joke about me, please make sure to include me in the joke so you’re laughing with me, not at me. If you want to call me a bitch, do it to my face.

My only solace when this happens is that 1. they usually end up looking like a dick for taking advantage of someone’s disability and 2. I occasionally DO hear the remark and then I get to surprise them with an unexpected retort. (“Wait, have you been LYING about being deaf?” Yes. Idiot.)

Don’t judge my choices.

I no longer get any use out of hearing aids, and have spent a considerable amount of time deciding not to get a cochlear implant because it would eradicate my remaining hearing. If I ever lose all my hearing, I’ll get one then. But for now, I have made my (very difficult) decision. My family, friends and boyfriend accept and respect it and I hope you will too.

Also keep in mind that many Deaf people consider their lack of hearing a way of life and an integral part of who they are, not a disability that needs to be “fixed.”

Finally, DO ask me about my hearing loss.

A lot of the things on this list are caused by assumptions or ignorance. We all want to avoid awkwardness and hurt feelings. The best way to do that is to be upfront. When I tell people about my hearing loss, I usually try to explain it as quickly and matter of factly as possible (to avoid #1).

You’ll probably still have a lot of questions about what I can and can’t hear. Just ask me! I actually enjoy discussing my hearing loss, because it can be really interesting. Every deaf, Deaf, and hard of hearing person is different and has their own preferences, needs, and stories. Get to know us.