I'm Deaf and I'm Totally Cool With It, Thanks

I love the feeling of quiet and comfort, and the tight-knit feeling of acceptance I’ve experienced in the Deaf community. But sometimes people just don't get it.
Publish date:
March 30, 2014
acceptance, deaf

I like being deaf. I love the feeling of quiet and comfort I have even while living amid the noise and crowds of New York City. I love sign language, the culture that surrounds it, and the tight-knit feeling of acceptance I’ve experienced in the Deaf community. Most days, deafness feels less like a medical problem and more like being part of a minority culture.

So most days, I like talking to people about it, answering curious kids’ questions about what’s in my ears (hearing aids), or how I wake up in the morning (vibrating wristwatch alarm). I usually don’t even mind that thanks to "Mr. Holland’s Opus," everyone I meet feels the need to show me their approximation of the sign for “bullshit.” But sometimes, people just don't get it. Here's what you can do to be a friend to people like me.

Just call me deaf.

Or hard-of-hearing. These are the preferred terms in the Deaf community. There are different levels of deafness — it’s rarely complete silence — so some people prefer one term over the other, in which case, they’ll tell you. Please don’t call me hearing impaired; I prefer not to focus on what you think is wrong with me. Also don’t do that weird thing where you point to your ear and say, “um, you know, your … problem.” I understand that you feel uncomfortable, but if we need to talk about it, just call me deaf. It’s OK — I already know I can’t hear.

Please do not compliment me for my success in mimicking your idea of normal.

Deaf people communicate in a variety of ways, so you shouldn’t assume that all of us know sign language or can lip-read. On any given day, I use speech, sign language, and written English to communicate. I choose to speak because it makes things easier for you, the hearing person, who usually will not have the patience to converse with me otherwise. That said, I absolutely hate it when people come out with a variant of the compliment, “Oh, but you speak so well!” The problem with this statement is twofold. First, it’s condescending. I don’t want to be praised for acquiescing to society’s idea of how I should speak or sound.

Second, there is a lot of anxiety around speech for deaf people because, well, we can’t hear ourselves. We are nervous enough as it is without having to consider a stranger’s judgment of our skills. A lot of factors go into how “well” we manage to speak, including how old we were when we went deaf, what level of hearing loss we have, time spent in speech therapy, natural proclivities toward spoken and verbal communication, amount of sound funneled into our heads via high-powered hearing aids, etc. Meanwhile, I am working my butt off over here trying to lip-read you while you're moving your head around and stuffing food in your mouth. So don’t pat me on the head when I do a good job. Just stand still and move your hand out of the way so I can see what the heck you’re saying.

Speaking of backhanded compliments…

I’ve been told on multiple occasions that I’m “too cute to be deaf.” I have no idea what this means, but it seems to suggest that you were expecting me to be disfigured. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but apparently you won’t be able to pick me out of a crowd. And didn’t your mother teach you not to judge a book by its cover?

Yes, I’m reading your lips.

Look, I get it. You’ve been taught by movies and TV that lip-reading is some kind of superpower. In reality it’s really difficult, and only about 40-60 percent of what you say is visible on your lips. Try standing in front of a mirror and differentiating between a “B” and a “P” sound. How about “K” and “G”? Nothing, right? Lipreading is mostly guesswork and it is tiring. You can make it easier by facing me and talking normally. Don’t try to test me by speaking without making any sound — it changes the way you shape your words. Don’t exaggerate your lip movements to try to help me out, either; now you just look crazy. And if I miss something, please, please don’t say “never mind.” I’m working hard to understand you, so be patient.

Remember: Deaf and blind are not the same thing.

Some people are blind. Some people are deaf. Some people are deafblind. I’m just deaf, which means I’m not blind. And yet, I’m often asked some iteration of, “Oh, so you read braille?” No. I can see. “Wait, are you allowed to drive a car?” Yes, I can see. How do you drive? And while we’re on the subject, I am “allowed” to do everything you are. Someone once asked me if deaf people are allowed to get married. It took all my willpower not to quip back, I am, but someone should stop you from getting married to prevent the proliferation of that stupid gene!

I might not want to be “fixed,” thanks.

Oh, the Internet. Eternal fount of scientific half-truths. So you saw a YouTube video of a baby getting his cochlear implant activated and it was a joyous miracle. It emboldens you to say, “Why don’t you just get one of those cochlear implant thingeys so you can hear?”

Oh, great idea! I’d never thought about it, but now that it’s been suggested to me by, you, random stranger, I’ll head straight off to the doctor to have a hole drilled in my skull. The decision to get a cochlear implant is complicated by many factors, not least of which include cost and medical history. Many deaf people are not eligible, as the implants are only for sensorineural hearing loss. And for those who do get implanted, CIs do not cure deafness. They provide sound information, yes, but wearers also require extensive auditory verbal therapy to learn how to process those sounds. Even the most successful users do not experience natural hearing. Check out what it sounds like to hear with an implant here.

Cochlear implants are a contentious issue in the Deaf community, and opinions vary. I personally think they’re a fine assistive technology, but the manner in which they’re touted in the hearing world as a miracle cure, a way to make your broken deaf kid “normal,” really gets me. So, in your relationship with a deaf stranger or friend, it’s our job to decide whether or not we want a hole in our head, and it’s your job to be cool with it.

You'd absolutely DIE without music? Thanks for sharing!

Just like in the hearing world, Different deaf people feel differently about music; some could care less, others are really into it. Personally, I like music — I like the feeling of the bass line in my head or the way it vibrates through me when I go out dancing. To me, this comment wrongly assumes that I am at a loss, when really I’m just experiencing music in a way that’s different, and often not so different, to you. But if I was reeling from the fact that I’m missing out on the latest Miley Cyrus track, you rubbing it in would not help.

Please don't suddenly become an advocate of Deaf Esperanto.

Maybe it’s because there are less deaf people in the world. Maybe it’s because people assume that sign language is a series of gestures linked to a spoken language, or a system created by hearing people as their gift to the deaf. Whatever the misconception, I’m often asked, “Why didn’t you guys just create one universal sign language?” For the same reason hearing people didn’t, or rather did, but it flopped.

Because language is a naturally developing entity that cannot be planned and forced upon users. It grows from human interaction, and changes over time. Sign languages have their own grammar, syntax, and slang, completely separate from, and just as complex as, spoken languages. The syntax of American Sign Language (ASL), for example, is closer to Japanese than English. ASL is also different from British and Australian Sign Languages — though the hearing people in those countries all speak the same language — with its closest relation being French Sign Language.

Talking behind my back still sucks.

I know it’s easy. You can literally talk behind my back while I am in the same room, and I will never know. Unless I turn around and you guys have weird looks on your faces. Then we’ll all feel terrible.

I'm absolutely nothing like your aging dog, K?

All dogs, should they live long enough, go deaf. Please do not get excited and inform me that I am deaf like your dog, or that he is deaf like me. I love dogs, but I am a human, so we are not the same.I’m not perfect, and I’m not expecting anyone else to be. So if you do something offensive, just say you’re sorry. Or better yet, sign it.