Let’s clear up some misconceptions about deafness.
More than 35 million people in the U.S. experience some degree of deafness, yet misconceptions abound — possibly because we only occasionally get to see one stereotype of deafness in movies and TV, despite there being so many people with different variations of deafness. (Read more about the differences between Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing here.) I myself am hard of hearing, so allow me to be your ambassador in the exciting world of deafness today. I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but these are the most common myths about deafness that I’ve encountered since I lost my hearing at the age of five.
1. All deaf people know sign language.
I often meet someone only to have them immediately start signing to me. (How did they know? Apparently my deaf accent is even stronger than I thought!) While I appreciate the thoughtfulness behind the gesture, it’s ultimately a misguided assumption because I don’t communicate via sign. Although I learned a little ASL for fun, it’s much easier for me to understand people if they just speak normally to me. If you know ASL and you’re excited to use it with the next deaf person you meet, just ask them if they sign before launching into conversation. And if you don’t know sign language, don’t let that stop you from trying to strike up a conversation anyway; I guarantee they’ll be happy to tell you how best to communicate with them.
2. Reading lips is foolproof.
“Just read my lips!” “Can you read my lips?” “I’m going to mute my voice and you can read my lips to see what I’m saying just for fun!” Nope. Lip-reading is not a party trick, and it isn’t as easy as I make it seem. Only about 30% of speech is visible on the lips. If I make it seem easy, that’s simply because I’ve been forced to rely on it since I was in elementary school, and even then it requires concentration, good lighting and what residual hearing I have left to fill in the blanks. It’s definitely an invaluable skill that I’m grateful to have, but it’s not the superpower that movies and TV shows turn it into. This video is a fascinating look into the realities of lip-reading.
3. Making things louder makes them clearer.
I love cranking up the speakers in my car; I do not love it when people shout in front of my face (nope, not even in a loud bar). Making things louder only makes them louder for me; it does not make them any clearer or easier to understand. So unless I ask you to speak up, you can talk at your normal volume and help us avoid the embarrassment of people staring because you’re shouting at me in the middle of a restaurant.
4. Hearing loss is easily fixed with hearing aids or an implant.
One of the most common questions I get is “Why don’t you just wear hearing aids/get a cochlear implant?” I don’t mind answering this, because for most people it does seem like a logical solution. Keep in mind, however, that every hearing loss is different and everyone has to make the right choice for themselves. Not all hearing losses, like mine, can be helped with hearing aids. Nor do I feel like a cochlear implant is the right choice for me at this time, for reasons that are too long and boring for me to get into with you in the middle of a wedding reception.
Plus, many Deaf people feel that their Deafness is part of their personality and culture and find the idea of “fixing” it with a cochlear implant akin to taking away an integral part of themselves. So this is just a gentle reminder to be careful about interrogating a D/deaf or hard of hearing person about why they haven’t gotten around to fixing their hearing yet.
5. You can’t invite your deaf friend to events like concerts or movies.
I still have enough hearing to be able to enjoy music, and as for movies, I just need to check ahead of time to make sure the theater offers subtitles (most do these days). Even completely deaf people often enjoy the vibrations at concerts. Plus, have you seen the amazing work that sign language interpreters have been doing at concerts? So don’t be afraid to ask your D/deaf or hard of hearing friend to a concert, play, movie, popular (i.e. loud) restaurant, or whatever — just remember they might need to set up accommodations ahead of time.
6. Every deaf person needs the same accommodations.
Every type of deafness is different (is this refrain starting to sound familiar?) so we all need different accommodations, whether it’s an interpreter, subtitles, or simply the quietest corner in the restaurant — and these accommodations can fluctuate with the situation. The only thing that remains constant is my appreciation when people are thoughtful enough to ask me what I need.
7. It’s difficult to accommodate us.
It shouldn’t be! It’s 2017 and technology has never been better. This is more of an issue with corporations than with individuals, but there is no longer an excuse for a D/deaf or hard of hearing person to have to sit through a movie or a play or a concert without subtitles or an interpreter — and that’s not even talking about serious situations when communication is vital, like in a hospital. Accommodation is the law, so never hesitate to demand it for yourself or someone who needs it.
8. Deaf people are less intelligent, socially awkward and even rude.
I’m sure strangers and even acquaintances think I’m rude when I completely ignore their compliment, or they doubt my intelligence when I mispronounce a word as easy as “tortilla.” Once people get to know me, they realize I’m not shy or rude or slow, but I still often get accused of not paying attention or having a “dumb blonde moment.” Whether or not you know they have a hearing loss, try to give people some leeway when they reply to the question “Did you enjoy your meal?” with “No, thanks!” or if they just walk past without answering. And no, I don’t mind if you discreetly correct my pronunciation. I need all the help I can get.
9. We’re so inspiring.
The second-most common response I get after telling people about my hearing loss (after “Oh no, I’m so sorry!” as if I just told them my cat got run over) is that I’m an inspiration. The problem is that I always forget I’m supposed to be inspiring people because I’m too busy being hungover, neglecting my to-do list, forgetting to remove my makeup before bed, watching too much Netflix and basically just being a normal human being who happens to have bad hearing. Not all people who go through something difficult, like a disability or illness, want to take up the mantle of being an inspiration to others. I’m pretty sure most of us just want to be treated like normal people. But if you’re inspired enough to buy me a drink, I guess I could make an exception.