Intimacy. Ugh. The very word makes average guys like myself squirm. We’d rather spit, scratch and hold burping contests
instead of talking about our feelings. Oh, please. Guys just don’t go there. Quit yapping and throw me another
bag of potato chips -- the game is on.
But as a deaf guy who’s been left in the dark countless times, I have to suck in my pride and admit that, um, yeah, I do
indeed, um, feel closer to certain people in my life because we can, um, communicate.
And to effectively communicate, you need to understand what your friends are saying. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,
then, to figure out that for many deaf people, sign language is the key to communicating.
I bring this up is because of a wry comment that caught my attention in a discussion group. Someone said that speech is
most important because you need it to communicate with 99.9 percent of the population.
Good point, but what defines meaningful communication? There once was a time when I communicated reasonably well
without sign language. Most of my hearing friends and classmates didn’t sign, but at the time I thought we communicated
In retrospect, I realize that the best conversations, the ones of the whoa, that’s deep variety, occurred with the
three or four friends who could sign.
And at a recent workshop for deaf and hard of hearing children, one of the kids amazed me with a sobering confession.
A clever 12-year old boy with excellent speech skills summed up his strategy for family events:
“I say hello,” the boy said. “And then run!”
I asked him what he meant by “run.” He explained that he would walk up to a group of hearing relatives, make polite
conversation, and then move on to another group before the conversation went beyond “How are you,” “How’s the family,”
and “How’s school.”
He was an expert at lip-reading superficial conversation because he knew what to look for. But he also knew that if anyone
changed the subject, he would have been like a deer stuck in headlights. So he took control, mastered the art of how-do-ya-do,
and moved on. This kid definitely has a future in politics. He might not understand what people are saying, but he sure knows
how to work a room.
“But isn’t that exhausting?” I asked, knowing all too well how I’d done the same thing when I was a kid.
“Yeah,” said the boy, while several other kids nodded affirmatively. “Sometimes I sneak out and go to my room to play
Nintendo for a while.”
Do we call this effective communication? Not in my book. I call it Survival Skills of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. We do
what we do to get by. But getting back to my original point: What about intimate relationships?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It wasn’t until I found my niche in the deaf community when I learned how to really
connect with people on a different level. Conversations suddenly became deeper, more meaningful.
Furthermore, with sign language it’s easy to become immersed in group conversations. Years ago, when a group of hearing
friends burst out in laughter, I would either ignore it and smile along like an idiot, or ask a trusted friend to repeat what was
said. He would usually comply but it was not the same. I was playing catch-up. The moment itself was gone. Or, as the
notoriously famous deaf quote goes, “Train gone.”
You simply can’t take those magic, spontaneous moments and recreate them. It just doesn’t work when you say, “Hold it,
everyone say that all over again slowly for the deaf guy.” There's a natural flow to deep, intimate conversations. They just
happen, and you’re either fully involved in the moment or you’re not. It’s a spiritual aspect of our lives that is often overlooked
but essential to all of us.
It may very well be true that 99.9 percent of the world uses speech (I don’t know what the actual percentage is. I'm just
humoring whoever came up with 99.9 percent). There’s nothing wrong with deaf people using speech if they have the
ability, nothing wrong with doing our part to meet hearing people halfway. And if not with speech, then with pen and paper,
gesturing, interpreters, and so on. Whatever works.
But the fact of the matter is, it’s that signing .1 percent which allows many of us to learn about ourselves and connect with
others on a much deeper level. Certainly, the larger 99.9 percent is a huge rock that dwarfs the remaining .1 percent. But
it is bigger only in terms of size. The remaining .1 percent is a finely cut diamond that has all the value and beauty in the
world. I think we all deserve that .1 percent.