We've Come a Long Way, But...

One of my favorite poems of all time is Willard Madsen's You Have to be Deaf to Understand. I'm not really that much of a poetry nut, but this one really strikes home. There have simply been too many incidents where I was left wondering if deaf people would ever be truly understood. Examples of such incidents are:

* A deaf woman requests an interpreter for a traffic court hearing. She gets the 'terp and wins her case, but afterward she is confronted by the policeman who originally ticketed her. Shaking his head disapprovingly, the officer says, “You know, you should learn how to read lips.”

* A deaf patron can't understand the waiter at a restaurant. He mentions that he's deaf. The waiter goes, “Oh, I'm sorry...” and then proceeds to yell in the deaf customer's ear.

* The only deaf person in a large family sits bored out of his mind while hearing relatives (who don't sign) chatter for several hours. When he finally can't tolerate the boredom anymore, he politely excuses himself and begins to leave. Immediately, family members protest and insist he should stay.

* A parent at a deaf social event meets a hard-of-hearing girl who has relatively good speech. In front of her prelingually deaf child, she approaches the girl and says, “Oh, you speak so well!” She turns to her own child and says, “See, if you study hard, you can speak like she can.” The parent then looks for her child's teacher and asks her why she isn't teaching her child how to speak “like that wonderful girl over there.”

* A deaf woman is attending an event with her family, which is a mix of both hearing and deaf people. She is sharing stories of her favorite deaf embarrassing moments. Her top favorite is the one about how she inadvertently set off her car alarm and didn't realize it until after getting funny looks from her neighbors. While deaf relatives howl with laughter at this story, the hearing ones don't find it as amusing. In fact, the woman's hearing mother becomes upset and laments how sad the whole thing is. She wonders out loud if a cochlear implant could have prevented the incident.

* This one has happened many times: A deaf person at an airport or bus terminal informs the attendant that he/she can't hear. Five minutes later, a wheelchair is rolled out for the deaf traveler.

Whether the above stories are amusing or disturbing, one thing remains clear: We need to continue advocating on behalf of deaf awareness. Despite recent trends that have made the deaf community more visible (the Americans with Disabilities Act, widespread availability of interpreters, captioned TV, assistive devices, community events, etc), it doesn't necessarily mean we are fully understood. How can we be? As I’ve pointed out in several past articles, there are so many variations of deafness.

Some deaf people sign fluent ASL, some sign PSE, and some don't sign at all. Some can use speech, some can't. Some communicate by voice on the phone, some need (or prefer) to use a TTY. Some deaf people went to residential schools, some went to mainstream schools. And so on, and so on.

In fact, there is so much diversity in the deaf world these days, so much that deaf people themselves can often be seen arguing amongst each other about various philosophies. ASL vs. oralism, residential schools vs. mainstreaming, it never stops. It's not unusual at all to see deaf people vehemently disagreeing with each other on many deaf-related issues.

What with the many viewpoints of the hard of hearing, deaf, culturally Deaf, late-deafened or hearing, how do we really understand deafness? How do we help others understand deafness? By respecting each other as individuals. By refraining from "you should" statements. By being nonjudgmental. By truly socializing and getting to know each other. By encouraging each other to succeed through whatever means is best for each individual. By striving for more success and having an impact in this world. By celebrating our unique individuality, yet bonding together as a strong community.

Only then, with an open mind, can we truly understand and be understood.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in DeafNation newspaper and later reprinted in the book Anything But Silent.