A couple of weeks ago I had a fever and sore throat that left me with laryngitis.  I lost my voice completely for two days and spent three additional days making no sounds at all in order to get it back.  In the meantime, I learned just a tiny bit about how people respond to the deaf.

Disclaimer: I’m sure that deaf people handle these situations with much more grace than I.  And I’m not claiming in the slightest that I know what it’s like to be deaf.  But other people thought I was deaf, and that’s where things got interesting.  (If I make any insensitive steps, please let me know.)

When I would approach someone and either hand them a note or point to my throat and shake my head, I would get a range of responses.

  • First, humorously, many people would go correspondingly mute.  I would write a note and their lips would squeeze tightly together, almost like they were trying to forcibly hold back sound.  They would assume that I couldn’t hear and I guess it didn’t occur to them that I could read lips. So I would write “Giant diet coke, please” and they would clam up and get me the soda, but then they wouldn’t say “Here you go” or “Have a nice day” or any of the other niceties that pepper daily life.
  • Second, I was shocked to discover that people would, in no uncertain terms, express pity.  They would say “Oh I’m so sorry for you!” or “That’s so sad!”  Deaf people are not necessarily sad about not being able to hear and many are deeply proud of their unique culture.  But many hearing people pity the deaf and apparently they are not afraid to say so to your face!
  • Finally, I encountered the classic reaction where people would just say what they wanted to say to me, but louder and with extra enunciation.  As if that would work if I were deaf!  I think, too, that in some of these cases they assumed I was mentally challenged.

In all, I was surprised to discover just how uncomfortable people were with the supposedly deaf me.  They were truly unprepared for interacting with a person who they thought couldn’t hear.  In their lack of preparedness and experience, they made all kinds of mis-steps.

These experiences inspired me to look up some humor and I found a comic called That Deaf Guy, written by Matt and Kay Daigle.  Matt is deaf and Kay is a sign language interpreter who can hear.  They have a little boy.  Here are three of the comics that illustrate how people react to Matt’s lack of hearing:

1 2 3

Matt and Kay’s comic is a nice window onto life as/with a deaf person and it was interesting for me to get a peek into what some deaf people might experience sometimes.

Hat tip to my friend Robb, whose therapeutic silence and similar observations preceded mine.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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