We Aren’t Outliers

“You had strong family support.”

“You went to a good school.”

“You got lots of one-on-one time, didn’t you?”

“You were exposed to other cuers.”

Sometimes, when I tell others about what Cued Speech had done for me growing up, someone will mention the above, as if those factors somehow negate or diminish Cued Speech’s efficacy. It’s like they’re implying that Cued Speech itself didn’t work, that the other factors had to compensate, or that I was the exception that proved the rule.

It’s true that family and educational support are immensely important, and often if not usually a deciding factor in a child’s success. Home and school are where the child spends most of his time. However, communication access and literacy depend highly on what the people in those environments are equipped to provide.

In a residential school, or a mainstreamed program with a strong Deaf presence, everyone is either d/hh, more visual-oriented, or have (ideally!) received training and support to meet language requirements. Staff are able to act as appropriate language models, so that ensures communication access and, to some degree, academic success.

Outside of residential schools, though, getting that access to appropriate language models can be much more challenging– not to mention the complexities of using a manual language to impart literacy in a completely separate aural language. That’s if you have access to ASL; more often, what I’ve seen is a mixture of auditory-verbal therapy and manually-coded sign systems, and the results can vary just as much from very, very good to very, very bad. In fact, many cueing parents took up Cued Speech precisely because their local programs or residential schools were not a viable option for one reason or another.

In evaluating different approaches in d/hh education, we need to look at that approach’s overall results, not just specific examples. We can’t cherry-pick outliers to prove our point. That’s probably why those statements at the beginning somewhat annoy me, because in my experience, success at attaining language and literacy through Cued Speech is the norm, not the exception.

In my experience, signing d/hh people who can write or read well tend to be in the minority. On the flip side, cueing d/hh people who have those odd grammatical or spelling flukes– not typos, but more like what you might see from ESL speakers– are the exception; the rest read, write, and talk like native hearing speakers (with varying degrees of a “deaf” voice). I’ve had more than one person tell me that they wouldn’t know I was deaf just by reading my posts.

The studies on Cued Speech that I’ve read bear this out– in fact, I haven’t yet found any studies with negative results on Cued Speech’s use. (I do recall one with “meh” results in a group of hard-of-hearing students, but that’s about it.)

I suspect that you won’t see such consistent results among deaf signers mainly due to these reasons:

  1. The learning curve involved in picking up any manually-coded or signed system, which demands greater commitment and effort from parents and teachers over the long term, so you’re much more likely to see a wider variation in usage and proficiency.
  2. The linguistic and conceptual gap between sign language and spoken language (or even just two different languages). You can patch that gap somewhat, but it’ll never replace incidental learning through full linguistic immersion (and not necessarily just reading and writing).

This isn’t to make Cued Speech out to be a magic bullet that bestows language and literacy the instant someone starts using it for their kid. What it does do is enable one to visually “recode” a language she already knows, without the delay of learning and translating through a second language. In this way, the d/hh kid is put on the same playing field as a hearing child for literacy and language acquisition, so d/hh cuers are much more likely to pick up spoken/written language at the same pace as their hearing counterparts.

Signing Impaired: the Double Standard

I’ve posted about the use of “hearing impaired” and how it doesn’t bother me, though I do take care not to use it because many of my d/hh friends find it offensive. In the Deaf community, though, I’ve occasionally come across attempts to turn the tables by using the term “signing impaired” to refer to hearing people.

Perhaps ironically, even though “hearing impaired” doesn’t bother me, “signing impaired” has never felt right to me. Sometimes it’s used in the d/hh community as a joke, sometimes as a pejorative. Either way, it’s never made much sense to me. Here’s why:

  1. It comes off as hypocritical. You don’t like it when people use the term hearing impaired, so in turn, you use “signing impaired” to… I don’t know, teach them a lesson? What lesson, exactly?
  2. The way most people use the term “hearing impaired,” they’re just referring to your level of hearing. Despite its overt focus on hearing, it’s not intended to diminish you as a person. “Signing impaired,” though, definitely carries an insulting connotation– in my experience, it is usually intended as such. See #1 for my confusion on what it’s supposed to accomplish, exactly.
  3. It doesn’t mean anything. Ears are designed to hear. That’s what they’re for. If they don’t hear, then they are nothing more than funny-looking flaps of skin on your head. That’s what “hearing impaired” refers to. Hands… well, your hands work fine whether you use sign language or not. “Signing impaired” is more about language proficiency, not physical ability; and that makes about as much sense as calling a Chinese native “English impaired.”

In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty minor. On the other hand, words have power, and the little things add up into big things  . If we, as a community, want courtesy and respect from others, we need to model it in turn.

Discrimination in the D/HH community

I was asked if I perceived there to be discrimination between various groups of those with hearing loss. More specifically, did I see a difference in attitude between those who have hearing loss through either work or life experiences compared with those that are born deaf or hard of hearing?

My answer was yes, although the discrimination I saw and heard of didn’t necessarily fall along those lines. They had more to do with communication modality (if someone cued or spoke vs. using ASL), and additional disabilities like blindness or cognitive impairment.

For all the isolation and loneliness that so many d/hh people experienced growing up, you would think they’d be more inclusive than the mainstream hearing world. Turns out, they’re human just like the rest of us.

I can still remember the pain in her voice as Candace Lindow-Davies told us, through tears, about how badly her deaf-plus son wanted to fit in, to have friends at his residential school. “Deaf kids can be very cruel,” she said, and I nodded with complete understanding. Kids in general can be cruel, but combined with that characteristic Deaf bluntness… whether it’s cultural or neurological, we really don’t sugarcoat anything.

Moreover, I did some volunteer work with deaf-blind people in college, and I’ve heard some pretty sad stories of deaf-blind people being treated like lepers as soon as they started losing their vision– almost like the other d/hh people were afraid of “catching” the same thing.

Regarding communication modality, I’ve known of d/hh friends getting criticized for being “too English” when signing. While I haven’t really experienced anything worse than pointed disinterest in Cued Speech, I do know of cuers at Gallaudet and RIT who did not publicly share that fact about themselves because of the possible societal backlash. Nowadays, I think Gallaudet is more open-minded, but back in the 80’s and 90’s, especially during the Deaf President Now! movements, it probably wasn’t the best idea to advertise that you knew and used Cued Speech.

RIT, unfortunately, was not quite as progressive as Gallaudet; from what I gather, it is/was very much an ASL-only campus. It was not too long ago that a fellow cuer, Rachel, struggled with getting even captioning access to her classes. The way RIT had set it up was that, if you wanted captioning, you had to pick the one class section that offered it: all the others would provide only sign language interpretation. And forget about Cued Speech transliteration– in 2003, Nicole Dugan had to file a formal complaint against RIT after they failed to provide her with CLT services for two years. (In fact, Dugan had avoided becoming fluent in ASL for two years so that RIT would not be able to use that as a reason to continue using sign language interpreters instead– which I find absolutely shameful on RIT’s part.)

The long and short of it is that, yes, sadly discrimination within the d/hh community does happen. Quite often from those who most strongly claim to advocate for inclusion.

Hearing Impaired = Broken?

Last week, I bought a giant canvas. It did not fit in my car. I spent the next hour or so texting local friends trying to find someone with a jeep or a truck, contemplating the logistics of strapping it to the top of my car, and snarking about it on Facebook.

Batman would not have made this mistake.

behold. my l33t planning skillz.

What on earth does any of this have to do with “hearing impaired”?

Well, I ended up asking the store to hold the canvas until I could get someone with a bigger car. I came back the next day after work to ask the staff if there was a way we could take the canvas apart so it could fit. When we walked to the front of the store, where the canvas was sitting behind the counter, I spotted a note taped to it that read:


My first thought: “Yay! They left a note so they know I’m the one who bought it!” I didn’t think to say anything until after a very nice and accommodating store representative helped me try to fit the Giant Canvas into my car. When both of us gave up and agreed that I needed a bigger car, I walked back inside, motioned for a pen and paper, and wrote:

“I saw that the note on the canvas [now gone] said ‘hearing impaired.’ I just wanted to warn your staff that many d/hh people find that term very offensive. I don’t personally care, but some people do, a lot.”

The very nice and accommodating store representative apologized– from her gestures, I could tell she knew a little sign and was familiar with Deaf culture– and explained that she had taken down the note for that very reason before we’d carried the canvas out to my car. I reassured her that it didn’t matter to me; I just didn’t want them to have a bad run-in with other d/hh people because of an innocent slip.

The term “hearing impaired” has never bothered me. I used it growing up because I saw it as an useful umbrella term that encompassed all varying degrees of hearing loss. It wasn’t until I took ASL classes in college that I learned its secondary implication for many d/hh people: the idea that we’re broken and/or need to be fixed.

I don’t quite agree with that definition of “impaired,” by the way; I interpret “impaired” as more like “lacking.” You just don’t have a particular thing– or you don’t have as much of it as others do– that doesn’t have to mean it’s broken, or that you are broken. There’s no value judgment in it for me.

I do understand why other d/hh people interpret it that way, though. And I understand the larger picture it can reinforce. What I don’t understand is the level of ire it seems to generate sometimes, particularly when the hearing person who uses that term has no reason to know that it’s offensive to some d/hh people, or why it would be offensive. The thing is, unless you’ve spent some time around the d/hh community (and even then, a somewhat specific segment of that community), you won’t know. And to add to that, to the uninitiated, often “hearing impaired” does sound like the more polite, PC term to use.

Basically, 99% of the time, when someone uses that term, it’s not meant to be hurtful or offensive. It’s generally other d/hh people who use it as a pejorative (“signing impaired,” anyone?), and who object to its use.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ask people not to refer to us as “hearing impaired,” or educate them about its implications. Words have power. We would do well to be aware of that, and to respect it. At the same time, should it be taken as an insult if the intent isn’t there, if you have to contrive meaning out of it to turn it into an insult? And how far do we want to go into policing the terms that others can use, especially if other d/hh people use “hearing impaired” to identify themselves?

How to Write about the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

For three years I worked at www.DeafandHoH.com as an editor and writer (Hi Senthil!). Naturally, this entailed a lot of reading about the d/hh community– most of it from hearing writers who had no experience whatsoever with that world. Not an issue per se, but I often ended up having to correct a few assumptions.

There is a right way and a wrong way to write about people with hearing loss. The finer details vary by person– and the best way to find out is to ask– but essentially, the single most important bit to remember is this:

Focus on the person, not the hearing loss.

As a general rule, the only time a person’s hearing loss really needs to be mentioned is in the introductory paragraph, or when it’s directly pertinent—like communicating with hearing peers, or getting accommodations. And, for the most part, hearing loss doesn’t really affect anyone’s ability to do anything except hear, and in some cases communicate, if we’re talking a primarily verbal environment. Take this, for example:

“Despite his hearing loss, he is an accomplished artist.”

OK, look, I’m deaf. I draw and paint. And my first reaction is, he’s deaf, not blind. (Even then, I’m pretty sure there are fantastic blind artists out there who have figured out how to make it work.)

I see this a lot with sports, by the way. You could have this 300-lb. behemoth who can strategically weave through a mob of linebackers with ballerina-level grace and finesse, and some journalist out there would still natter on about the obstacles he faced– of course, referring to his hearing loss.

To be fair, hearing loss is not exactly a picnic, because we do live in a predominantly hearing and auditory world. We will need to find workarounds, and that’s worth mentioning. But that’s just it: they are workarounds, not this insurmountable Wall to be conquered every time we have to do anything. Hell, sometimes it’s even an advantage: I draw and paint because I am an incredibly visual person, and my deafness had a lot to do with that.

For most deaf and hard of hearing people, it is just part of learning to adapt, and many of us aren’t comfortable with being put on a pedestal for living out their daily life, or serving as a stand-in to “inspire” someone. Stella Young has an excellent TED talk on the objectification of inspiration, which is worth a watch: http://www.ted.com/talks/stella_young_i_m_not_your_inspiration_thank_you_very_much/transcript?language=en.

Incidentally, this can be a difficult line to walk, even for me. When in doubt, ask someone who’s d/hh. Preferably, ask several. A good place to start, though, is to avoid the following terms, and any like them:

  • Barrier
  • Obstacle
  • Challenge
  • Inspiration
  • Overcome
  • Disability

So. That’s the big one to watch out for. Couple other writing no-no’s I’d include are:

Overt/excessive references to sound. Especially puns. “Sound and Fury,” “Hearing with Her Eyes,” and “World of Silence” are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Truthfully, I tend to see these as low-hanging fruit at best, and lazy writing at worst.

…Maybe just leave them out altogether. The thing is, we’re deaf. For most of us, sound is just not a huge part of our daily lives. I mean, I don’t even notice the absence of sound most times. I don’t have the feeling that it “should” be there (except when I’m wearing my implant, then I’ll start making random tapping noises just to make sure the battery’s working). Even a lot of late-deafened adults find that they just don’t miss it all that much.

Don’t use the term hearing impaired. This is more of a gentle heads-up than anything else since it is not common knowledge. Although I don’t personally care about “hearing impaired,” a lot of people find it distasteful and even deeply offensive because to them, it implies “brokenness,” or that the person needs to be “fixed.” Unless the person you’re writing about uses that terminology or is OK with it, best to leave that term out of your journalistic vocabulary altogether. “Deaf and hard of hearing,” although admittedly a mouthful, is usually a better substitute.

This feels like a woefully short primer, but the crux of it is, we’re people. Hearing loss/deafness is just one part of our lives. Write about us as people, and you probably won’t veer too far off course. Honestly, that holds true for any group no matter the demographic.