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.

Letter to A Hearing Parent

Sometimes I get emails or messages from worried parents with a newly-deaf or hard of hearing child. They want to know how I’ve done with Cued Speech, cochlear implants, sign language, etc. So, I do my best to give a balanced perspective, since I understand how lacking that can be in deaf education.

More than that, their questions often carry an undercurrent of fear and uncertainty, and I don’t blame them at all. It is overwhelming. So, I try to reach down to that core, if only to tell them that it’ll be OK and things will work out. That’s a pretty high promise, but at the same time, it’s not about guarantees– I don’t think anything with kids or other human beings is ever a guarantee. It’s mostly about, hopefully, helping these parents get to a more stable place emotionally. Sometimes, I think people just need to hear “it’ll be OK,” even if it doesn’t seem true at the time.

Eventually, this letter came out. It probably won’t apply to every parent of a d/hh child out there, but it’s more or less what I want to tell many of the parents who come to me.

Dear Parent,

It is OK to be afraid. You got thrown into a world that you know nothing about.

It is OK to grieve. Even if your child never misses her hearing, you likely had to radically recalibrate your expectations, and that in itself is a loss. It’s OK to acknowledge that loss.

It is OK to feel guilty. Chances are you did not do anything to incur cosmic or genetic karma on your kid. These things happen, and we can’t always predict nor prevent them.

There is hope. I have met successful deaf and hard of hearing people from all backgrounds. Doctors, businessmen, lawyers, professors, engineers, tradesmen, scientists, service workers. They used American Sign Language, Signed English, Cued Speech, spoken language. Cochlear implants, hearing aids, nothing at all, or any combination of the above.

Some methods work better for a specific purpose than others. Some kids respond to one approach and not to another. You will need to experiment and find out what works best for your family. No matter what you pick, be consistent, and commit to it. If it doesn’t seem to be working after you’ve given it a chance for at least a few months, drop it and try something else. Don’t let anyone else make you feel guilty for doing so. Trust your gut. Trust your heart.

Your child is unique. Embrace that. Work with it. And chances are you won’t veer too far off course.

Changing Perspectives: A New World

For as long as I can remember, I grew up with the impression that deafness was a disability, and that I was the one who had to change—to work harder than everyone else—in order to “integrate” into the mainstream hearing world. I had to take years of speech therapy, one to three times a week, and go to mainstreamed schools, and wear my implant all the time. I remember having my mom as a transliterator in church and at youth group events. For many years, I just didn’t think much of it.

I mean, it was all I’d known, and the biggest things I had to worry about in middle school were squabbling with the boys I found annoying– which, in retrospect, were all of them. When I turned 13, things started to shift. I kept telling myself I was just a loner and preferred to go my own way, and to some degree, that was true. Over time, though, the feeling of isolation just got worse and worse. It got a little better in high school thanks to Emily, who opened my world just by being this shining example of kindness and grace. More than anyone else, she showed me how to be a friend.

Even so, the friends I’d made in middle school started finding new circles in high school, and while we still hung out, I had no idea where or how to find new ones. More than that, I couldn’t deny my growing identity crisis. On one hand, I was becoming more painfully aware of how my deafness bled into everything, even with people I loved. There was always, always this gap, and I didn’t know how to close it. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be shunted into this “deaf box,” where everything I did and became was all about deafness.

Before I entered college, I was skeptical about Deaf Culture, especially since I was hardly the “ideal” Deaf person: I grew up with an emphasis on spoken and auditory communication, I have a cochlear implant, I used Cued Speech rather than American Sign Language, and I saw deafness as more of a nuisance than anything else.

And then I took ASL classes at UWM, and met many Deaf people, and gradually my perspective changed. It wasn’t this cloistered community that I’d expected. People had no problem with the fact that I used a cochlear implant or Cued Speech (most were quite curious about Cued Speech, actually) and could just get by with a smattering of Signed English at first. For the first time since I left the Montessori school in Mount Prospect, I was on equal footing. For once, deafness didn’t factor in communication at all. I didn’t have to work so hard at it, and if I didn’t join in on a conversation, it was of my own volition. I didn’t have to “default” to a passive listening role out of fear of embarrassing myself because I couldn’t follow the entire conversation. I understood everything—or close to it—and chose to not participate. And to be honest, I found the Deaf
Culture’s perspective of deafness– as a variation in the human condition rather than solely a medical deficiency– to be quite redeeming.

I still cue. I still talk. I still use my cochlear implant. I still use American Sign Language (or, really, a Signed English variant, but I try to get as close to pure ASL as I can). I have a pretty even mix of deaf and hearing friends with a wide range of communication styles, but that doesn’t matter; we find a way to make it work, and we learn things from each other. In the end, I decided that I’m Hannah, I’m me, and while deafness and all the issues contained therein are a part of me, they don’t have to be all there is to me. Life’s too short to think about deaf or hearing, ASL or English. There’s a whole world out there, and I wanted to go see it.