Perspectives on Using Sign Language in Public

As many of you know, I’ve lost a lot of hearing and know that total hearing loss is in my future. To help deal with this, my husband and I have started learning American Sign Language. We use it often in loud environments such as restaurants where I simply can’t hear the wait staff or others around me. I’ve been shocked at some of the reactions I’ve gotten from bystanders when they see us doing this. Based on that, I’d like relate a few stories so that hearing people can be more aware of when they are being rude or a bit critical of deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

ASL sign

Conversations are never private.

We’ve all heard that person talking loudly on a cell phone, perhaps relating some intimate detail or saying “this is confidential” when everyone around them can hear them. We know that conversations in public are not very private. However, discrete talking between two people in a restaurant is somewhat private. Only a very few rude individuals might lean closer to a stranger at the next table or booth to hear what they are saying. Yep, eavesdropping is rude.

So, when I and others use ASL in public places, why do people feel the need to stare while I talk? Is this not the same thing as eavesdropping? Admittedly, it is usually younger 20-something folks or teenagers but it is not limited to that group. I’m also aware that many high schools have started teaching ASL so that the person staring might actually know what I’m saying. However, my conversation is none of their business. I know a person signing is unusual, and there is the temptation to watch. I believe that good signers have a grace about them. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been tempted to throw in a common “bird” gesture just to make them look away. What I do instead is stare right back at them in a very hostile way until they figure it out and quit watching.

Customer service people sometimes devalue the deaf person and only work with the hearing partner.

To be honest, this doesn’t happen every time. It is often subtle but no less irritating because it makes me feel like a second-class citizen. For instance, we were eating in a local chain restaurant and the waitress figured out very quickly that I couldn’t hear. She saw us signing and Dan dealt with my ordering. Keep in mind, I lip read very well. From the moment of taking our orders, she kept Dan’s tea topped, took away his dirty plates, and asked him about his needs. All the while, I had seemingly turned invisible to her. I was just too hard to communicate with.

Now I’ve worked as a waitress in my younger days and know they are always hustling to get the orders out and make the customers happy. However, waving hi at me, pointing to glasses to ask about refills or even giving me equal treatment with my partner in clearing dishes away is not that difficult, nor is it too much to expect.

We don’t need pity.

This story happened a few nights ago. My son, a musician, was performing at an open-mike night and we went to see and record him. It was loud, like bars usually are. My husband was several feet away so I signed something to him rather than trying to talk over the noise. Signing is useful even to the hearing to communicate through windows or across noisy distances.

Later that evening, an older woman got my husband’s attention (not knowing we were related) and said, “I don’t understand. I thought that woman was deaf but I’ve seen her talking.” He explained that I was mostly deaf but could lip read and had been dealing with hearing loss for a long time. She issued an outpouring of pity, which quite frankly irritated me further. Thankfully I heard none of this conversation until he told me about it later.

Where this well-meaning but clueless person went wrong:

  • Being deaf/hard of hearing is not a statement on our intelligence or ability. Don’t treat us as lesser.
  • Just because a person is deaf doesn’t mean they can’t communicate in some form. If nothing else, people can write words down.
  • Many can lip read, although this ability is limited by things like accents, beards, and other factors.
  • Many can talk if they want, but it is a personal choice. Check out Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God among other movies) in a number of films or TV shows.
  • Many choose not to talk because ASL is their communication method and part of their culture. The Deaf community is very proud of this fact.
  • If we talk to you, you will talk back, which doesn’t mean we can automatically understand you. Talking when we can’t hear often leads to confusion
  • We are not interested in making life easier for you. ASL is easier for us, particularly in some situations.
  • We don’t need pity! Deaf people are equal to hearing people in every way except one. We need patience but never pity.

This blog was not meant to chew anyone out or make people feel bad. It is meant to educate the hearing community and create more awareness. I certainly did not know some of these factors until I became a member of the Deaf community. So please, take these ideas as suggestions on how to treat the people around you, hearing or not, so that we all can live in a better, more understanding world.

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