When I meet people for the first time and tell them I’m deaf, their knee-jerk reaction is usually one of sympathy. “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” they tell me, reaching out their hand to squeeze my arm and reassure me.
While I understand their motivation is pure—they’re operating out of compassion while addressing an experience they don’t understand—I don’t need pity. I don’t need sympathy, and I don’t need anyone to feel sorry for me. I may have a disability, but I don’t feel I’m operating at a disadvantage—after all, being deaf is all I know.
Imagine how you’d feel if you shared with someone that you possess a certain attribute or personality trait and their response was one of pity—even though it’s not something you’re ashamed of. A “sorry” response suggests that I’m inferior, that I’m missing out on something and should be sad about it.
But that’s not how deaf people see themselves. Being deaf isn’t a bad thing.
In fact, ask some people in the hard-of-hearing community if they like being deaf and their answer may surprise you. Remember—many of us have never known anything different. Many of us like being deaf. We don’t have to deal with the irritation that comes from ambient noise that’s too loud; when we’re waiting in a long line and everyone around us is griping and complaining, we’re happily left out of the negativity. Buzzing mosquitoes and screaming children? Never a bother to us!
Being deaf is part of our identity, just like your race, culture, and gender is part of yours. Deaf people may be a minority, living in a world that is not necessarily built for our differences, but in the same way that there’s nothing wrong with different races or hair colors, there’s nothing wrong with being deaf. We enjoy our lives and seek health, happiness, and satisfaction in the same way that anyone does—and if given the choice, we would not necessarily jump at the opportunity to become part of the hearing world.
So how should you respond when I tell you I’m deaf?
I’m not too picky, but make sure your response doesn’t imply that I’m inferior or deserve to be pitied. You can ask about my experience, inquire about the best way to communicate with me, or just say “Cool” and move on. We appreciate when you make an effort to communicate in a way that we prefer, but you don’t need to treat us like we’re dumb or missing out.
Every deaf person’s experience is different, but just treat us like normal people because that’s what we are. If you notice that we seem to be having trouble keeping up with the conversation, you can slow your speech down a bit, offer to write it down, or ask how you can best accommodate. Accept us as we are and we’ll extend the same courtesy to you, understanding that we’re all human, so you’re bound to make mistakes and may not know the best way to communicate comfortably the first time you talk to a deaf person.
Communication between the deaf and hearing communities may be complicated, but it’s not impossible. Especially not with Comunify, the app that separates conversations by speaker, color-coding each person’s input so that a deaf person involved in the conversation can easily (visually) follow along with the natural flow of speech.
Whether you’re part of the deaf or hearing community, have you ever had an experience like this? How do you prefer to be treated in this situation? We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section.
Special thanks to Skye Sherman.