We all occasionally say things we really wish we hadn’t, especially when meeting new people. For some reason, meeting a deaf person seems to really bring out those moments in people. In the hopes of helping you avoid these embarrassing moments, I’m sharing 10 things you should never say when meeting a deaf person. All of which, in case you’re wondering, have been said to me. And my friends. More than once.
1 – Oh, I’m sorry. (And then walking away.)
Deaf people are really not that scary. When someone tells you they can’t hear you, try making sure you’re looking directly at the person when you talk to them. Speak clearly, but don’t exaggerate your lip movements. Or, hey, get a piece of paper or use your phone to write down what you’re saying.
2 – How do you drive?
I use my eyes. How do YOU drive?? I’m amazed at how many people think that deaf people cannot–or should not–get their driver’s license. Studies have shown that deaf drivers are no more likely to get in to an accident than hearing drivers, and actually tend to have lower accident rates.
3 – Can you read?
I have now been asked this twice, once at the doctor’s office and once at the DMV. My Deaf friends have told me they get asked this all the time. On one hand, I understand the question- after all, English might not be my primary or first language. On the other… guess what? Deaf people go to school, have jobs, and do everything that their hearing pals do. Oh, except hear. Assuming that deaf people can’t read is just insulting.
4 – Oh, I know exactly what you mean. I think I have hearing loss, too – I have a hard time understanding people sometimes. You know, like at concerts and monster truck rallies.
Seriously, why is it that everyone I meet suddenly has hearing loss? Not being able to hear people talking when you’re in a loud environment is not exactly the same thing as being deaf or hard of hearing. I understand that people’s first instinct is to try to find common ground, and connect. I recognize that this statement is supposed to show understanding and support. That said, it usually comes across as dismissive, and completely misses the point. When someone is telling you that they need you to look at them when you’re speaking because they can’t hear you, they’re not looking for you to say you know all about it. They’re just trying to let you know what they need in order to understand you. Do that.
5 – Oh, but you can lipread, right? Neat. Can you tell what the guy across the room is saying?
To this I say, lip reading is NOT a super power. No, I cannot tell what that guy is saying from across the room. It’s hard enough figuring out what’s going on in the conversation I’m currently having, thanks. Also, stop being a snoop.
6 – Oh, I’m so sorry. Losing my hearing would be the worst thing in the world.
It has its down sides, for sure, but really it’s not that bad. This response makes me feel like I’m something to be pitied, and completely dismisses the awesomeness of Deaf culture. Even if you’re thinking this, please don’t say it. Just don’t.
7 – But, you have hearing aids.
Yep, I do. They’re pretty awesome, and I’m glad I have them, but they’re not miracle devices. They don’t suddenly “cure” my hearing loss. I still need to read lips or use ASL to know what people are saying. They tell me THAT people are talking, but it’s like catching shadows of words. I have to fill in the blanks. If someone has hearing aids, don’t assume that they can hear things–or that they can’t, for that matter.
8 – Oh, are you going to get that implant thing to fix your hearing?
I’ve had people launch in to how the cochlear implant is a miracle within 3 minutes of meeting me. They’re usually basing this on a) seeing Ellen talk about it on TV and b) the fact that they like hearing birds chirp, or whatever. The decision to get a cochlear implant is a big one, and involves a lot of factors that you probably aren’t aware of if you haven’t been around the Deaf community for very long. Besides the fact that this question assumes that something is wrong with me that needs to be fixed, it’s a really personal, complicated question. If you’re going to ask someone about CI, please be sensitive to that. And maybe wait until you’ve known the person a while before you bring it up.
9 – But you don’t sound deaf.
Of all the things said to me on a daily basis, this is the one that drives me the most crazy. This is the reason I usually go voice off in public, like at the grocery store. People have a hard time understanding that just because I have good speech quality does not mean I can hear. It makes me feel like I need to explain myself – no, really, grocery store clerk, I’m not purposely ignoring you, I just can’t hear you. Closely related to this one is…
10 – Wow, your speech is really good!
I get this well-meaning comment from almost everyone I meet – even interpreters sometimes say this to me. There are several reasons why you should never say this to someone. For one thing, it makes the person feel awkward and self-conscious. For another, the underlying message is that speaking skills are to be highly valued, and praised. It implies that people who don’t have clear speech are less intelligent, capable, or aren’t trying hard enough.
This comment makes me feel like I’m being patted on the back. I didn’t do anything special to earn my speaking skills. My speech says nothing about my intelligence or abilities. I just happened to grow up with enough residual hearing to make speech work for me. In some ways, my clear speech is a drawback – it makes it that much harder for other people to understand my deafness.
Have you ever said something you wished you could take back? What are some awkward/awful things people have said to you?