I'm deaf, but you shouldn't act dumb

LISA A. GOLDSTEIN

Sunday, October 10, 1999

 

THE MOMENT of realization, when it comes, is often surprising. "Oh! She's deaf!" one woman gasped recently. Unfortunately, the knowledge all too often never dawns, leaving the impression that I'm either rude, strange, or both.

I'm not antisocial. I just can't hear.

So why does something so simple have to be so complex? Despite the fact that as many as 10.1 million Americans have hearing problems, the widely held assumption is that everyone you encounter can hear.

And that can lead to problems - like nearly getting run over by one of those airport electric carts with the annoying beep (or so I'm told). When at the Pittsburgh airport several months ago, I was waiting for my husband outside the men's lavatory and became engrossed in a magazine. When I looked up, I was surprised to see an electric cart a few feet from me. The driver and an employee behind him both looked quite angry. Apparently, I had been blocking their path for quite some time as they repeatedly told me to get out of the way.

I motioned to my ear and said, "I'm deaf."

Meanwhile, my husband appeared and informed the employee behind the cart as well. Her response?

A pity-laced, "Oh, I'm sorry."

My husband replied tersely, "She doesn't need your pity."

How ironic that carts used to transport physically disabled people mow down other disabled people in the process. Perhaps it's an effort to drum up more business, since one of these days I may need a cart after I'm run over by a disgruntled airport employee.

My husband was right, however: I don't need pity, just understanding. Having been deaf all my life, one would think I'd be used to things like this by now. But it doesn't get any easier.

When shopping, I often run into people who assume everyone can hear.

"Paper or plastic?" I'll be asked, along with, "May I help you?" or even, "Would you like your receipt in the bag?"

These questions inevitably result in the interrogator looking at me like I've descended from outer space. I don't think having broken ears would warrant a role on the

"X-Files," however.

At Nordstrom not too long ago, a couple of salespeople followed me, asking if I needed help. When I turned around, I caught them talking about my rudeness.

One person, in my line of vision, queried me. When I replied, he signed, "How are you?" to let me know he knew I was deaf. Aha! A solitary spark of intelligence at last. Too bad I don't need to sign.

The fact that I can speak and read lips may make it easier for me to "pass" as a hearing person. My deaf accent isn't always recognized. In fact, I'm usually asked what country I'm from. When I say, "Buffalo, New York," faces usually register puzzlement.

Depending on my mood, I'll venture an explanation: "My accent is because I'm deaf."

Other times, I'm content to let the mystery stand. One person insisted repeatedly that I was from England. Buffalo is exotic, but the local accent is nowhere near as thick as a stiff upper lip.

Interestingly, when someone's deafness is noticeable, people still act like idiots. My sister, who is also deaf, used to sport a short haircut similar to Demi Moore's in the movie "Ghost." Her hearing aids were visible. When the two of us were together, people would treat her like she had a learning disability, while they treated me as a hearing person.

Here's a tip: Speaking louder just makes you look foolish. When you are as deaf as I am, yelling won't help; I already have hearing aids.

But don't mumble. Moving your lips as much as possible doesn't help, either. It just exaggerates your lip movements, which makes it harder to lip read. And don't get me started on badly trimmed beards!

In conclusion, there are a number of assumptions that I'd like eradicated. These stereotypes cascade from one another, despite being mutually exclusive.

It seems to me it goes through someone's head like this: Everyone is hearing, unless they're proven to be deaf, at which point they must know sign language. And if they don't, yelling will solve the problem.

So please, the next time someone doesn't respond to something you say, they may not be ignoring you. They may be deaf and ignoring you.

Examiner contributor Lisa A. Goldstein is a second-year graduate student at UC-Berkeley School of Journalism.<

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