Deaf folks are everywhere. The average person will walk right by a Deaf person without realizing there is anything different unless they try to initiate a conversation. People seem to be freaked out when they are confronted by a person who does not use spoken language. I’ve watched hearing people deal with foreign language speakers, and their reaction to and interaction with them is different. When they meet a Deaf person, hearing people act–well, bizarre.
So it was as I was strolling around the vendor area on my last day at the FMCA rally, I had an opportunity to make a connection. I didn’t notice them though, what I noticed first was how the non-Deaf (hearing) vendor was talking to them. Big, big nervous toothy smile, wide-eyed desperation, over-pronouncing her words and waving her arms in what I knew she hoped were meaningful gestures. She looked like a mime gone crazy. I knew it in an instant. She was trying to talk to Deaf people.
I’ve been involved in sign language interpreting for more than half of my adult life. For those of you who aren’t in the business, it means that in my local community, I have earned a certain place in the lives and culture of people who are Deaf. Beyond my community, that connection has to be built with every new encounter. Deaf people know how to spot each other and us interpreters, and vice versa. They are always ready to meet other Deaf people, but meeting up with an outsider like me is a different experience.
I am cautious about approaching Deaf folks I don’t know; I try to judge whether they seem like they might appreciate me coming over just to say howdy. These were the first Deaf folk I’d seen at this motorhome thing, and I was curious about them, so I made the decision to invade their privacy. There is a certain etiquette to these introductory encounters, which typically go this way:
ME: Hi, how you doing?
THEM: Huh??? Oh, hi!
ME: I just noticed you and thought I’d say hi, you’re the first Deaf people I’ve seen here. Are there other Deaf here too?
THEM: It’s just us. Are you Deaf? (They already are 99.99.999% certain I’m not Deaf because of how I act and how I sign, but this question is always asked)
ME: Oh no, I’m hearing.
This moment is when you are likely to get “the look.” I think Deaf people are probably a little disappointed when they verify the only other signer they have run into is hearing. It’s nothing personal, but the minute you out yourself as not Deaf, a little shadow of disappointment shows on their faces for just a second. Kind of like this:
ME: Yeah, sorry, I am hearing. I’m an interpreter. I just noticed you and you’re the first Deaf people I’ve seen here so I wanted to say hi. I just retired from the school for the deaf in Ohio, I worked there 25 years, I was an interpreter there.
THEM: Ohhhh, that’s OK. So you worked at the deaf school in Ohio? Do you know…”
Next comes the ritual of “do you know who I know?” In two minutes we’d generated quite a list of mutual acquaintances, essential to do if you’re to be deemed legit. Connections are very important. They were from Wisconsin, and they came to check out the vendors, although they said “these FMCA people aren’t interested in us Deaf folks, so we don’t join.” We chatted for a few minutes about fifth-wheels (good for fishing trips) and deaf education (a shambles) and a mutual friend (crazy guy all his life, but so sweet) as passers-by stared at us, and then parted ways. They disappeared into the crowd, anonymous once more.
Deaf folks know how to be “deaf.” It’s an inconvenience and a nuisance, but it’s a fact of life and the lack of hearing is not the biggest challenge they face. Lack of access is the biggest problem. It’s typical for Deaf people to be shut out of many activities and opportunities offered to the general public. Deaf people love to travel and go camping, and like all of us, they like to share their experiences. There are scads of Deaf RV clubs, camping events and rallies, so they certainly don’t need the FMCA.
The FMCA rally was totally inaccessible, which stunned me given the average age of the attendees, around 65-70. For Deaf people, the lack of access is like a big wall that is present from the beginning. The loss of access from a hearing loss that creeps up is a lot like the analogy of the frog that sits in a pot of water unaware that the temperature of the water is slowly coming to a boil. By the time you figure out what is going on, you’re cooked, so to speak. I felt sorry for the people I saw struggling to participate. Men and women with hands cupped around their ears, asking their “interpreters” (a willing spouse) to repeat what had just been said. Videos with no captioning, workshops with no amplification. These people don’t have a club or a group to go to. They will slowly become more and more isolated, and one day they will just stay home. I can feel it happening to me too. As time goes by my “stood too close to the band’s speakers” hearing loss worsens, and like my grandma before me I have started to complain that people don’t speak clearly any more. I’m grateful that I’ve acquired some lipreading skills over the years as I struggle to understand one of my sisters-in-law, who is a notorious soft talker. I’ve noticed that if I go out in a big group, I enjoy myself more if I’m with my Deaf friends because it’s so easy to keep up with the conversation. My husband complains about how loud I play my music. It happens to all of us, now earlier than ever. I read a statistic that the average college freshman already has a mild hearing loss. Think about that the next time you’re out and about. How is the accessibility at your workplace, church, preschool? Do you check to make sure grandma knows what’s going on at the family reunion, and can she understand you on the phone? Keep your connections, it’s what’s most important in life.