How to Write about the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

For three years I worked at www.DeafandHoH.com as an editor and writer (Hi Senthil!). Naturally, this entailed a lot of reading about the d/hh community– most of it from hearing writers who had no experience whatsoever with that world. Not an issue per se, but I often ended up having to correct a few assumptions.

There is a right way and a wrong way to write about people with hearing loss. The finer details vary by person– and the best way to find out is to ask– but essentially, the single most important bit to remember is this:

Focus on the person, not the hearing loss.

As a general rule, the only time a person’s hearing loss really needs to be mentioned is in the introductory paragraph, or when it’s directly pertinent—like communicating with hearing peers, or getting accommodations. And, for the most part, hearing loss doesn’t really affect anyone’s ability to do anything except hear, and in some cases communicate, if we’re talking a primarily verbal environment. Take this, for example:

“Despite his hearing loss, he is an accomplished artist.”

OK, look, I’m deaf. I draw and paint. And my first reaction is, he’s deaf, not blind. (Even then, I’m pretty sure there are fantastic blind artists out there who have figured out how to make it work.)

I see this a lot with sports, by the way. You could have this 300-lb. behemoth who can strategically weave through a mob of linebackers with ballerina-level grace and finesse, and some journalist out there would still natter on about the obstacles he faced– of course, referring to his hearing loss.

To be fair, hearing loss is not exactly a picnic, because we do live in a predominantly hearing and auditory world. We will need to find workarounds, and that’s worth mentioning. But that’s just it: they are workarounds, not this insurmountable Wall to be conquered every time we have to do anything. Hell, sometimes it’s even an advantage: I draw and paint because I am an incredibly visual person, and my deafness had a lot to do with that.

For most deaf and hard of hearing people, it is just part of learning to adapt, and many of us aren’t comfortable with being put on a pedestal for living out their daily life, or serving as a stand-in to “inspire” someone. Stella Young has an excellent TED talk on the objectification of inspiration, which is worth a watch: http://www.ted.com/talks/stella_young_i_m_not_your_inspiration_thank_you_very_much/transcript?language=en.

Incidentally, this can be a difficult line to walk, even for me. When in doubt, ask someone who’s d/hh. Preferably, ask several. A good place to start, though, is to avoid the following terms, and any like them:

  • Barrier
  • Obstacle
  • Challenge
  • Inspiration
  • Overcome
  • Disability

So. That’s the big one to watch out for. Couple other writing no-no’s I’d include are:

Overt/excessive references to sound. Especially puns. “Sound and Fury,” “Hearing with Her Eyes,” and “World of Silence” are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Truthfully, I tend to see these as low-hanging fruit at best, and lazy writing at worst.

…Maybe just leave them out altogether. The thing is, we’re deaf. For most of us, sound is just not a huge part of our daily lives. I mean, I don’t even notice the absence of sound most times. I don’t have the feeling that it “should” be there (except when I’m wearing my implant, then I’ll start making random tapping noises just to make sure the battery’s working). Even a lot of late-deafened adults find that they just don’t miss it all that much.

Don’t use the term hearing impaired. This is more of a gentle heads-up than anything else since it is not common knowledge. Although I don’t personally care about “hearing impaired,” a lot of people find it distasteful and even deeply offensive because to them, it implies “brokenness,” or that the person needs to be “fixed.” Unless the person you’re writing about uses that terminology or is OK with it, best to leave that term out of your journalistic vocabulary altogether. “Deaf and hard of hearing,” although admittedly a mouthful, is usually a better substitute.

This feels like a woefully short primer, but the crux of it is, we’re people. Hearing loss/deafness is just one part of our lives. Write about us as people, and you probably won’t veer too far off course. Honestly, that holds true for any group no matter the demographic.


P.S. I know I have been a very bad non-posting Croaking Dalek due to Life, as I’d feared. I’ll certainly be doing my best to return to a regular schedule with things settling down a bit now.

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Oh! You’re deaf? Here’s some braille.

It seems just about every other d/hh person out there has a story about clueless people offering them unnecessary “accommodations.” You know, the ones where they tell a receptionist that they’re deaf, and she hands out materials in braille, or they tell the airport staff that they’re deaf, and bam, out comes the wheelchair.

Somehow, my whole life, I’d missed out on this defining experience… until one fateful day, when I was 25.

I’d arranged to meet with some friends at a nearby Mexican restaurant, so I walked in, pointed to my ears, and said “Hi, just so you know, I’m deaf. I’m meeting friends here. Table for three, please,” while holding up three fingers. The hostess, a lady in her early twenties, went “Oh!”, held up a finger, and bounced over to a cabinet in the back. She pulled out this giant white binder, carried it back to the front desk, and flipped it open. I looked down to see rows of raised dots: braille.

Taken aback, I waved my hands and said, “Oh, no, no, I’m deaf. I just need the regular menu, please. And table for three.” Again, the “Oh!” and the finger and the bouncing back to the cabinet, whereuponwhich[*] she pulled out another Giant White Binder and flopped it open on the front desk. I looked down.

Spanish.

The woman gave me a giant white binder full of menu items in Spanish.

Quite at my wits’ end, I thanked her again, grabbed the regular menu, and repeated that I just needed a table for three. After some back-and-forth she finally led me to an empty table in the back, where I proceeded to Facebook about it to the world.

The best part? This happened in Austin, Texas.

Five minutes’ walk away from the Texas School for the Deaf.


[*] yes, whereuponwhich is a real word. Because I said so.

Talk to the Experts!

If there’s just one thing I could tell anybody trying to learn more about the myriad of issues involved in deafness, it’d be this:

If you want to learn more about Cued Speech, ask someone who uses Cued Speech. If you want to learn more about American Sign Language, ask someone who uses American Sign Language. Same for cochlear implants, hearing aids, visual phonics, whatever. And take their word for it. Don’t patronize by implying that they’re an outlier. And don’t mix ’em up– that is, don’t expect an in-depth, balanced view on Alexander Graham Bell or cochlear implants from a 70-year-old Deaf signer. Likewise, a spoken-language proponent may not be terribly knowledgeable about nor sympathetic to Deaf Culture and ASL.

This isn’t to say that you can’t share opinions and resources. But like any other community, the d/hh population has its share of controversial topics, especially regarding children. Bias is always, always a factor. So is lack of knowledge and direct experience. It’s worse if the community itself tends to be rather homogeneous. As a result, misinformation can spread quickly, with no one to correct these. And I can assure you, I’ve seen my share of these with Cued Speech, especially in deaf education.

This isn’t necessarily deliberate, by the way. In my experience, most educational professionals are simply not aware of Cued Speech. If they are, they fall into four broad categories:

1) They don’t know of anyone who uses it and/or have not seen the research, so they may assume that it doesn’t work.

2) They think it’s another variant of Visual Phonics and/or may not see it as a viable communication option.

3) They don’t see the need for it, citing that they use Signed English or a Bi-Bi approach with ASL.

4) They are open to it, but don’t know of any local resources nor demand for it.

Likewise, most d/hh people don’t use or see Cued Speech in action, although most people I meet are very accepting of the fact that I use it, and many are curious about how it works. But for the most part, they don’t know anything beyond what I showed them. Often, a good portion of our initial conversation is debunking misconceptions about Cued Speech.

As for those who had experience with it, including me, most of the feedback has been very positive. I did meet a few who had tried Cued Speech and decided it didn’t work for them, either because of resources or because they just didn’t ‘click’ with it. And that’s fair; everyone is different. The key here is that they tried it out for themselves, and formulated their opinions based on what they had personally encountered. More than that, these people could share the nuances that factored into their situation: a strong family network, mental and physical health, finances, access to resources, etc.

This, by the way, applies to anything in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Take any second-hand experience with a grain of salt.