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30 Minutes in the Shoes of a Deaf Person

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Kim Livingston

Junior Intern

 For thirty minutes try to be in the shoes of a deaf person, just thirty…not much. It is the amount of time you can wait on hold on the telephone, spend watching a sitcom on TV, or waiting for your table at a restaurant. Just thirty.

Bet you can’t do it. How do I know? Because I have watched how uncomfortable hearing people are when they are in this position for even a few minutes. Watched them look at a few gestural words that, if they would open their eyes for just a moment, they could understand the meaning of. Watched them be unable to communicate for even a short time with others and seen the frustration on their face, their refusal to adapt.

In an effort to teach about and practice ASL and to build a Deaf Community for newcomers to the language and culture, there is a monthly deaf event, open to students and adults who are interested. The only rule? “Voice off”. The event lasts 30 minutes; the amount of time that people have for a typical lunch “hour” from work. No one has made it the entire time without using their voice yet.

Why is this? They know the rule. It is reminded when they come into the room. Yet, every time someone finds a point where they are talking to get their message across. It is almost humorous to watch people “cheat” by whispering, thinking that somehow this doesn’t count. At one of these events even a Deaf woman was found to be mouthing words and vocalizing. When jokingly reminded that she too had to follow the “voice off” rule, she fingerspelled simply, “Colonization”? When asked what she meant by this she explained that for so long she had become used to adapting to assist hearing people in understanding her that she at times forgot that she was doing this.

ASL is a powerful language, perhaps more expressive than spoken English. The gestures, the facial expressions, the meaning is clear. Yet for 30 minutes hearing people can hardly stand to be in silence. Not even silence, because a room of Deaf people using ASL is a noisy place. There is laughter and table pounding, sound effects that match actual sound far closer than most hearing people can imitate. No, it isn’t a period of silence. It is a period of keeping ones words silent, of communicating in a different way. Watching non-ASL users struggle to understand the language is agonizing for hearing people who know it. Often the hearing person will rescue the struggler by whispering the correct word. Why? These same “helpful” people are also sometimes the first to “rescue” a Deaf person in the hearing world by supplying the language necessary, whether they are asked to intervene or not. This is a form of oppression, the need to rescue, or belittle a person’s right to struggle independently.  Who are we to decide that something is too difficult a challenge for someone else?

So spend thirty minutes struggling to do something challenging, or letting someone else do it. And while you are at it, do it silently, observing the world around you.

“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.” ― G.K. Chesterton

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This blog post represents the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views supported by The Deaf Dream.

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