Deaf Gaffes

by Tina Blue
February 6, 2003

          I call them "deaf gaffes."  You know, those social blunders we commit because we haven't understood what someone has said to us. 

          A lot of deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) people live in terror of committing a deaf gaffe, so much so that they sometimes isolate themselves rather than risk embarrassment. 

          I have committed my share of deaf gaffes.  Some of them were doozies, too.

          Let me give you an example.

          When my son was in kindergarten, I taught once a week as a volunteer at the reading/writing learning center in his class. Al, the father of one of Michael's classmates, worked at that learning center with me. One day when I arrived Al said something to me that I didn't understand. I was eager to get into the day's lesson with the kids, so I just nodded and smiled, as I often do when I don't hear what someone has said but believe they are just making polite small talk.

          Al looked at me funny and said, "You don't have a clue about what I just said, do you?"

          I laughed and said, "Busted! What did you say?"

          He replied, "I said the Challenger blew up on launch this morning, and everyone on board was killed."

          This could have been an uncomfortable situation, of course, but Al understood that I am deaf and just didn't understand at first what he was trying to tell me. When I finally understood, I said how sorry I was, and that I really hadn't understood him at first. If he had been a stranger, it might have been a bit more awkward to have to explain my deafness to him, but I would have done it, and I would not have felt guilty or embarrassed that my deafness had prevented me from understanding his words.

          That's the thing, you see.  We really should not be embarrassed that we are deaf or hard of hearing.  And when our hearing impairment causes us to respond oddly or inappropriately in social or professional situations, we should simply apologize politely but unselfconsciously and then move on to the next point.

          But too many deaf/HoH people absolutely cringe with embarrassment when something like this happens to them, and then later they obsessively rerun the scene in their minds and continue to feel embarrassed and foolish.  Fear of such embarrassment is, I believe, one of the main reasons why so many deaf/HoH people become nearly reclusive, even though they are often lonely. 

          I don't have that problem. 

          As I indicate in the title of this website, I am already listening as hard as I can.  I work very hard to understand what is going on around me and what other people say to me, even when, as is often the case, other people are making no effort to accommodate my deafness, or--as is also all too often the case--are deliberately making things difficult. 

          And when all that effort still isn't enough and I get something wrong, why should I feel guilty or embarrassed?  It's not as if I am stupid, or as if I am deliberately doing something inappropriate.  I just don't hear well.

          It isn't my choice to be nearly deaf, and I don't see why I should be blamed for it. Nor do I see any reason to blame myself for it. 

          I just wish I could persuade all hearing-impaired people to cut themselves a break.  Deafness is not a reason for shame, and neither are social gaffes that are caused by deafness.
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