A Lot of Deaf People Don't Sign

by Tina Blue
December 27, 2000

          Six years ago Zak, an eleven-year-old boy in my home daycare, came up to me after school and began to wiggle his hands and fingers around.

          "What are you doing?" I asked.

          "I'm signing for you because you're deaf," he replied.

          "But I don't sign," I said, "and I don't understand signing."

          Zak was astonished. He'd been learning to sign in school, but they had not taught the kids that not all deaf people sign. In fact, I'm not even sure some of the teachers realize that we don't all sign.

          Usually, those who do sign are the ones who have been profoundly deaf from childhood and who have gone to special schools, or at the very least have attended special classes.

          But many of us started out either with normal hearing or with only a partial, manageable hearing loss. In my own case, I had some difficulty as a child, but my hearing loss was not all that noticeable before I started college.

          As a child I was often blamed by adults for being inattentive or for ignoring instructions or orders that I preferred not to obey, but despite the fact that my mother, grandmother, and sister all had severe hearing impairments, it never occurred to anyone that I might also have a hearing problem.

          When I enrolled at Penn State in 1968, the physical checkup was run rather as if we were new draftees in the army. Freshmen lined up and passed by stations, picking up forms and answering questions shot at us as we passed doctors standing in a series of doorways along a hallway. One doctor said to me, "Moonya? Moonya, moonya, moonya?"

     I said, "Excuse me?"

          He said, "Mubble fubble smsst."

          I stopped, cupped my right ear, and said, "I'm sorry--I didn't catch that."

          He put his hand under my elbow and steered me into a soundproof room, where I underwent my first ever hearing test--and the only test I've ever taken that I didn't do well on.

          That's when I first discovered that I was hearing-impaired. I found that at certain frequency ranges my left ear was moderately impaired, and that at certain other ranges my right ear was slightly impaired.

          As I have grown older, my hearing impairment has grown much worse. Now my left ear is almost completely useless, and my right ear, though better than my left, is far worse than my left ear was even fifteen or twenty years ago.

          Each year during the 1980s it got harder for me to understand my students. If a student wanted to say something, I'd say, "Wait a minute--let me bring my ears over there," and zip over to wherever the student was sitting. By 1990 I had to find someone with a big voice to translate for me in each class. Even then I sometimes had to ask students to write out what they were saying.

          I believe that was also the year I realized I could no longer go to the movies with out some sort of amplification device. I went with two friends to see Dangerous Liaisons and understood not one single word of dialogue!

          I knew I needed hearing aids, but I couldn't afford them, so instead I bought a $25 amplifier at Radio Shack. I replaced its headphones with a single earplug, which I wore in my right ear. I had to use my "hearing box" at departmental meetings, in conversations and conferences, and when at the movies or watching television, but I never could bring myself to use it in the classroom.

          After my father died in 1992,my five siblings and I each got about $2000 from his life insurance. I used most of my share to purchase hearing aids. I can't manage out in the real world without them anymore, but even with them it's hard, and getting harder, to understand what people say.

          Anyway, because I did not grow up deaf, I never became part of a deaf and hearing-impaired community, so I never learned to sign. Why would I? I don't know any deaf people, other than the ones I have "met" since starting this column for Themestream--and we "converse" only in writing. All my spoken conversations are with people who hear.

          I must say, though, that I have found it quite comforting to know other deaf and hearing-impaired people at last. It's kind of nice to have people respond (metaphorically speaking, of course) with "I hear you!" whenever I detail my experiences and reactions as a deaf person in a hearing world.

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