by Tina Blue
August 1, 2001
A few weeks ago Time Magazine (17 June 2001) ran an article about the murder of two Gallaudet freshmen by one of their dormmates. One point the article made was that what most upset Gallaudet students, all of whom are deaf or severely hearing-impaired, was the sense that they were not being given all the available and necessary information concerning the investigation.
The reporter comments that for a deaf or hard of hearing (HoH) person, distress over being shut out like that comes from years of such experience:
"What was happening? We didn't understand," recalls junior Tom Green. Says graduate student Dana Berkowitz: "Feelings were all confused and messed up." Information and its proper dissemination is a loaded issue in a deaf context. Marcus, the psychologist, notes that 90% of deaf Americans are born into hearing families and many are left with a "sense of feeling left out and in the dark. Someone might be talking at dinner, and the whole table breaks out laughing except for the deaf person, who says, 'What? What? What?' And they're only given two sentences or told 'We'll tell you later.'" The erratic, whipsaw police investigation was for Gallaudet's students a nightmare recapitulation.
Similar experiences of unintentional but thoughtless exclusion are an uncomfortable, frustrating part of a hearing-impaired person's daily life.
This spring I worked, as I have for some time, as a temporary scorer for a company that processes state assessment essays. Frequently I would see and hear sudden outbursts of laughter which included everyone at the table--everyone but me, that is. Of course I never had any idea of what funny thing had precipitated the hilarity. The laughter was usually loud enough for me to hear, but even when it wasn't, I could see everyone laughing at a joke that I was not in on.
I never ask to be let in on those jokes, either. Most of us who are hearing-impaired know better. It isn't likely that anyone will want to tell us, and even if they did, chances are that the humor would be lost in the translation--or by delay and distance from the original context. Besides, we don't always quite catch the original attempt to explain, so the person who is trying to tell us about it ends up repeating the joke or the amusing incident, sometimes more than once.
You really can't blame the hearing for thinking it's not worth the trouble. Heck, by the time we understand what's going on, must of us deaf and HoH folks don't think it's worth that much trouble, either.
So we watch everyone around us react as a group. Maybe they are laughing at something. Or maybe they act as if they have just heard something important, or maybe something sad or horrifying. But we don't know what it is, and we are not likely ever to find out.
Each such incident is insignificant in itself. Seldom are we missing out on anything important or even all that interesting.
But over the years, the accumulated weight of such experiences leads to a sense of alienation, to a sense that we are not entirely welcome in group settings.
I don't think anyone intends to make us feel left out or marginalized, but we end up feeling that way nonetheless. Often our inability to socialize in groups without special help makes us seem a bit burdensome to others. We are obstacles to the easy, comfortable flow of social interaction.
That makes the hearing feel a bit uncomfortable around us, as we all know. And I am also sure that their sense that they should be helping us, but that they don't know how to help us, also makes them feel uncomfortable--and perhaps even a little bit guilty.
We're uncomfortable, too, and we know we make them uncomfortable, so we tend to withdraw more and more into ourselves, becoming ever more alienated and marginalized.
It's rather a sad situation, and I am not at all sure that there is much anyone can do about it.
But despite these problems, getting left out like this does have its advantages. For example, since I knew I would not find out what the group's laughter was about at our scoring table and that it would probably not be significant or interesting enough to be worth the effort to find out, I simply ignored it. The fact that everyone had erupted in laughter would briefly register, and then I would continue working as if there had not been even that brief interruption.
I don't think it is surprising that I am one of their fastest and most accurate scorers. After all, most of the distractions that slow down my co-workers and break their concentration have no impact on me.
I don't like not being able to hear, but I have learned to appreciate that my hearing impairment can sometimes work in my favor. We are better off, I think, focusing on the compensations that attend our handicap, rather than worrying about how much we might be missing out on.