I’m Deaf And I Have ‘Perfect’ Speech. Here’s Why It’s Actually A Nightmare.

In the Academy Award-winning movie “CODA,” the Deaf characters don’t use their voices to speak. Some hearing viewers will probably see this as a negative thing; they may imagine the silence, and wonder how it would feel to not speak, even as they see American Sign Language (ASL) used abundantly and well.

However, I’m Deaf and have “perfect” speech (meaning I don’t “sound Deaf”). And I want to stop speaking.

Everywhere I go, people compliment me and say they wouldn’t have known I was Deaf if I hadn’t told them. They say it kindly, but it’s like they’re giving me a cupcake without realizing there’s a razor blade inside it.

Here’s what they don’t understand: Their compliment is an insult to my many Deaf friends who cannot — or do not — speak and who are some of the best, most accomplished, funniest, wisest people I know. It’s also an insult to me, since there’s an implicit message that not knowing I’m Deaf is good; therefore, being Deaf is not good.

When I became Deaf at age 10, I’d already learned to speak. I came even later to my own Deaf-with-a-capital-D identity, and by that time I’d married — and befriended — hearing people. I wear a hearing aid, which works to amplify sound, and I lip-read to some extent, especially with close friends. They know how to speak clearly for me, and I know what they’re likely to say. Context makes a huge difference, as do numerous other factors. But with strangers, it’s flabbergastingly hard to understand what they’re saying. Sometimes I can catch 50% to 75% of what they say, but far more often, it’s 0% to 5%, and even that is hard work.

But it’s a totally avoidable dynamic. Because by using my voice, I’m setting expectations that then knock me backward and do not let me up. In public, my interactions with strangers typically go like this:

Other person: “Ooofa gimmabee imopoe? Orfaa wompus aroom?”
Me: “Look, I’m Deaf. I don’t understand you.”
Other person: “Oh, but you lip-read, right?”
Me: “No, I don’t.”

Yes, I did just lip-read and understand what they said. What they don’t realize is that their question was easy to catch since I’ve been asked it billions of times before. Now they’re looking at me quizzically and trying to decide if I’m being difficult or a liar.

“But you have excellent speech,” they respond.

“Look ― yes, I can talk,” I tell them, “but I can not hear. No, I’m not going to lip-read you. Please just write it down, or point, if it’s important.”

But they don’t give up easily.

“Oofa barampa mefeee itobin. Illy acoppa carooma. Aca minna putoh. And but a widdoo caca ilumpitah, impag.”

“Well, OK then ― let’s just widdoo caca ilumpitah impag!” I think but don’t say out loud. I know they’re trying and they want a good outcome just as much as I do, but these kinds of encounters are exasperating.

Whenever I have the energy, I try to educate people so they don’t project their assumption that Deaf people will speak and lip-read onto the next Deaf person they meet. “I became Deaf later in life ― after I’d learned to talk,” I’ll say. Here the other person often tells me about their grandmother, childhood friend, neighbor or co-worker who “was completely Deaf but could lip-read perfectly!” I gently tell them lip-reading is incredibly hard and 55% to 70% of English is not even lip-readable because many sounds are made deep in the mouth or throat.

There are a couple of things going on here. One is an ethnocentric reaction: The message people take unconsciously from my “good” speech is that I can hear. There’s also a value judgment ― that speaking and lip-reading are better than signing and not lip-reading.

The author teaching in 2010.
The author teaching in 2010.

Courtesy of Rachel Zemach

I taught Deaf and hard-of-hearing students in a mainstream school for years. About 80% of Deaf and hard-of-hearing children attend public schools where they’re surrounded mostly — or entirely — by hearing students and staff. The emphasis is on “fitting in,” and speech therapy is often conflated with — and often takes precedence over — teaching actual language (which is often better accessed via ASL). Yet, to many staff members, those Deaf and hard-of-hearing students who speak are seen as success stories and can be unconsciously seen as smarter than those who use only ASL, regardless of their intellect.

Some respond to this kind of educational experience by choosing not to use their voices, no matter how “good.” For others, especially if they live with Deaf people, speaking simply becomes defunct and inferior as a mode of communication when compared to ASL.

When I’m out with Deaf friends, I put my hearing aid in my purse. It removes any ability to hear, but far more importantly, it removes the ambiguity that often haunts me.

In a restaurant, we point to the menu and gesture with the wait staff. The servers taking the order respond with gestures too. They pantomime “drinks?” and tell us they learned a bit of signs in kindergarten. Looking a little embarrassed, they sign “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day” in the middle of asking our salad dressing choice. We smile and gently redirect them to the menu. My friends are pros at this routine and ordering is easy ― delightful even. The contrast with how it feels to be out with my hearing husband is stunning.

Once my friends and I have ordered, we sign up a storm, talking about everything and shy about nothing. What would be the point? People are staring anyway. Our language is lavish, our faces alive. My friends discuss the food, but for me, the food is unimportant. I’m feasting on the smorgasbord of communication ― the luxury of chatting in a language that I not only understand 100% but that is a pleasure in and of itself. Taking nothing for granted, I bask in it all, and everything goes swimmingly.

Until I accidentally say the word “soup” out loud.

Pointing at the menu, I let the word slip out to the server. And our delightful meal goes straight downhill. Suddenly, the wait staff’s mouths start flapping; the beautiful, reaching, visual parts of their brains go dead, as if switched off.

“Whadda payu dictorom danu?” the server’s mouth seems to say. “Buddica taluca mariney?”

“No, I’m Deaf,” I say. A friend taps the server and, pointing to her coffee, pantomimes milking a cow. But the damage is done. The server has moved to stand next to me and, with laser-focus, looks only at me. Her pen at the ready, her mouth moves like a fish. With stunning speed, the beauty of the previous interactions ― the pantomiming, the pointing, the cooperative taking of our order ― has disappeared. “Duwanaa disser wida coffee anmik? Or widabeeaw fayuh-mow?”

Austin “Awti” Andrews (who’s a child of Deaf adults, often written as CODA) describes a similar situation.

“Everything was going so well,” he says. “The waiter was gesturing, it was terrific. And then I just said one word, and pow!! It’s like a bullet of stupidity shot straight into the waiter’s head,” he explains by signing a bullet in slow motion, zipping through the air and hitting the waiter’s forehead. Powwwww.

Hearing people might be shocked by this, but Deaf people laugh uproariously, cathartically.

“Damn! All I did was say one word!” I say to my friends. “But why do you do that?” they ask, looking at me with consternation and pity. “Why don’t you just turn your voice off, for once and for all?” they say.

Hearing people would probably think I’m the lucky one ― the success story ― because I can talk. But I agree with my friends.

The author (right) with her daughter, Laeka, in 2010.
The author (right) with her daughter, Laeka, in 2010.

Courtesy of Rachel Zemach

One in four people in the U.S. has “hearing loss,” but only a small percentage of those individuals have connections to the Deaf community that could make them wiser and tougher in how they navigate the world. Many of them have been convinced they aren’t part of or don’t need the Deaf community, and this causes them to distance themselves from it. But time and again, I’ve found it’s Deaf people who have the solutions.

“The best thing to do is this,” one Deaf friend said when I described my frustration in a store earlier that day. “Before the hearing person can say ‘Can you read lips?’ you sign to them ‘Can you sign?’” I tried this the next day and I was absolutely stunned by how well it worked. The clerk instantly looked flummoxed and apologized for not being able to sign. Then she looked around the counter and grabbed a pen and paper. The onus shifted — no, it jumped! — right off my shoulders and onto hers. It was astonishing.

Another simple but powerful thing to do in these kinds of situations is to text. The hearing person can even use voice-to-text apps on their phones. For simple communication during most everyday encounters, this is game-changing. I’m late to this adaptation, but my goal is now to go voice-off and communicate via text apps or good ol’ pen and paper whenever I deal with strangers. It’ll be great.

If you’re a hard-of-hearing person who is used to lip-reading ― and especially if you find yourself demoralized by how much harder the COVID-19 mask-wearing makes things or if you’re simply tired of this dance ― I beg you to use the solutions right there at your fingertips (or in your pocket) courtesy of Deaf people. You’ll be amazed how it changes the game, flips things, and puts you in control, instead of having to deal with the painful, squirming, butterfly-pinned-on-a-needle way it usually feels to lip-read. And this might be hard for some people to accept, but if you really want to stop the lip-reading agony, like I do, consider getting your Deaf on and stop using your voice altogether.

If you’re a hearing person, please, when you meet someone who says they can’t hear you, take your cues from them. Do they want you to write what you have to say? Do they want you to take down your mask and speak slowly? Do they want you to pantomime? Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are the experts on how to communicate with them. Ask them openly and earnestly and respect their solutions, which they’ll undoubtedly have.

As for me, I can talk the talk, but can I walk the walk and really stop talking? We shall see. I’m going to do my best ― speaking in public just causes too many problems.

And I promise not to say “soup.”

Rachel Zemach taught Deaf students in both mainstream and Deaf schools. She’s passionate about books, dance, and helping her former students navigate this nutso world. She lives in Novato, California, with a hearing husband who calls her his “hamburger” rather than his “wife” (since the signs are similar). She has a memoir currently under consideration.

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