PJ Gribbin: What does ‘deaf’ mean?

Posted on July 23, 2012

I’ve got a friend that’s blind, and others who would never claim to be blind but who have other eye conditions (macular disease, detached retinas, cataracts, …) that leave them seriously sight-impaired. I guess that everybody knows people that are short-or-long-sighted and who use lenses of some kind to improve their vision – and these people would probably be puzzled if you referred to them as even sight-impaired!

I also have friends that are deaf – but despite the fact that the spectrum of their deafness is at-least as broad as the spectrum of vision-impairment among my friends, they’re all, ‘deaf’; in my experience this is the only English word to describe less-than-perfect hearing that’s in common and generally accepted use. And I think that it’s a big shame because, in the same way that we adapt our behaviour in different ways to suit the various degrees and kinds of sight-impairment of the sight-impaired people that we meet, so we should adapt our behaviour according to the needs of the deaf people that we meet – but they have no words with which to quickly communicate their needs!

If someone tells me that they’re blind then I won’t try to show them photographs or expect them to read a computer-screen; if they tell me that they’re short-sighted and have forgotten their glasses I immediately know to bring things closer for them – and if they have cataracts I can work to avoid having them need to look towards bright light-sources – all simple, but very different, day-to-day strategies that I can use to fulfil others’ needs with but a few words passing between us.

BUT, oh so different if someone tells me that they’re deaf – they could be anything from like-a-doorpost-drop-a-bomb-next-to-me deaf right through to slightly-fuzzy-ears-getting-old-avoid-noisy-background-but-otherwise-OK deaf – and there are no objective and generally accepted words in common use that quickly convey either the degree or the kind of someone’s deafness.

I sometimes wonder if this is how deafness has managed to be come a joke – short-sighted people don’t think of themselves as blind but do think of themselves as short-sighted (and generally do something about it) and fuzzy-hearing people don’t think of themselves as deaf (while their friends and relatives often do) but – because they haven’t got a word for it that doesn’t carry the emotional impact of, ‘deaf’ – they reject the idea in its entirety, leading others to see them as a bit stubborn, out-of-touch, grumpy and stupid – all of which then get associated in their minds with the, ‘deaf’ word and open the field to joke-making and prejudice.

I’m probably in the minority on Limping Chicken because (other than maybe some early old-age-fuzziness) I’m wouldn’t describe myself as deaf. I’m certainly in a minority in the hearing world because my circumstances are such that while the vast majority of all my dealings are with hearing people I have close dealings with a few deaf people – people whose deafness covers a very broad spectrum of degree and also a wide range of types – and so think of myself as reasonably deaf-aware – not through any special virtue on my part but simply through personal experience.

This leads me to want to do some gentle evangelism on behalf of deaf people – encouraging, ‘hearies’ to understand and use strategies appropriate to interaction with, ‘deafies’ … but that’s made so much harder because (in English) everybody’s either ‘hearing’ or, ‘deaf’! If deaf-aware little old me gets irritated when some deaf colleagues ‘ignore’ my call while other deaf colleagues (same word, different condition) turn at my call so that they can then lip-read our conversation, then what chance do others who’re less aware have of understanding the differences!

Sorry, no solutions … but I hope that seeing the problem described from a hearie’s perspective at-least helps ‘deafies’ to see where hearies might be coming from when they’re less-than-understanding and so helps you to work on ways of economically expressing your deafness and your needs to those that you come into contact with.

Paul Gribbin is a semi-retired mainframe computer programmer who lives in the East Midlands. When he’s not computing he enjoys short walks – nothing over five miles please – accompanied by various dogs and grown-up children; these always seem to end up at tea-shops and pubs. He also likes reading (mostly science fiction) and during his brief acting career he once appeared as 4th Pleb in a school production of Julius Caesar.

The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, training and consultancy Deafworks, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.

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