Donna Williams: When people are mean…

Posted on November 22, 2012

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Donna Williams - Contributing Editor

I’ve had a variety of responses to my ‘s*** hearing people say…’ blogs, mostly positive I’m happy and somewhat relieved to say, whether sharing my sentiments, adding their own ‘shit they say’ or joining in the humour, as indeed I am actually trying to be funny-yet-educational with most of my mental responses; unleashing my sarcasm on the various idiotic statements / questions I’ve had to deal with, so that people might laugh and / or make a mental note not to say that to any deaf person they meet.

One or two people have pointed out though, that my comments can be taken negatively. This is true, though they’re not (usually) intended that way; they’re just expressions of the internalised frustration and disbelief some of these comments cause. One person, though, asked:

“Do you think when hearing people say those types of comments… they’re actually trying to be mean?”

I can honestly say no. No, not at all. I’m fully aware that more often than not, silly comments or questions are born entirely of lack of thought or awareness. They’re merely annoying; in the same way that running your fingers down a blackboard and feeling your teeth go on edge is annoying.

When people are actually trying to be mean, it’s much more than annoying. It’s demoralising, disempowering, and bloody infuriating.

People are being mean when:

They pull silly faces and stick their tongue out while saying “can you understand this?”

They hide their lips behind their hand and demand to know what they just said. For extra points, one person who did this then refused to believe I couldn’t do it because I’m totally reliant on lip-reading with non-signers, because ‘you speak so well’. Basically called me a liar and accused me of playing for sympathy.

They flick my hearing-aid with a finger, then laugh as I scramble to save it from dropping on the floor.

They treat me like I’m completely stupid when they realise I’m deaf. I’m considering carrying around my newly-minted MA certificate in order to prevent this in future.

They hoot or yell directly into my hearing-aid, overloading the microphone and electronics and causing me to wince and / or jump; then laugh. Yeah, that’s really funny.

They wave their hands and contort their faces in a very mocking way, not unlike a certain ‘comedy sketch’ broadcast by Saturday Night Live ripping off Lydia Callis, the ASL terp made famous by terping for Mayor Bloomberg during Hurricane Sandy (and kudos to New York for providing a terp for NY’s many deaf residents!). This is an activity usually conducted by drunks. (And for extra points in meanness, compare deaf women to dogs – watch the clip. It’s not just the ‘interpreter’; they all piled on).

They ask if I plan to have children, then suggest I might be irresponsible to pass on my genes when I say I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it.

They say I shouldn’t be driving because I’m deaf (actually, deaf people are statistically no more likely to have accidents, thank you very much) and ask how I know when emergency vehicles are coming. Um, bright blue flashing lights? Plus, they tend to be painted in bright, attention-getting colours. They’re kind of hard to miss. That said, I did nearly swallow my tongue once when I was overtaken by a police car doing about 100mph while I was trundling along at 30 on a quiet road. But that was hardly my fault, by the time I knew they were there, they were half a mile away. That must have been some emergency.

They laugh patronisingly when I misunderstand something and refuse to repeat it.

They say ‘What? What? What?’, making me repeat something over and over, until I lose confidence that I’m saying the bloody word right, before dissolving into hysterical giggles.

They roll their eyes every time I miss something. Sometimes, it’s a martyred sigh, as if I’ve been put on this Earth for one reason only; to test their patience and fortitude. (Learn sign language then, if talking to me is so difficult, or if you can’t be bothered with that, write it down. It’s not rocket science. You’re only making it difficult for yourself and blaming me).

Once upon a time, when I was still a young, nervous deaf person finding their way in the world, on a train back home from Uni, I was peacefully reading a book (one of Terry Pratchett’s, so I was fully immersed) when the train stopped at Birmingham New Street. Since this wasn’t my stop, I continued reading my book.

Suddenly, there was a massive blow to my shoulder, knocking me into the window next to me. In shock, I looked up and there was a man, his fist raised, demanding that I get out of ‘his seat’. Utterly stunned, and struck dumb, I shakily gathered my things and stood up. As I shuffled out of the seat, I managed to find my voice and say: ‘You know, I’m DEAF. A tap on the shoulder is FINE.” Lame I know, but it was the best I could come up with. He refused to look me in the eyes.

Turning around, I found that the entire carriage was watching the scene and felt like a rabbit being pinned by many headlights. Thinking it couldn’t get any worse, I started to shuffle down the aisle, head bowed.

Then, all of a sudden, seats were free. People invited me to sit next to them (seriously, how often does that happen on British transport?) or offered me their own seats. So many people rushed to offer me a seat, it was almost like being royalty. Heavily pregnant royalty. I was suddenly the most popular person in the carriage, while the man slunk into ‘his seat’ and sat looking out of the window to avoid the stares.

I ended up sitting next to a woman who said darkly: “there are ways and means of doing things.” I got the impression that what had horrified the carriage wasn’t the blatant assault per se, but that the man hadn’t attempted to get me out of his seat more politely. How very British.

If this happened to me today, I’d be texting 80999 like crazy to have the guy arrested. But at the time, there was no 80999 and either I didn’t have enough confidence to flag down the train manager or was too much in shock to think of doing so, I’m not sure which. But so help me, no-one is getting away with doing that again.

Add to this all the times that I have been pushed aside or given filthy looks for not moving out of the way when I simply didn’t hear ‘excuse me’. True enough, they’re not being mean because they know I’m deaf, but indirectly it is because I’m deaf. And they apparently can’t see, or be bothered to think to look for, my bright blue earmoulds and goth-black hearing-aids.

This is what happens when people are being mean. Luckily, these types of incidents, where I have to deal with real ignorance and hostility, are few and far between. I’ve only been physically assaulted once (I’m choosing not to count all the times of being pushed aside; those didn’t leave a mark – both on my skin and on my confidence in public spaces) and I steer clear of obvious drunk muppets when I’m out.

I’m happy to say that the vast majority of the hearing people that I have met have been nice, if maybe sometimes a bit clueless. I can put up with occasional daft comments (though I may make a note of them for future blog posts…) because I know that far more often than not, it’s not intended to offend. It’s annoying, it’s frustrating, but it’s unintentional, so I try to deal with those with patience, whatever my mental musings or gripings might be.

But I do wish people wouldn’t be mean. It makes me mad.

Donna Williams is a deaf writer and blogger living in Bristol and studying part-time in Cardiff. As well as being a postgraduate student, she’s a BSL poet, freelance writer, NDCS Deaf Role Model presenter, and occasional performer. In dull moments, she blogs  and tweets as Deaf Firefly about what she sees as “a silly world from a deaf perspective!”

The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, and the RAD Deaf Law Centre.