Last week, I went to see a movie with a new Date. We’d had dinner together the previous week and he understood that I am deaf. The movie was great (as befits its title “The Great Beauty”) . . . the date not so much.
I am fifty-nine years old. I was born deaf and belong to the 1950s generation of “oral deaf” children. This means that although I am deaf (“moderate-severe, sloping to profound” according to my most recent audiology assessment), I have sufficient residual hearing that allows me to speak rather well. Not perfectly, but not bad: the missed sibilants and the occasional monotonous tone in my speech patterns reveal my deafness. I work hard to keep my speech patterns rhythmically inflected.
I also work hard to listen, read people’s lips, stay focused on their faces and body language, and follow the flight of their words. I do all this listening and attending work because I want to be connected to what they are saying. Connection begets connection; it is the origin of understanding others, which in turn evolves into empathy, compassion, and a reciprocal sharing of our humanity.
Which brings me back to my Date. He mumbled. Not once; not twice; but thrice. Three times I asked him to speak more clearly; three times he continued to channel Marlon Brando’s performance as “The Godfather” as if he owned that role. Remember: we’d already had that dinner the week before. I’d already exhausted myself over a glass of wine (just the one glass; I was trying to do “Dry February”) by peering at his clenched lips and trying to find meaning in his stiff, expressionless face.
It was late; I was tired; I spat the dummy. In the foyer of the cinema. In public, and in full hearing view of all and sundry. “Look”, I cried out, “if we are going to get along, you really must speak up and speak clearly. Why can’t you do this one simple thing for me?” The Date looked stunned. He mumbled, “I’m sorry.” And then (you’re going to love this!), he said, “I don’t know much about deaf people. I don’t know how to talk to them.” I snapped back, “I am not going to do Deaf Studies 101 for you now. Just speak clearly. That’s all.”
We’ll draw a veil over the next couple of hours. Suffice to say, there will be no third outing. However, my anger and frustration with the Date is not the point of my story. Stay with me.
A couple of nights later, I recounted my story to a life-long and close friend. We have known each other since we were teenagers, and we have shared much with each other. The good, bad and ugly. My friend is kind and wise; I anticipated that she would sympathise with me. I thought she might say something like, “What a boorish man!” Actually, I would have settled for a simple “oh dear” sigh of empathy.
Instead, what I got was a reminder of how the hearing world persistently walks out of step with me. And I am deliberate in my syntax here.
I have spent the better part of my 59 years learning how to walk in step with the hearing world; how to speak clearly, avoid being too expressive, keep my hands still, don’t look wounded when others laugh because I’ve misunderstood what they have said, remain stoic in the face of others’ criticism when I ask them to repeat what they’ve just said—“Oh for God’s sake, I’m not going to say it again. Why can’t you just listen properly? It doesn’t matter anyway; it wasn’t that important.” (Why say it in the first place then? Why indulge in drivel?)
And yet, when I voiced a complaint to my friend, her first and immediate response was to say “Don’t be offended, but you need to see the situation from his point of view.”
Really? From his point of view? What happened to the authority and legitimacy of my point of view? If I was a Jew complaining to my friend about anti-Semitic behavior, would my friend have admonished me, “You need to see it from the Gentile’s point of view”. Or if I were an Aboriginal Australian complaining about being excluded from a job opportunity, would my friend have said “You need to see it from the white employer’s point of view.” Or what about if I was a young woman who had been raped by her uncle? Would my friend have clucked at me and said “Oh, but you need to understand your uncle’s needs.” Of course not.
So why is my perspective as a deaf woman, holding my own in a dominant (and dominating) hearing world of so little value? First with the obtuse Date, and second with my life long friend. Where is their effort to connect with me in these exchanges? To walk in my shoes? Because let me tell you, I am damned footsore from walking in the shoes of hearing people.
I don’t know the answer. Do you?
By Donna McDonald, Guest Blogger on socialworksocialwork
Listen to Donna on Life Matters on The Art of Being Deaf
Read Donna’s book – The art of being deaf: A memoir
Watch Donna on writing her memoir