What is it like to be the only Deaf person at a social event?

This is one of my favourite artworks. It hangs above my bed. It’s not that I don’t like socialising. There is nothing I love more than an intense, in-depth catch up with a good friend. But what I hate with a vengeance is going to events filled with hearing people who can’t sign, and being expected to somehow enjoy myself, while forbidden from doing any activity that is actually enjoyable.

Don Grushkin captured the problem exactly in his blog post about how boring it is for us.

‘Don’t dare bring a book or watch tv instead.  That’s “rude” (but it’s not rude to basically exclude a person who is supposed to be there?).  Don’t bring a Deaf friend to chat with and have the temerity to not use your voices to chat with them, thereby depriving the hearing people of knowing what you two were talking about (even though we have been sitting there among you, and nobody checks to make sure we know what they’re talking about).’

Countless times I have brought along a book, only to be told how rude it is for me to sit at the table in a restaurant reading. Tired of dealing with this accusation, I have branched out. I bring knitting, hand-sewing, or drawing instead. Then I am branded (somewhat unkindly) as weird or nanna-like. I try to wear the badge of weirdness proudly and just stick at it. But wouldn’t it be nice if it was socially acceptable instead?

One time, after spending all day with a group of hearing people, and wandering off for a cry, I was fetched back by someone who noticed I wasn’t handling things too well. We set up my phone and keyboard at the table and she typed for me some of the jokes people were sharing. I started to understand why they were all having such a rollicking ball while I was swallowing back tears. I felt a bit guilty about the effort this woman was making on my behalf, so to make it more worth her while, I typed back witty little quips in response to the things various people were saying. She laughed. Everyone stopped and stared at her. ‘You two are sharing secrets! That’s rude!’ The person mimed us huddled together, typing away wickedly. I didn’t want to make my typist feel awkward, so I just laughed it off. But what I wanted to say was, ‘How can you possibly accuse us of sharing secrets when you have spent ALL DAY laughing over jokes you wouldn’t share with me?!’

Faced with the pressure to attend family events, I tried bringing along a signing friend. Sure enough, I was later accused of being ‘anti-social’ when she was there, because we tended to sit together and chat with each other in Auslan, and didn’t mix with others much. They didn’t want me to bring her in future. It’s far less anti-social for me to sit there wondering what they are all talking and laughing about and whether they will take a pot-shot at me if I whip out my book or knitting.

If you are inviting a deaf person to a social event, stop and think about how they are going to access it. Perhaps you could book an interpreter (pay for it yourself – don’t ask the deaf person to – our interpreting bills are already high!) or invite some other deaf/signing people too. If there’s a movie involved, ensure it has subtitles. If there will be speeches, ask for a print out. Make sure the deaf person you invite knows the efforts you are going to to ensure their inclusion, so they know they don’t need to ask or try to figure it out themselves.

3 thoughts on “What is it like to be the only Deaf person at a social event?

  1. Cam

    I’m curious how ACC apps would work in this scenario. Many nonverbal autistics use these when expected to be verbal – the ones which translate what they type into spoken word. Would that work for a deaf person in this context, translating the spoken words around them into text, or would the program be too confused by too many voices / input at once? I wonder if such things would be useful for a deaf person wanting to be included and know what was going on with hearing people around them not accommodating.

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    1. Asphyxia Post author

      Hi Cam.. I’ve not had much luck with ACC apps – I find they aren’t accurate enough and that people are reluctant to use them – they inhibit the natural flow of conversation. I do use them sometimes but it doesn’t make for smooth communication, especially since I can’t use them to reply. So one person speaks into the app and it is translated, with lots of errors. Then I type my response. It just feels counter intuitive..

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