Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs

My students often tell me that I stare at them.  It makes them nervous.  Do I have to stare at them?  Yes, actually I do.  Resisting the urge to smack them upside the head and bark, “What part of I-wear-a-hearing-aid-and-read-lips don’t you understand?!  I told you all about my hearing loss and what I do to hear you on the first week of school!”, instead I smile and calmly remind them that I’m not staring, I’m just reading what they’re saying.  If I look intense, it’s because what they have to say is very important to me.  And again we have the conversation about my hearing.  I remind them I don’t hear on my left side, and when I hear noises, I don’t know from which direction they come from.  This is why raising hands is so important.  The class collectively goes, “Ohhhhh!”  Then it all makes sense.  I’m not really crazy; I just don’t hear.

I do my best to prep my students about my hearing.  On the first day of school, I give them a letter from me and in it I tell them about my hobbies, why I love teaching, and explain in detail my hearing-loss and what I do to compensate.  Most students are very good about it: the loud ones will repeat what the quiet ones said, they’ll alert me to other students who are saying something, and if I ask them to repeat themselves, they do instead of rolling their eyes and saying, “Never mind.”  With them I crack jokes about my hearing and pretend my hearing-aid is malfunctioning when they suggest that we watch a movie.  If they are too loud, I take it out and they instantly quiet down.

As I do with my students, I prep the people I know.  99% of people I know are very good at speaking to me.  They understand that I need them to be on my right; they look at me when they talk; they make sure I know they’re talking before speaking; and if I look confused they fill me in on what the conversation is about.

But then there’s the pesky, yet well-meaning 1%.  Case in point, a few months ago I met the girlfriend of one of my husband’s band mates.  We were at a noisy bar and she kept covering her mouth with her hands.  I casually let her know that I’m hard of hearing.  Instantly her eyes brightened and she immediately began to sign.  I politely apologized to her that I don’t know how to sign.  By the set of her chin, I could tell I’ve disappointed her.  She began to talk to someone else.

Another case in point: I worked at McDonald’s in high school.  One busy Saturday afternoon, I was manning the cash register when Ronald McDonald (seriously) paid our franchise a visit.  He came right up to the counter and began to sign to me.  I could feel the customers’ eyes on the two of us and them thinking, “Oh, how sweet!  He’s signing to the hard of hearing girl.” Ronald McDonald had a lot to say because it felt like he was there for an eternity.  Not wanting to interrupt him, I waited until he was finish to meekly say, “I’m sorry. I don’t sign.”  His back straightened and his smile turned upside down as he stiffly said, “Well, you should learn.  It’s a beautiful language.”  At that point I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was taking Spanish.

While these acts give them the appearance of being helpful, I can’t help but feel insulted on a couple of different levels.  Level one: I enter these conversations talking and listening, not signing.  If I needed to sign, I would sign. Level two: I feel that if someone was trying to be helpful and had my best interest at heart, they would ask if I knew how to sign prior to signing. Instead the signers seem to want to show off their talents.  This puts me (or any hard of hearing person in this position) in the awkward position of having to say that I don’t know how to sign; I can’t humor them and “wing it”.  For those who are upset by my lack of utilization of their skills, I just turn a deaf ear and go about my business.

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