Life as an Extreme Sport

Aural Fixation

Invisible disabilities are interesting in that by their very nature, you can hide them and thus choose how you are perceived by others. There are some disabilities, however, that might qualify as invisible in that you cannot see them, but are not because they do literally affect how the world interacts with you (and you the world).

One of the most common of these is deafness – it affects your ability to hear the world, and interact on a speaking level. And because of my respiratory illness, which caused my throat to swell to a point that speaking was no longer possible, I was thrust into the world of communicating with the hearing in a way that labeled me deaf.

This is not the first time I’ve had this experience; upper respiratory infections that affect my voice, and often my hearing (as has happened this time) are a common bane and side effect of having asthmatic lungs that occasionally rise up in an effort to kill me. And it’s an experience I’ve undertaken voluntarily, as well, when I spent time learning American Sign Language, and when I spent time at the California School for the Deaf. But that doesn’t really change how strange an experience it is, especially when you’re already not feeling well and the last thing you want to do is have people yelling at you, or moving slowly, because you’re using a pad of paper to communicate rather than your voice.

And what has been different this experience is where I live. Albany, New York, is not an area with a large deaf population, unlike the times I have voluntarily or otherwise stepped into a world of communicating by sign and paper. Fremont, California – home to the School for the Deaf and Blind – has a very large deaf population because of the residential school, and Seattle is one of the largest populations of deaf in the country. In these places, the hearing residents are accustomed to living and communicating with the deaf, so there is very little of the stereotypical response to deafness. In fact, the first time I ever experienced it myself was this past Thursday, at the local Boston Market.

After picking up my latest batch of medications, I decided to see what sort of soup and other soft and hot foods were available, to save myself the effort of trying to cook. I was armed with my pad of paper and pen, and had my question written out before going in. “What’s the soup today?” A simple question. I smiled in response to the greeting given to me behind the counter, and handed the man my pad of paper. He read the note, looked at me, gave me my pad back, and then went into a very slowly exaggerated pantomime, pointing at the two pots of soup and slowly, loudly, and with exaggerated lip movements, saying “THIS.IS.CHICK-EN NOO-DLE.THIS.IS.BEEF.BAR-LEY.”

I sort of blinked back at the voice – it hurt my already irritated ears, and then mentally shrugged and wrote out my order. I handed the paper back to him, he read it slowly to himself, and then started to shout questions at me. Apparently thinking that shouting wasn’t quite good enough, he began a crude pantomime of his questions, including pointing to a coworker when asking if I wanted white bread, or himself if I wanted wheat bread.

At this point, incredulity had set in, and I was curious to see what sort of an ass he was going to make of himself next. And, thanks to his yelling, the entire restaurant was watching him do it. He gathered my order together, I paid, and as I was gathering up my purchase, I swallowed the pain and whispered to him “perhaps you should have your ears checked out, you seem to have a problem with shouting” and left as he stood there, flabbergasted at having his assumptions pointed out to him.

As a striking contrast, I was back at Boston Market Friday afternoon for more mashed potatoes and soup, and was still avoiding speech. The waitstaff was completely different, and the gentleman who served me that time was polite, friendly, and treated me as he would any other customer – even though I completely limited my communication to the pad of paper.

I’ve never quite understood what it is about people that makes them think that speaking louder will miraculously solve someone’s hearing issues, or even that because someone does not speak, they cannot hear. While vows of silence are somewhat rare in our mostly-secular culture, they’re not completely unheard of, and there is, of course, the simple and standard illness explanation. Likewise, I’m not sure why people think that exaggerated lip movements means ease in understanding what’s being said. While I can and do read lips – a useful skill both in watching television (I almost always manage to catch what Jon Stewart says to guests as the show fades to commercial, for example) and in communicating in crowded space – pulling lips into exaggerated mimicry of a letter makes the reading much harder, not easier.

It’s the sort of thing that pulls me in two ways. On the one hand, I think, at least the person is making an effort to communicate. They’re trying to get a message across, even if they’re not necessarily thinking about the best way to succeed. (For example, how much logic does it take to realize that, if a person can hear what you’re saying, chances are good that you did not cure them of their deafness with your slow, loud speech, but instead they can hear and you’re just being an ass?) But on the other hand, they’re just being an ass – they’re not moving beyond basic assumption and lack of thought or knowledge, something that seems to me is done because they don’t see the point in doing so, why make the effort? It’s almost as though there is still an undercurrent of “that dumb cripple” – where if you just treat the person like they are a child, or have limited intelligence, all will be fine, because that’s what the actual problem is.

As I said, this is the first time I’ve ever experienced this sort of treatment firsthand, although of course I’ve heard stories all my life. And if this is the treatment people who are mentally fine, and even physically fine save for an inability to hear, or having not learned speech, or even who simply have an upper respiratory and middle ear infection, are subject to, I can see why there are enclaves in the United States where people with common disabilities band together. It’s easier to educate a community if there is a group of people to interact with, rather than a lone person tilting at windmills of ignorance.