Hearing Privilege: Being Deaf in a Hearing World

We live in a world where everyone is different; some people wear glasses, some people are short/tall, some people are blind…we are grouped into categories that fit whatever we are. But have you ever thought about the Deaf? Have you thought about what it would be like to fit into that category? How it would affect your life? I bet you never considered yourself to be a hearing person.

Personally, the Deaf community never crossed my mind before getting a job at Hamilton Relay in Frostburg, which provides telecommunication access for the Deaf and speech impaired. It was a subject I simply never encountered every day. My best friend Adam, who I grew up with in Missouri, has worn hearing aids since he was a child. It was not until I began my job at Hamilton that I even considered what hearing aids meant for him. It was entertaining for him when I began asking him questions about them because I knew everything about him except for that part of his life; because I was hearing, it never occurred to me to ask him or to think of the struggles he may have had, like using a TTY machine in elementary school to call his mom. Being introduced into this culture that was entirely new to me opened my eyes to the difficulties a Deaf person struggles with every day.

Imagine waking up on an average day to your alarm clock annoyingly buzzing. You hear the water running from the shower head and the dripping of the water after you have turned off the shower. You hear the door slam behind you as rush to class or work. You even hear the engine fire up as you turn the key in your car’s ignition. There are cars honking, music blaring, and the wind blowing into your car’s window as you drive down the road. There are so many sounds that you do not think about on an average day. Now, imagine waking up the next day and being unable to hear your alarm, the water, your car, or the everyday sounds on the road. What would you do? How would you live day-to-day? How would your life be impacted?

Many people who can hear never consider themselves as being part of the hearing population. There are many labels that are given to certain groups of people; culture labels people by race, skin color, sexual orientation, or by independent traits such as hair color or height. However, being labeled hearing is not thought as one of the labels. It is certainly not something someone considers until confronted by someone who is not hearing, but by someone who is Deaf.

According to Gallaudet University’s website, a prominent Deaf university in Washington D.C., less than 5 percent of the population in the United States is Deaf. The percentage seems quite small, but it represents roughly 5 million people who are Deaf or have some kind of hearing loss. These 5 million people in the United States who are Deaf represent a minority within the hearing world. They structure their life around how hearing people live, communicate, and work. The language barrier they face determines who they befriend, what activities they attend, or how behave in a setting with hearing people. Imagine waking up Deaf tomorrow morning and not being able to communicate freely with your hearing friends or having access to the information you had before. You would have to discover a whole new way to gain access to the weather or information pertinent to your job.

Hearing people take advantage of the privileges granted to them every day and are most likely never aware of the privileges until confronted by someone from the Deaf community. The simple act of being a hearing person and not thinking you have privileges in society shows how privileged you are. Overall, American culture caters to those who can hear. To be an average, hearing, American you do not need special equipment to simply make phone calls or to go to a movie without needing extra accommodations to understand it. For a Deaf person to live in the hearing world it is an everyday, sometimes expensive struggle.

Recently on Twitter, a popular hashtag began trending among the Deaf community and their hearing allies. The hashtag, #hearingprivilege, allowed people to share their experiences, problems, and concerns with the world. Jenny, an active Deaf member in the Deaf community, explained that the hashtag allowed the Deaf to “share our experiences in a world that is not accessible to us because of the privileges of those who can hear.” Many people contributed to the hashtag, sharing their own personal experiences. The topics ranged from problems with communicating with someone with or without an interpreter or not having access to something because they cannot hear. For someone who is hearing, it is an important hashtag to browse through and discover the ways hearing privilege oppresses the Deaf community.

If someone would scroll through the tweets people have posted under that hashtag, a variety of subjects would come up. Many people were upset that they could not attend a program because of the lack of accommodations they would need to understand what was said.  On October 4th, Philip tweeted: “#hearingprivilege is when I go in ANY movie theaters it is not open captioned. They say they don’t want to upset privileged customers.” Some were afraid interpreters could not interpret correctly for them if they were seeking higher education in a specific field that contained specialized language. On September 28th Helene tweeted: “#hearingprivilege is planning your education based on what you want to become rather than whether you’re likely to get interpreters or not.” Some were simply exasperated by how hearing people attempted to communicate with the Deaf. For example, on October 14th Danielle tweeted: “ringing a bell to call people into the presentation…at a #Deaf conference?”

Other tweets looked at more specific aspects of a Deaf individual’s life. Debbie tweeted on September 29th that “#hearingprivilege is being able to have a conversation with someone in the other room.” Many hearing people take advantage that they are able to multitask while holding a conversation. Hearing people also do not consider the special, expensive equipment Deaf people purchase to make their life a little easier as someone who cannot hear. On September 27th, Sharon tweets: “#hearingprivilege – they don’t need to set up flashing system in their home for doorbell, VP calls, baby cry…” Flashing lights allows the Deaf to know that the phone is ringing, someone is at the door, their child is crying, etc. Not all Deaf people use this equipment. Jenny explained that she did not use flashers in her home because they not only look horrible, but the majority of homes are not wired to use flashers. And in regards of the price for hearing aids that some Deaf people choose to get, Jenny tweeted on September 27th, “#hearingprivilege is not having to worry about finding $5,000 to buy new hearing aids because insurance doesn’t cover it.” Imagine having to find that kind of money out-of-pocket for something that could help you in a world that considers you a minority, especially when working for a company that provides a service for the Deaf; imagine spending money on flashers, hearing aids, TTY machines, just to communicate with others on a day-to-day basis. An interesting argument Jenny pointed out was if everyone learned sign language from birth to communicate rather than learning it later on as a last resort, it would make life easier and allow more people to accomplish more things. It is the same argument about language that people have today over the Spanish population increasing in the United States. People go to school to learn Spanish to communicate with a larger number of people, why not learn ASL to communicate with another group of people?

Dating a Deaf woman took that a step further by introducing me to other ways a Deaf person struggles with every day things. Dating my ex-girlfriend, exposed me to another level of problems Deaf people struggled with every day. She was born Deaf to hearing parents. We had similar interests and got along well despite the communication barrier that existed; she used American Sign Language, or ASL, to communicate while I spoke English.

When I was hired as a relay operator at Hamilton, I began learning ASL. Just simply being at work made me feel like I was missing out on conversations I could have with our employees who are Deaf. I would wave to Don, who worked as one of our Deaf translators, at night when he came in, but I could not talk to him without an interpreter. And when I met Jenny and Bobby wanted to talk to them, I could not just walk up to them and start a conversation. I would have to find our staff interpreter or write down what I wanted to say and show it to them. It was frustrating because I enjoy meeting new people, making new friends, and getting to know them, but without speaking their language it was difficult. This persuaded me to learn ASL.

I can only imagine how frustrating it is for Jenny, Don, or Bobby to work with hearing coworkers all day and be isolated merely because of the language barrier. I can walk into the break room and be annoyed that someone’s phone in the locker is still going off or I can simply start a conversation about what is on the news. However, my Deaf coworkers miss out on a lot of that. Jenny mentioned that she feels like she misses out on the break room conversations or even the gossip that drifts around the work place. My ex often mentioned how she missed out on required meetings she had to attend or being unaware of the sexual harassment she experienced because it was easy for her male coworkers to talk behind her back, leaving her unaware of the conversation until one of her hearing coworkers brought to her attention.

Of course today there are technologies that allow people to communicate without ever being in the same room with one another. You can email someone, video chat, text, contact each other through Facebook, etc. However, being unable to communicate with your friend or companion while in the same room without using technology is impractical. I was lucky that my ex understood I was making the effort to learn. Therefore, she helped me learn ASL to the extent I know it today. She learned how to speak as a child, but rarely spoke unless she needed to. She chose to speak with me, but only to help me learn signs as we went along. We spent many hours sitting down practicing signs and her patience allowed me to ask questions when I needed to. With her help, I quickly learned many signs so we could communicate. And even though we are no longer together, I am going back to the basics of learning ASL for myself, so I can communicate with those I want to speak to.

Other than communication, my life changed in other ways when she was around. We enjoyed watching movies together. However, captions were necessary so she could understand the dialogue. I learned quickly that captions, which are supposed to be accurate and accessible, are horribly inaccurate and sometimes quite inaccessible. Sometimes the captions would show only half of the dialogue and leave the rest out. When it did this, I had to relay that information to her. It was even difficult to see a movie at the theater. There were specific times where the movies were captioned and it was usually in the morning when most people either worked or was still sleeping. And who wants to see a movie at 9 am? We settled with renting movies and flipping the captions on. What a lot of people do not realize is captions are not required for every video. The FCC does not require captions on any edited video. So if there was a short clip from Saturday Night Live I wanted my ex to see, I had to watch the video and recite the dialogue in a Word document so she could follow along.

I also had to learn how to get her attention when her back was to me. As a hearing person, to stomp or flash lights on someone could be considered rude or downright annoying. For a Deaf person though, it is a good way to get their attention. I had to learn how to stomp or flash the lights when I was around her so she knew I was trying to get her attention. It took a long time for me to stop calling her name because as a hearing person, you would naturally call someone’s name to get their attention. It was a habit I had to break.

I also learned how horrible the Deaf could be treated sometimes by people are not familiar with Deaf people. When she was in town one weekend, she took me out for dinner to cheer me up after I had a horrible day. We went to a nice, local restaurant and sat down to order. I ordered my food and the waiter looked over at her for her to order. She had written what she wanted and how she wanted her food cooked. He seemed disgruntled that she could not simply just say what she wanted, but he took her note and left without a word. When they brought our food out, her order was messed up. After getting the waiter’s attention, she wrote down what was wrong with her food and gave him the note. He tried to tell her in a very loud tone, which drew attention from everyone nearby and further irritated My ex because she disliked the attention, that her food was how she ordered it. After many written notes later and her enlisting my help to communicate, the waiter finally took her plate back to the kitchen have it fixed. She was so frustrated with the ordeal that she did not even leave a tip when we left. She went up to pay for our meals while I went to the restroom. When I returned, I found her arguing with the waiter and the manager. It turned out the waiter assumed she had a mental disability and had called her “retarded” because of the facial expressions she uses when she signs to indicate grammar in ASL and her difficulty in communicating with him. She could read lips to an extent and had known what he had called her. It was a large argument that persuaded us not to return to that restaurant because of their treatment of her. It astounded me that people would assume something as drastic as that, despite that she could literally function like everyone else; she simply could not hear.

Obviously, my job gives me an insight on the simple struggles Deaf people have to overcome. To make a phone call, a Deaf person would have to use a special phone called a TTY machine. When I started at Hamilton and used one during training, it looked like a type writer with a phone attached to the top. If using a special phone was not enough, the Deaf person would have to call into a relay service to have someone else place the call for them and then relay the information back and forth. It is time-consuming for both parties of the call.

Some Deaf people prefer to email or text rather than sit at the TTY machine to make a call. Jenny and My ex both preferred these modes of communication, but Jenny pointed out some hearing people refuse to communicate that way. She indicated that her audiologist requires her to communicate over phone, not by email or text. I learned while dating My ex that she refused to make phone calls because she disliked a third-party being on the line for a conversation or she disliked she had to pay absolute attention to the TTY in case she missed something. It causes anxiety and frustration for a Deaf person to have to go through the time-consuming process to make a simple phone call. And to make things more frustrating, many businesses do not understand what a relay call even is. They hang up before I can explain to them or before the Deaf caller to take care of their business.

I often see how frustrating it is for the Deaf person to be denied service and to have to keep calling back hoping I can persuade their hearing party to stay on the line. More than once I overhear the hearing party in the background stating how they hate the TTY calls, but they never consider how it feels for the Deaf to use this type of service. There are also hearing people who call into our service through the TTY number on their bill, invoice, etc. and get angry because they cannot reach who they are trying to contact; they do not understand what the service is, even after you explain it 2 or 3 times. It only shows how many hearing people are ignorant to the Deaf world.

This ignorance only shows how important #hearingprivilege on Twitter is and how hearing people assume everyone has equal access to everything in society. Gender inequality, racial inequality, and other forms of inequality are often debated about in classrooms, on the news, or during every day conversations. Very rarely does a group of hearing people discuss how the Deaf have unequal access to the world around them. The very existence of the hashtag #hearingprivilege demonstrates how ignorant the hearing population is to the everyday struggles the Deaf community overcome.

Disclaimer: My ex will remain nameless to preserve her identity, and for other personal reasons.

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