On the Fence

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In this article, I would like to go off in a different direction and cover a topic I haven't thought about for a long time: deaf people who are "on the fence," not quite hearing enough to fully enjoy the hearing world and not quite Deaf enough to feel comfortable in the Deaf world (caps intended; "D"eaf as in Deaf culture). Someone recently sent me e-mail about this, lamenting the fact that there are many stories about the hearing world and the Deaf world... but what about those who are stuck in between? I hadn't really given this much thought recently, because I've pretty much immersed myself in the Deaf world over the past several years. Nonetheless, there was a time when I was in limbo. This article is for those of you who still are.

First of all, if you are born deaf/hard-of-hearing (or become deaf/HOH la= ter in life), I'm sorry to say that you will never completely fit into the hearing world. Period. That's it, that's a hardcore fact which I feel will never change. Sure, you can assimilate into the hearing world with varying degrees of success (depending on residual hearing, speech and lipreading skills, etc.), but you will never completely fit in 100%.

Some of us can put on an Oscar performance where we give the impression that we're doing just fine in the hearing world. I should know, I used to do this in high school all the time (where I was the only deaf student). It was easy. My teachers had given me the old "you've got to sit up front and pay attention" lecture countless times, but they never really understood what it meant to be deaf. They had no idea how hard it was for me. For a limited time in class, I could lipread just enough to comprehend what the discussion topic was. To understand everything, however, was impossible. Even if I had the right balance of residual hearing and lipreading skills, to use them for hours at a time was too exhausting. In my opinion, that's asking too much. It's easier to just pretend you know what's going on than to actually try to keep up. I was a master at it.

How can one fake his way through high school, you ask? Simple. The first rule is, look like you care. Never mind if you're daydreaming about Baywatch or the World Series; all you have to do is look like you're really contemplating the class content while your mind is fluttering all over the place. Just arch your brow, wrinkle your forehead a bit, and continue to think wonderful thoughts about Pamela Lee Anderson. Make sure you alter your facial expression to match the mood of the class. If, for example, people start laughing at a joke, all you have to do is smile. I had it down to an art form. I'd scribble doodles in my notebook with a serious expression (as if diligently taking notes), and then I'd pop a wry smile when other people chuckled for whatever reason. I blended in with the scenery as best as I could. Later, when no one was looking, I'd ask a trusted friend what the homework was... and then I'd catch up on it by myself in the library.

Basically, if you look comfortable and like you actually fit in, most of the time teachers leave you alone. Unfortunately, once in a while they'll call on you. This, however, can be handled with a certain amount of tact. You can bluff your way through if you've got the timing down. My personal rule was to never ask a teacher to repeat something more than once (it would make me stand out in the crowd if I did so). Often, I'd weasel out of this predicament with an "I don't know" or "hmm, I'm not sure." Let some other student answer the question, I figured... better for me to look ignorant than deaf. The only time this backfired was when a substitute teacher asked me what my name was (yikes!).

There are countless other ways I faked it through the hearing world, too many to list here. The bottom line, however, was that I never really fit in. I went out of my way to look like I did because I felt I had to. It was only during one-on-one interaction where I was sometimes able to hold my own when trying to fit in with hearing people. In groups, forget it.

So... when I finally joined the Deaf world, it must have been a piece of cake, right? Not exactly. Since I have Deaf parents, one might be inclined to think that I had a big headstart over other people who were joining Deaf culture relatively late. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case; all of the early admonitions I had received from medical "experts" and assorted hearing relatives explicitly warned me about the so-called evils of sign language. Using it would cause my speech to deteriorate, they said (false, false). It's a hearing world, they said, so the only way you'll ever be successful is if you speak and act like a hearing person at all times (wrong again). Therefore I was discouraged from signing, never using it that much even though my own parents were using it with each other (they were warned not to sign with me, and they tried their best to comply ... for a while). The end result was that while my receptive skills were great (from watching my parents sign), my own signing was rather clumsy and awkward.

Although my first true involvement with the Deaf community was through a dorm counseling job in 1988 at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, I didn't consider that a full immersion into Deaf culture. A lot of the staff were hearing people who signed the same way I did (pretty good, but not pure ASL), and the truly Deaf staff didn't really socialize with me that much. I actually felt like I had more in common with the hearing staff; the Deaf staff signed so fluently, I felt inferior to them. During a holiday party, one Deaf person jokingly told me not to worry about it because I was still "hearie-minded" (signing "hearing" over the forehead), and that I would learn more in due time. She was right, and she was only trying to help, but that comment crushed me. I realized that as much as I didn't exactly fit into the hearing world, I didn't fit into the Deaf world (yet).

To address this problem head on, I joined a local Deaf club. My first experience there was bittersweet. On one hand, there was the thrill of understanding what was being said around me. In hearing clubs, forget it, I was completely lost. In the Deaf club, I was able to understand many people. It was quite a breath of fresh air. However, it was still somewhat of a struggle for me. Those who were Native ASLers completely blew me away with their rapid signing. Their hands were flying all over the place, too fast for me to comprehend. Was I incompetent or what? After all, there I was, deaf myself, unable to follow the best signers. To make matters worse, some of those Native ASLers had a low tolerance for newbies like me. Some of them were willing to adjust their signing to accommodate my PSE, while others brushed me off. One person played a joke on me: I had asked for the sign for a certain beer, and this guy gave me the sign for "idiot." Sucker that I was, I went up to the bartender to place my order.

    "What do you want?" asked the bartender.
    "Idiot, me," I resonded in ASL.
    "Yeah, I know you're an idiot, but what do you want to drink?"
Obviously, the first thing I learned about the Deaf world was that it had a sense of humor. It wasn't so bad, really... with time and perseverance, I gradually became a part of it in a way I never could do with the hearing world. Any deaf person, given a reasonable amount of time, can sufficiently learn how to use sign language. I have never seen a deaf person learn how to hear and use it perfectly in the hearing world, yet I know of countless deaf people who found success and happiness in the Deaf world after struggling in the hearing one.

Granted, there are those who remain "on the fence" and just don't feel much of a connection to the Deaf world. This is understandable. For example, during all those years in a hearing high school, English alone was my primary language. ASL, as we all know, is a completely different language with a completely different syntax. So if you're joining Deaf culture late, it can be frustrating because you are literally joining another culture... and it's nothing unusual to experience culture shock! On many occasions in the Deaf world, I would sign (in English word order) a hearing idiom and be greeted with blank stares. Conversely, someone might throw me an ASL idiom, a sign or signed phrase which had no English equivalent, and I'd be confused. It took me a long while to adjust, and I can see very well why some of those who are "on the fence" might feel like they're in a completely different world. They are.

Is there any solution to this uncomfortable limbo of not quite fitting in here and not quite fitting in there? That depends on individual preference. I had two solutions which helped me adjust to the Deaf world:

  • Number one: find others who are going through the same thing you are. In other words, the best way for people "on the fence" to find comfort is to find other people who are on the fence! During my early years as a member of a Deaf club, I found other deaf/HOH people who were also relatively new to the scene. We had a lot in common and we were able to offer each other a lot of support. In due time, we all became a part of Deaf culture and I'm grateful for the experience.
  • Number two: find a mentor in the Deaf community. It helps to have a special friend who is culturally Deaf yet sensitive to your needs as a New Deafie. In my case, it was my friend Vijay who at the very last minute talked me out of leaving Gallaudet University in 1989. There were some things in the Deaf world which were very frustrating at the time, and I probably would have given up on it were it not for Vijay. I might not be writing this article today if it wasn't for him.
Of course, I realize that my solutions are somewhat self-centered; they are what worked exclusively for me. It must be acknowledged that there are still a lot of deaf people who just don't feel comfortable in Deaf culture... and no one should force them to. In this case, the answer is similar to my first solution: find your peers, whoever they may be. If you consider yourself hard-of-hearing, if you don't really like signing that much, keep in mind that there are many deaf people who feel the same way. Find them. The worst thing about being "on the fence," in my opinion, is the feeling that you are alone. Whoever you are, whatever you believe in, I hope you find your answers. Good luck!
Last update date: 
2007 Nov 21