Does Being Deaf Separate Us From People?

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“Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people.”

Helen Keller

Is this true? Does being deaf separate us from people?

It’s easy to feel isolated in a group of hearing people who do not know sign language and with multiple conversations going on. This makes it difficult to lip-read conversations.

It’s easy to feel overlooked when you cannot hear stand-by announcements while trying to catch the next flight out after your flight has been cancelled.

In situations like these I feel being deaf separates me from people, but I’ve encountered societies that don’t make me feel like I’m separate from everyone else.

When I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya I found that many hearing volunteer experienced similar feelings I do when I’m the only deaf person in a group of hearing people. The reason for this was because they struggled to understand the local spoken language. It didn’t matter who was deaf and who was hearing, we faced the same frustrations and sense of isolation due to communication barriers.

Does being deaf cause that inaccessibility to communication or is it cultural?

Yes, there is stigma associated with being deaf in Kenya and opportunities available to the deaf community are limited compared to opportunities in the United States. However, the Kenyan community had a method of communication that was rather friendly to people who were deaf in Kenya compared to approaches Americans take.

If I didn’t answer to a stranger’s question, he would tap me on my shoulder. If I told a bus driver I couldn’t hear, he would start gesturing. If a store owner asked if I needed help, he would pull out his phone and type to me. Because so many different languages are spoken in Kenya, it became part of their culture to find other ways to communicate. It doesn’t matter how communication occurs as long as it occurs successfully.

I never felt cut off from people while in Kenya because I was never made to feel embarrassed or isolated that I communicated in a different way. Not once did a Kenyan tell me:

“…never mind…”
“It’s not important…”
“I’ll tell you later…”

I never had a Kenyan walk away from me or brush me aside when they realized I was deaf. For this reason I felt connected to people.

Could it be that deafness doesn’t cause the separation from people? Could it be that people cause separation from each other by creating unnecessary communication barriers out of fear and confusion? Could it be due to cultural differences?

If so, what steps can we take to get rid of the notion that being deaf isolates us from the mainstream society?

Ask people why they’re walking away from you after they realize you’re deaf. Ask people why they said “never mind” and explain why it hurts.

Explain the importance of tapping you on your shoulder to get your attention.

Take the first step and initiate conversations with people you encounter on a daily basis (e.g. your friendly supermarket checkout person).

The most important thing is to identify what causes the sense of isolation at times and to realize that it’s not necessary based upon the ability to hear. Instead it’s based on how our culture has learned to react upon meeting a deaf person and how our culture defines communication.

Even though it can get exhausting to feel like you have to constantly educate people and feeling like it’s not your responsibility to do so, if you don’t, who will? How will our current mainstream cultural perception of communication change if we don’t challenge it?