Deaf rejecting deaf

Posted on 5 May 2007. Filed under: Audism |

You spend a lifetime with hearing people, most of whom don’t sign, or who don’t sign well, or who might sign well but forget to sign when you need it the most. Some of them might be your own relatives. You love them, but you wish communication with them wasn’t so hard ALL. THE. TIME.

You are surrounded by lack of communication. You are drowning in incomprehension, and frustration. You are drifting, lost, in a sea of rejection. The people around you can’t seem to be bothered to even try to accommodate your communication needs. Unless you bug them. And remind them. And bug them. And remind them. Again. And again. And again. And, did we say already? AGAIN.

And then — at last! You find yourself among companions who SIGN! Who communicate in YOUR language! You are surrounded by communication! You are happily immersed in comprehension and serenity. You are floating, found, in a sea of acceptance. The people around you don’t even need to “accommodate” your communication needs because you all share the same needs. No longer do you need to bug. Or remind. Or bug. Or remind. Nope. There is only love and belonging.

But — what’s this? Here, all of a sudden is an interloper. Someone who … does NOT sign. Or signs, but not well. What are they doing here? Don’t they know they don’t belong? You think you’re finally surrounded by full communication access. But now, suddenly, here’s someone with whom it is not so easy to communicate. Don’t they know how frustrating that can be? Don’t they understand how violated that can make you feel to realize that your one sanctuary has just been invaded by exactly the kind of communication barriers you wanted a break from?

But wait a minute.

This might be someone who, just like you, knows EXACTLY what it is like to drown in incomprehension and frustration, to be adrift and lost in a sea of rejection. Because, just like you, they’re deaf, except only–for now–for that lower case “d.” But, unlike you, they weren’t lucky. They weren’t lucky enough to have grown up with another way to communicate. They didn’t start learning ASL, or BSL, or Auslan, or (insert your local signed language here) until age 10, 15, 25, 40.

They’re starting late. But they are desperate for a place to belong. And they hope they’ve found it, among Deaf people. If they can just learn to sign. And, more importantly, if they can find acceptance. If they can find a little patience. If they can find signers who are willing to slow down a little so they can understand. If they can find people who will simply help them learn a new sign instead of sneering when they have to resort to fingerspelling.

And maybe, on top of being (formerly) oral deaf, their brain just isn’t one of those lucky brains that just happen to be wired for soaking up a brand new language late in life. You’ve all met them. Maybe you’re one of them. People who start learning ASL, LESCO, LIBRA, (insert your local signed language here) at age 12, 18, 30, 50, and immediately become fluent. Who take to it like a fish to water. Who find it so easy they’re amazed they didn’t know it before.

But, the fact is: not everyone’s brain is wired that way. Even the most enthusiastic students of language–the ones who immerse themselves 24/7 (or would, if they could) for months on end (or would, if they could) sometimes just never reach full fluency in a new language. There are immigrants who live in their new home for decades without really becoming fluent in the local language. And it’s not always a simple matter of effort. Some of them are people who take language class after language class, but it just never seems to stick. Or it only sticks a tiny piece at a time.

It’s the same with people learning to sign. Some take to it very quickly and can become fluent in six months. Others put in the exact same amount of effort and commitment, and expose themselves to the exact same range of opportunities, but need five or 10 years to achieve the same fluency. And that’s just the way they are. It doesn’t mean they “aren’t trying.” It doesn’t mean “they don’t care enough.” It doesn’t mean “they really just want to be hearing.” It’s just how they are.

It’s hard enough to learn a new language. It’s harder still when the people who you hope can help you learn reject you instead.

But that’s exactly what happens with many (lower case) deaf people who would earnestly like to become (capital D) Deaf people. Instead of acceptance and support in their scary journey toward learning a new language and a new culture, they get the door slammed in their face.

And when that happens, everybody loses. The deaf person loses because they are left to make do with what acceptance and communication they can find in the hearing community. And the Deaf community loses because we lose someone might have become a new community member. Someone who might have interesting insights and perceptions. Someone who might enrich our community–if only we would give to them the same courtesy we wish hearing people would give to us.

If you’ve read this far, then I hope that means you’re thinking about how the Deaf community can become more welcoming and supportive of emerging Deaf people. (Perhaps we could say: d–>Deaf people … a d with an arrow showing the person’s path as they gradually become a captial “D” Deaf person). The next time you see an “interloper” in your cozy circle of Deaf friends, how can you reach out to them with warmth and patience for their (temporarily) awkward signs?

If you take these questions seriously, then you might want to learn from the hurtful experiences of people who have found only rejection from Deaf people. Follow this link to to read one example. [Edit: Kethry herself has responded below. I encourage you to both read her blog entry, written for Disableism Day, and also her comment here.] You might also want to explore some of the other posts under the “Audism” category at this site.

[Want to submit your own essay for publication at Reunify Gally? It should be related in some way to diversity within the Deaf community, or related to reunifying or healing the Gallaudet community in the aftermath of the protests. If interested, review my Guidelines for Guest Bloggers and submit your essay to ashettle (at)]


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12 Responses to “Deaf rejecting deaf”

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thanks for the link.. i should be clear though: i haven’t *only* found rejection from Deaf people. There are some truly wonderful Deaf people around, just as there are truly wonderful hearing people and deaf people – its prejudice of the highest order to classify someone according to their label, after all! My blog – and i hope this was clear – was against the attitude that i faced, sort of institutional prejudice, from the Deaf Community as a whole (in the UK, i have no idea what its like in the USA), in places like Deaf Clubs and so on – and it was *this* attitude that finally led me to say.. well fine.. have it your way.

I should also be clear (although i didn’t say this in my blog, mostly because i was trying to stick to topic: that of disablism, since my blog was done as part of that day) that it was also more than the non-acceptance of me and who i came from, my background as a deaf person.. i also faced prejudice on the basis of my sexuality, who i wanted to be – in other words, if you were anything other than a blue collar person who’s main interest was sports, the Deaf club and community, soaps and so on – then you just weren’t accepted.

thank you for a thought provoking blog though, and i really hope that the situation changes – in *both* our countries.


Thanks for your further clarifications, Kethry.

The issues you face in the UK seem pretty much the same as what you would see in the United States. There is a divide between “D”eaf and “d”eaf people, and further divides based on socio-economic class, race, education level, sexual orientation, etc. If you’re in a big city like Washington, DC, with a large Deaf community then it’s easier to find a match to at least some of those characteristics. For example, there are organizations for Deaf GLBT people, and social groups for Deaf, highly educated white-collar professionals. But if you belong in multiple minority or “marginalized” communities, then it can still be a challenge to find a true “home.”

If someone else reading this disagrees with the following, then by all means please do speak up. But I think educated Deaf people tend to be somewhat more tolerant of deaf/Deaf people who grew up oral because, even if they don’t necessarily speak or lipread themselves, they do at least have stronger English skills. So if someone comes into their circle and starts to fingerspell a lot, or starts to rely very heavily on English word order, they find it easier to understand them. Whereas a Deaf person who might have beautiful, profoundly eloquent signed language skills but maybe not so strong skills in English (or other written languages) find it harder to understand someone signing in English word order, or may not be familiar with some of the English vocabulary that someone tries to fingerspell.

It’s kind of like the difference between real ENGLISH, real SPANISH, and a random back-and-forth hodge-podge mixture of the two languages like “Spanglish.” If you only know English, or if you only know Spanish, then “Spanglish” won’t make any sense to you. It’s only going to be comprehensible if you have at least a rudimentary vocabulary and a grasp of grammar in both English and Spanish. And even then, even some fluently bi-lingual Spanish/English speakers find “Spanglish” annoying–they want people to either speak in Spanish or speak in English and not throw the two together in the same sentence.

I think one of the challenges that new adult signers have is that, at least in the beginning, their signing is going to inevitably come across as the signed equivalent of “Spanglish.” And that linguistic mix is only going to make sense to someone who is comfortable with both English and signed language (ASL, BSL, whatever). So I suspect that one part of the rejection that new signers face is not necessarily always a conscious rejection rooted in attitude (though it is that also–related to the “interloper” issue I touch upon in my blog post here). Sometimes there is a real communication barrier to deal with.

And even though Deaf (and deaf and hard of hearing and speech impaired and aphasic and autistic) people rightly criticize hearing (and non-aphasic, non-autistic, speaking) people for shutting them out of the communication process, most of us still are prone to doing the exact same thing on the rare few occasions that we suddenly find ourselves to be in the “communication majority.”

Deaf-blind people, and Deaf/deaf people with cerebral palsy experience their own communication barriers, for example. But sighted Deaf/deaf people don’t always do so great at finding ways to fully include Deaf-Blind people in their social activities. (Click on the category Deaf-Blind at this site — somewhere here, I have a link to a blog by a Deaf-Blind woman who can give more examples.) And they don’t always take the time to understand a Deaf person whose cerebral palsy affects the way they sign, or some other disability that affects how they communicate.

Reading your entry, I had a lot of flashbacks. I was found deaf at 1 1/2, didn’t learn sign language(SEE) ’til 12, and learned ASL in my late 20’s. I observed that where I lived (MD/DC/VA), the deaf community accepted me. I think due to high variety of languages, education levels, skins, gender preferences, etc. It was only when I moved back to a state that I grew up, the deaf community didn’t accept me. I had always wondered why, especially that I grew up there. It took me a long while before I realized it- they see me as “hearing mentally” in a deaf body. They don’t even accept many varieties here. Deaf gay? you’re out of luck. Deaf blind? Good luck! Deaf disabled (mental retarded or in wheelchair), the door is that way out. I always think it is because it is a BIG state, and smaller deaf community; not exposed to real deafhood, deaf culture, deaf values, not trusting new faces or even old faces. IMO.

[…] Deaf rejecting deaf You spend a lifetime with hearing people, most of whom don’t sign, or who don’t sign well, or who might […] […]


How true… I went back to my home state after many years moving around… I guess to belong and be able to make changes you’d have to move into a state where no one knows you and start over.

Those who try learning ASL late it is hard but guess what thanks for coming and you are very WELCOME in my world!!!

Story of my life really ! Once upon a time we were all deaf in that we didn’t have anyhearing of use, now, a stray sign here and there you’re dead meat, or ‘exiled’ for life !


OK – where does this leave documents like bsi document pas78 ? (disabled access to websites) which i found rather funny to read when i read it.

I trust the ‘D’ and ‘d’ communities will get its act together one day

Talk about flashbacks! I was not found to be deaf till 3. I was not educated in school as I was ill all the time, and had no way of communication. I was given no tutorial at home study. When I did go, the very few times I remember, I was beaten by the 1st grade teacher for not hearing her. Nothing was done when I told my mother. And once I remember I had to sit on the floor without books as they didn’t have a space for me. I was not taught sign language. And had no home schooling. I learned on my own to lip read and body language. I was angry a lot due to the frustration of reading wrong, if I missed something, it changed what was said. I could only concentrate on one speaker at a time. No one made efforts at getting my attention and I was beaten for things I didn’t do, which I had no clue because they didn’t tap me and speak in front of me. I was in a world of my own.
I wanted to become an advocate for the hearing impaired/deaf community. But you need to have sign as a first language to teach…
I am self taught on many things. I took a few classes but I have an attention problem. And people mind my way of communication. Like I grew up buldozing people, talking a lot so that no one would notice I could not hear them.
I lost a job when a coworker found that I read lips. Suddenly people had hands and papers over their mouths if I was looking at them. But that job gave me the opportunity to practice my sloppy sign. I stutter and am dyslexsic, even in sign. Go help that person, and finger spelling works and I would learn new words. But I have also learned after what I used the insurance money to get a stapedectomy, that because then I could hear I was rejected signing. “she hears!” would be signed. Yes, at 21 I got one ear done so I am no hearing impaired! It is a blessing as I risked the little I had to have more. I borrowed $2,500 to do it!
When my friends found out they asked me what I wanted. To hear music? No I can put my ear against a proffessional amp, has been done, and they put it all the way up! It amused them that I had no clue. But I enjoy the vibration and bass. I wanted to hear the birds in the rustling leaves of the trees.
The dr didn’t tell me while I recover don’t go into vacummed spaces. Cars with the windows up, elevators, as my job was illegally pushing me to return to work, I tried. Oh the vertigo! I damaged the connection of the wire to the nerve. Now I am hearing impaired. Actually having hearing like a newborn was extreemly painful.
For years I have been trying to find a dr to do it again, and the other ear as what I have is hereditary calcification of the anvil. When that happens I will be deaf again.
In 2001 I had a major stroke and all my efforts to be certified went away. Gone! Could not walk, talk, read or write. I had to learn all over. Luckily I have been very sucessful. But have trouble with the one thing that I now use when I have other times that I have the inablity to read, talk and write. And I am shocked that when I ask for an interpretor I am asked how fluent I am! If this is all I have I am sure we can make it work! And I am a quick learn when I really set my mind to any thing.
It is so frustrating that no matter how many years I tell the same people don’t mumble, (as anunciating words is a lost art) turn away when they want me to hear more than a sound, walk away talking! I do have to say it wears on my paitence. And for some reason people object that they are intently lip read. Maybe it is that look a person in the eyes to be trusted.
I learned to speak using a dictionary. When I left home at 17 my companion said they would forget what I began saying if I didn’t learn to speak faster, as I anunciated all my words. So I am shunned for speaking so well. When I have the strokes, people think I am deaf as that is how my voice comes out. No I hear you, if you look at me! I actually find out who I lip read or hear when people cover their mouth or are on my amplified phone. And that is another thing! Rant! I have to be at a level of deafness to get TTY, or other devices. Otherwise it is out of pocket expense. As I don’t hear certain levels of noise. And if there is a motor or a croud it disturbs the metal in my head terrible. Have to be escorted as I loose my balance. It is frustrating when classes are in rooms with the a/c so loud. As that is what I hear, feel. So doing the surgery puts me at odds with the blessing of living inbetween both worlds.
I went to a family funeral recently. My brother went to RIT and there is a large deaf community. Because some people joked with him that one day they needed sign another not, he refuses to sign. And they were ridiculing me that I was speaking over someone. Hey how am I to know if they are in a circle and not helping after I told them I need help to know when it is safe to give my opinion. That is it. I was still the retarded sister who was threatened with Willowbrook (place where mentally damaged, deaf and blind people were tortured in SI. NY. USA). If you don’t do what I say, I am dropping you off at Willowbrook. Yeah real secure family life.
My outlet was art. And study of all things.
I was happy to catch the President of Galladet on his farewell event. I was shocked to hear of the anger of who he wanted to have, well he didn’t vote on it. And I was happy to see he was going to 3rd world countries to teach where there is no access. But again I feel that America needs more people who cannot get to the schools, and colleges to learn. We have annex’s and I go to my local night high schools. On line might be my most used resource. And my friends have for years said they would go with me for a class as they know how frustrating that my husband wants only English.
It is shocking that my speach pathologist teacher says still after 30 years there are still parents who don’t know how to communicate with their children. I even met some as I am good at catching children when they need to be checked.
Advice. Don’t take an amplifier into a sweat lodge to hear. Ruins it. ūüôā And I was told I would hear what I needed.
Well this is a book! Sorry for the spelling errors. I am new to wordpress, and I still have to learn my way around. Thank you for the opportunity to share. Was it carthotic? Right word? I will share you with my friends and teacher. As I have a friend teaching her daughter sign as a second language so she can communicate with her faster. Baby is not deaf.
Be Well Be Happy. Cyber Witch.

[…] , was me mate Liam @ Slakbarsted, and his latest post Audism. Through Liam, I came across this article, which then led me on to this article. It’s really hard, sometimes, to get an even handle on […]

I enjoyed the original article above. I hope the author realizes also, and is accepting of the fact, that a lot of us (deafened and hard of hearing) do not wish to join the Deaf cultural community. We have established relationships and careers, many of us, in the hearing world, and we want more captioning and lip reading instruction, for examples. This is not to say that deafened people should not learn signing also, that is an indiviudual choice.

In terms of the Gally situation and designing new directions there, I hestiate to say because I am not part of that community, yet from a distance, it seemed to me that new sorts of open doors are needed all around, so that all our Deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing communities and needs can collaborate. Together, with our differences (e.g. using sign language or using captioning primarily), we can achieve a lot for all of us, and divided, we will not accomplish our goals.

I followed a link from the Late Deafened Adult chat group to this article.
What an accurate description. I have some residual hearing. A few random voices I can understand. but mostly its just random words and sounds. Without my hearing aids its basically just noise.
I am beyond hard of hearing. yet I am not fully deaf. I still have a hearing mind. Communication for me is ideally what audio is left, lip reading and signed english. I cannot get a grasp on the grammtical context of ASL. I wish I could. but it confuses my brain. It is wonderful to see some recognition of that in your article. I am not stupid. I just can’t do languages. I consider myself to be Late Deafened. Its one of the few places that encompasses the range of people in my situation. Communication efforts are varied.yet all are accepted. We’re a small group, but we’re all in the same lifeboat.
Thank you for your thoughtful presentation and understanding re: acceptance

[…] , was me mate Liam @ Slakbarsted, and his latest post Audism. Through Liam, I came across this article, which then led me on to this […]

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