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by Diane Lattin

This time the tables were turned. Attending a conference of deaf organizations, I was having dinner with 11 people, the majority of whom were deaf. Those who were not deaf were very skilled in the use of sign language.

I know a bare minimum of sign language so I sat, unable to understand the near silent conversations around me. Flying fingers passed in front of my face. I could have asked for a translator or requested that people go a little slower. They would have done it gladly. I knew. But I was reluctant to do this. Why should I impose my single handicap on an entire group of people?

So I smiled and nodded at what seemed appropriate times. I tried to pick up visual clues. But I was always afraid I would make a mistake and laugh when someone was discussing the death of a good friend, or nod approvingly when someone said they had a terrible headache.

Is this how a deaf person feels?

When the large meetings were being audibly interpreted, it was fine. I could understand all the business going on. But, at a conference, often the most important things are said in social conversations which follow a business meeting.

And when this happened, my disability was most apparent. I just couldn’t participate; I was left out. When a big meeting was interpreted or people were speaking directly with me, I could “hear”. But I couldn’t take part in the social meetings when strategy was planned or personal jokes shared.

In an age when communication is important, not to understand what is going on around you is a very frightening experience. You withdraw from things and stay by yourself. Or you try to find others who are like yourself so you can share experiences.

Is this how a deaf person feels?

Before, because I know a little sign language, when I have been out with people who hear and there is a deaf person present, I have tried to interpret a little. So, if it was something that I thought concerned the person who was deaf, I decided what part of the conversation was important.

As I learned at the conference, everything that is going on around you concerns you because you want to be sure whether it matters to you or not. If six people are speaking and signing animatedly around you and suddenly they get up and leave, you wonder why. Probably it has nothing to do with you. Probably they just went to a meeting. But maybe the building is on fire. Or maybe you should be going to a meeting too.

But there is no one to check it out with because you can’t communicate. Maybe a little. But you can’t keep up, and you probably will misunderstand anyway.

Is this how a deaf person feels?

This was the first time I had been on my own in a deaf community. For me, it was a great shock. And an experience I wasn’t sure how to handle.

I could go home and work hard on my sign language so I could communicate better. I could spend all my extra time doing that. But would I? There is no one to practice with…..There isn’t time….If I don’t use sign language everyday, I will forget it.

Why all these reasons……excuses? Was it that in truth I didn’t want to make the effort? I could just go back to people like myself, people who understood me. I had my own community. Why should I try to go beyond it? Perhaps, as an individual with the handicap of hearing, I just didn’t fit into the deaf world. Stay where it is safe.

Is this how a deaf person feels?


I am deaf. Perhaps that is the first thing one must admit; I know because I have significant sensory hearing loss which came on like an avalanche.

I am 58 and surviving in a hearing world. Do I withdraw- I haven't totally, but it has made me more dependent on others, and my character does not like being dependent. I have a Cochlear Implant and without it my world would be rather silent. I don’t need sympathy, but understanding especially since now I hear everything bionic, but it is hard to translate at times and I too have a blank look and nod and smile:-)

I have the option to play it safe at church, work, home...admittedly, sometimes I do; but my aggressive nature and hand's on approach for life requires me to dive in.

I was not born deaf- so that may makes me different also, interestingly to both the deaf and hearing worlds I am now an outsider, freakish as some might put it.  However, I have talents that have been given to me- the Lord has been gracious to me.

Once a teacher always a teacher some say, well unfortunately that goes only so far in a hearing world for a person that does not know sign language. So I keep adjusting, smiling when things are said to me upfront and behind my back about deafness- I figure I have a jump on many of those same baby boomers, but remembering what it feels like to be on the receiving end.

No, I will not play it safe- but I will live with the boundaries that have been given me, but like the bovine “pushing its head through the fence to get to the other side-” I will keep “pushing the envelope,”  using what talent has been given me- thankfully praising God for his gracious mercies. 

Mark Stephenson on March 1, 2011

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Dutch, one of the beauties of the online world is that it levels the field (to some extent) for people living with sensory impairments. You're still teaching here. The only way people learn about life from someone else's perspective is when someone tells their story. Thanks for sharing a little bit of your story. Mark

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