There are over 500,000 deaf people in the United States, but the only time we hear about deaf culture is when someone is making up sign language at presidential funerals, rioting, or teaching kids on Sesame Street. As a result, the average person has no idea what being deaf involves, and therefore life can get downright weird for anyone who can't hear like the rest of you. Well, I'm a sign language interpreter and an American Sign Language (ASL) graduate, and I'll try to give you a glimpse of how strange things can get ...
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A couple of years ago, during a sign language performance in a music video, some complained that the interpreter accidentally signed the word "tampon" instead of "appear." How is that possible? Well, here's the ASL sign for "appear," according to the online guide at American Sign Language University:
Yeah, you can use your imagination there. In one context, that sign can in fact mean "to appear," and in another it can mean, well, to insert something.
Hey, remember that crazy story of a dangerous attempted murderer getting on stage with President Obama because he pretended to be a sign language interpreter for Nelson Mandela's funeral? And how it turned out it wasn't even the first time he'd done that? That happened because so few people know a damned thing about sign language that a crazy guy making random hand motions fooled the security details of multiple nations' heads of state. And while that's just an oddball story to you, this is the kind of thing that can ruin a deaf person's life.
Let me give you a less hilarious example: I have a friend whose sister is deaf. She was in the hospital for a simple operation, and the sign language interpreter, like many, wasn't qualified to be doing it and accidentally told her the doctor had botched the surgery. When my friend arrived, her sister was tearfully saying her goodbyes. And if you're wondering how you could accidentally convey something so radically incorrect, see the "tampon" situation above.
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"I swear I was just talking about astrology."
Translators now have a national registry and a professional code of conduct, but, obviously, progress is slow. Many organizations don't have things like "ASL tested" or "vaguely qualified" people, and that can lead to screw-ups in pretty important places. Like courtrooms. Cases have been thrown out after the judgment when the tiniest amount of digging revealed that the interpreter wasn't qualified and botched the interpretation. Imagine if the lunatic from Mandela's funeral wound up translating your testimony at trial. And even when the interpreter knows what he's doing, legal interpreting is complicated as hell -- something like the Miranda rights can take up to 20 minutes to get across. The potential for disaster there is huge.
All of this means that ...
In general, people don't understand much about deaf people (we use the capital D to refer to the culture). I've had to interpret before in situations where a person blatantly asked me to fill out forms or answer questions about the deaf person, as if he or she was a child or mentally challenged. "They can't hear, so clearly they need a legal guardian to handle life for them, even though they're middle-aged adults." It's kind of like the assumption a lot of people make that foreigners who don't speak their language must be "dumb," even if the person happens to be in that foreigner's home country, shouting at them in English. There's just something about the human brain that makes us look down on anyone who can't say words in a way we like to hear them.
I've found that the whole concept of deafness just blows people's freaking minds. I've been asked several times how long it took me to learn Braille. I also frequently get asked if deaf people can drive. Yes, of course they can, and why wouldn't they? "Well, they can't hear what's going on. That's dangerous, right? What if there's an ambulance behind them?" To which my reply is, have you ever turned the radio up in your car? No? Well, congratulations on being a liar, but those of us in the real world spend a significant part of the commute with our eardrums otherwise occupied.
A deaf person never caused a five-car pileup doing the "In the Air Tonight" drum solo. Just sayin'.
"Can you have children?" is another one deaf people get, along with the follow-up question, "Aren't you afraid your children will be deaf?" If they already have children, the question becomes, "Aren't you sad you'll never hear your child's voice?" None of these are valid questions, because of course deaf people can have children, will be perfectly happy if their children are deaf, and don't hear anything, so not hearing their child's voice doesn't really bum them out. Seeing their child make their first sign is plenty.
Even weirder, they'll often be told, "You don't look deaf," or the even more baffling variation, "You're not really deaf -- you have selective hearing" (and yes, the accusation of not "really" being deaf happens more often than you'd think).
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"You're just like those blind jerks faking it for the free dogs and cool shades!"
But there are less obvious things you need to be prepared for when dealing with deaf people, like all of the touching. In deaf culture, it's normal to touch someone to get their attention. Not inappropriately, mind you; we're talking "tap on the shoulder," rather than "straight-up groping." But once, while interpreting for a slightly more formal event, a deaf client touched a woman's shoulder so he could discuss something with her. She was startled and flipped out, because in polite society we don't run around grabbing each other. I had to step out of my role for a moment and explain that this wasn't a precursor to an assault.
But even in a situation where everyone involved knows sign language, we're nowhere close to being out of the woods. That's because ...
Many venerable sources of news, such as the Washington Post, pass off understanding sign language as "translating." God, if only it were that easy. Translation involves text; you can translate a book from German into English. Interpreting is very different. For one thing, signs don't equate directly to words -- deaf people use slang, and the meaning of many signs changes based on the situation (again, "tampons"). And even then, you can run into signs you've never seen before (I once got lost trying to interpret someone telling a story about the birth of their baby before figuring out I was seeing the sign for "midwife" for the first time).
Having conversations turn into impromptu charades isn't nearly as fun as you think.
And even that's just talking about American Sign Language. Yep, every single country has its own sign language, and then you have dialects within those countries. So ASL as taught in American schools will only get you around the USA and parts of Canada. And we're not just talking about some adorable "loos" and "lorries" thrown in for color. British Sign Language and ASL have only 31 percent of the same signs. Auslan (Australian sign language, not a Lord of the Rings character) is a mishmash of the American, British, New Zealand, and Irish sign language systems.
You can be multilingual with your hands and never "leave" the United States. Seriously: There's Hawaiian Sign Language, still used by a few elderly people, and Martha's Vineyard had its own sign language going for over 200 years. Good luck communicating with any deaf yacht owners unless you know that. And just like people say "pop" or "soda" for a soft drink, there are tiny areas where words can get tricky. In certain parts of Michigan, the sign that normally means "bug" everywhere else means "horny." I can only imagine that this leads to some tragic orgies.
"Ma'am, I've used my tool to spray your basement twice. I really don't know what else it is you want me to do."