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Deaf Insults: 5 Things You Never Say to a Deaf Person

Updated on February 4, 2017

Top 5 Insulting (but Well-Meaning) Statements No Deaf Person Likes to Hear

If you're anything like me, meeting a new person for the first time can sometimes leave you without really knowing what to say to your new acquaintance after the initial "nice to meet yous" are said and done. This can be especially true of people who are quite different from you. I can say that I am different from a deaf person in the same way that I can say that I am very different from an orchestra conductor or a painter—they are just as much a person as I am, but I do not see the world the same way that they do!

This type of difference is healthy and can be wonderful! It is always valuable to find another way to look at the world, and finding people who are different from you is one of the best ways to start. However, meeting a deaf person for the first time can leave you at a loss for words, and often something will come out of our mouths that we probably shouldn't have said.

Sure, we really, TRULY meant to say something nice, and to us it probably even sounded like a compliment. But what we have to remember is that we do not see the world through the same light as our deaf friends do. Our experiences are different, and theirs are different too.

So what do we usually do when we meet a deaf person that makes us seem like totally inconsiderate doofuses?

1. "Oh! I'm sorry."

...and then walking away.

There are actually two very insulting "I'm sorry" comments that many deaf people detest:

1. You walk up to a person and start talking, then find out that the person is deaf. You then say, "Oh, I'm sorry," and do some kind of "polite" gesture before leaving.

This person was ready to make a connection with you, and you just up and vanish because...why? Well, there may be a couple reasons. It could be that you don't know how to handle it, so you remove yourself from the situation. It could be that you feel like you are imposing on the deaf person, making them struggle to understand you and seeming to inconvenience them. Both, in a certain frame of mind, seem like the polite thing to do. But don't.

2. You find out that someone is deaf, and you say, "Oh, I'm sorry! That must be terrible!"

What would you do if a deaf person walked up to you and signed, "You can hear? Oh, I'm so sorry! That must be terrible!" You would think it's a little strange, right? That's because you are used to participating in the hearing culture, and your hearing is a natural part of who you are. Could it not be the same for a deaf or hard of hearing (HOH) person? Deafness (partial or total) is just a part of their lifestyle, and most times, saying that it's terrible is equivalent to saying that some part of the way that they live their lives is terrible.

When I was younger, I was at a party where all of my friends and I went ice skating for this girl's birthday. I didn't really know how to skate, so I started out with one of those walker-things that help you balance. Finally, I got my bearings a bit and headed out onto the ice. I slid and fell, and although I did not break my leg, I did bruise the bone marrow in my lower leg. It was excruciatingly painful, and for the next few weeks, everyone who heard about it said, "You hurt your leg? Oh, that's terrible! Are you okay?"

When we pity a deaf person for hearing loss (or total lack of hearing), we are suggesting that a part of them is not as it should be in the same way that my friends knew that my injured leg was not as it should be. They must somehow be disadvantaged. Disabled. Is that really true?

Of course not. So don't apologize to a deaf person for their deafness!

2. "You can read lips? That's so cool!"

So what am I saying?

Sure, there's something remarkable about how deaf people learn to read lips (with varying degrees of accuracy), especially those people who are profoundly deaf and do not have the residual hearing that may let them hear conversations a little bit with the help of a hearing aid. It IS cool that they can do something incredible like that that most of us can't do. It's cool...until you test them.

In a way, I can kind of sympathize with the feeling, as I have cochlear hyperacusis, which I suppose you may consider to be the opposite of being deaf -- I hear FAR too well. Hearing charts do not typically graph what I can hear because they don't go that high. While sitting in a crowded dining hall, my friend and I were talking about my hyperacusis, and he said, "So you can hear really well? What am I saying?" He then put his hand over his mouth and started whispering.

It takes quite a lot to actually insult me, but he succeeded. Then, when I couldn't tell him what he was saying (imagine picking out a whisper when the rest of the dining hall is much louder to me than to him), he accused me of lying. I'm not deaf, so I can't speak for a deaf person on how that might feel, but just imagine! "Oh, you can read lips? What am I saying? Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers."

DON'T do that. That's really rude.

On the one hand, you're challenging the deaf person's 'authenticity,' so to speak, and that is very insulting in and of itself. But that person is not your pet dog, so you shouldn't be asking him to do 'tricks' for you. Deaf people listen by reading lips sometimes, and you wouldn't come up to me and say, "Hey, you can hear? What am I saying?" All you're doing is running me through some (very rude) hoops.

Just take a deaf person's abilities at face value, as you would anyone else's! Don't say, "Hey, you read lips? What's that guy over there saying?" Deaf people may have a unique talent, but they're not psychics. They're focusing on the conversation at hand. Chill.

3. "You're allowed to drive?"

Just, no. Don't do this.

What does a person's deafness have to do with whether or not they can see and operate a motor vehicle?

Why do you think that fire trucks and police cars have lights too?

Statistics have shown that deaf people are not any more prone to accidents, and asking whether or not they're allowed to drive is, once again, treating them like they have some sort of handicap that makes them less than a person (since a "normal" person can/could eventually drive a car). The only difference is that deaf people prefer not to have conversations while driving if they are not oral deaf, probably for obvious reasons -- they'd need to take their hands off the wheel to sign and off the road to watch your response.

This insult includes other sideways phrases that you may think sound more polite, such as "Oh, it sounds like you can do a lot of things. You can still drive, right?" While that sounds like we're giving the deaf person a more positive attitude, it's still calling into question the person's abilities.

Don't get me wrong -- asking about what a person likes to do or knows how to do can be a lot of fun, and you get to know people really well that way. But there's a difference between asking what a person likes to do and asking what a person is able/allowed to do because they are different from you.

4. "You know, I've had some ear problems recently too."

Didn't I just do this above?

Well, yes and no. I did try to think about what a deaf person may experience in deafness by using a similar experience of alienation and frustration. But what I didn't do is try to say that I understand what deaf people experience— I don't. I do understand what cochlear hyperacute people experience. Finding common ground can be helpful.

But isn't this well-meaning question just trying to find common ground? Yes. It's trying. And that's just the problem. 90% of people who actually say this are just trying to make the deaf person feel better by inventing a problem or recalling when they had an earache for 2 minutes last week. They are trying to create a common ground where there isn't one, and that makes the deaf person feel like people have to try to harmonize themselves with a deaf person. Naturally, this makes a deaf person feel like they are disconnected with the world, if they have to be "reconnected" by finding these kind of similar experiences before people can try to understand them. The people who say that they've had ear problems recently are, in an indirect way, trying to communicate that they know what it's like to be deaf.

We don't.

5. "Can you read?"

Can you?

This one is very similar to the "can you drive" question — I don't know about you, but I read with my eyes, not my ears.

Deafness, to most, means "deficiency," and it is out of this belief that we start to ask questions about whether deaf people can read or drive. This is the view that we all need to get over. Many deaf people that I know of are content in their deafness and are not waiting for a "miracle" that will restore their hearing.

Any comments about deaf culture or my article? Talk to me! I love to hear from all sorts of people!

Talk to Me!

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