Deaf-Centered Topics

I’m not ignoring you, I’m deaf

[checks out the price on the cashier’s screen]
[fishes in wallet for debit card]
[thinks where is that card, oh crap did I lose it, oh there it is]
[looks up and notices cashier and bagger looking at him like he’s being rude.]
“Is plastic okay?” asks the bagger, tersely.
“Ah, yes. Thanks.”

Image by Unsplash/ Pixabay.com
Image by Unsplash/ Pixabay.com

The world assumes I’m being rude. At least, that’s what it feels like. But, dear cashier/bagger/receptionist/waiter/clown, I am not ignoring you. I’m deaf.

I loathe being thought of as rude. Even if I know I’ve not done anything wrong and it’s just a wrong assumption on your part, I can’t stand the thought of being rude. And in addition to that, your looks of judgement and disdain generally sour my mood in an instant.

I’m sure I’m not the only one. I know there are plenty of people that honestly don’t care, but I’m sure there are also others like me that do care. Perhaps we shouldn’t care about how we’re perceived, but we do sometimes.

Why can’t you assume I am deaf and not ignoring you?

It’s not just about being perceived as rude, either. Sometimes it’s a more dangerous situation.

A number of years ago, my wife was getting her new classroom set up, and I was helping her out for the day. I was carrying boxes back and forth from the car to her classroom. It was a hot Saturday, and the school was locked up for the day. As a teacher, she was obviously allowed to be there, getting her room ready for the new school year.

Well, on this day I was trudging across the lawn with a heavy box, trying to keep it from falling apart. I sensed something, my Spidey senses tingling, and I looked behind me. 15 feet away, about 6 police officers were walking toward me, hands poised on guns, the lead officer red-faced and yelling at me.

They thought I was ignoring them. Their response was therefore angry, aggressive, and in my opinion an overreaction. I had a box in my hands, and I was walking slowly. What did they think I was going to do?

[Stomach sinks. Goosebumps spread. Thanks given for not wetting pants.]

The situation was defused when my wife came out and set them straight. Personally I was still a bit shook up by the encounter. A gun makes me uneasy when someone’s hand is resting on it, ready to draw.

Why can’t they assume that I am deaf and not ignoring them?

This post isn’t to make anyone feel bad about assuming that we’re ignoring you. I do get it. I hate to be ignored. My kids do it all the time when they’re mad at me for some consequence they have to accept for breaking rules. “I’m disengaging from this conversation,” says the 7-year-old, using our own words.

It’s a messed up situation sometimes. It seems there’s nothing I can personally do that will eliminate the problem. Sometimes I try to avoid it by being extra attentive, but that creates another problem: you think I’m watching you too closely, and it wigs you out.

[stares at the cashier in case a question is asked]
[quickly gets card out]
[stares at the cashier, who begins to look at him funny]

I’m not a stalker, I promise. I’m just trying not to miss what you might say.

I have had a habit of saying, when I realize someone had been talking to me, “Sorry. I’m deaf.” I don’t want to say this anymore, because I’m not sorry I’m deaf. I shouldn’t feel sorry if I miss something, because it’s really not anyone’s fault.

Sometimes the situations are a little absurd. My first job was working as a stockperson in a produce store. I remember one day I was stocking the Romaine lettuce LIKE A BOSS. It went like this:

[Me, stocking Romaine, thinking bet this is the best anyone has ever stacked Romaine.]
[Elderly lady approaches me from behind and says, “Excuse me, can you help me?”]
[I go on with my Romaine-stacking self, pretty satisfied with my work. I admire the handiwork and make adjustments.]
[The lady repeats herself and gets increasingly angry, her voice rising each time until she is yelling, while my boss is across the store laughing his butt off]
[I move on to the Green Leaf lettuce, the lady storms off angrily.]

Yeah. That happened.

This post is a simple request, and one that I hope you actually take the time to share with all your friends. It’s not at all the most important message I have to share, but it’s still one that I want people to get.

If you don’t know us, stop assuming that we’re ignoring you.
Instead, if someone doesn’t respond to you, please think: Perhaps the person doesn’t hear me.
Perhaps the person isn’t deaf, but distracted, and you only need to say it again.
Perhaps the person IS deaf, but doesn’t know you said anything. Get our attention and try again.
If the person does turn out to be deaf, know that there are various methods, and what works for each person is different. Here’s a post I wrote about that: I can’t always lip-read you, and please stop shouting.

You know what? If it turns out that the person really was ignoring you, then by all means, give him the evil eye.

J. Parrish Lewis was born and raised in Maryland. In his youth there, he and his brother had many adventures in the dogwood forests near his home. His nostalgia for these adventures has strongly influenced his characters, their relationships, and their perspective on the world they inhabit. He moved to California’s coast to earn his degree in communications and now lives with his family in the San Joaquin Valley. Lewis is profoundly deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate. He enjoys hazelnut coffee, captioned movies, and walking his dog.

29 Comments

  • Dina Engle

    I get so frustrated when I’m at the check out, I look down in my purse to dig up my card and I look back up to see both cashier and the bagger are both making faces at each other like “how rude is this lady” (ME). Another subject when I tell a stranger, that I’m Deaf, they reply, “I’m sorry” I feel like saying, “It’s nobody fault”, but I just smile and move on.

  • Kellie

    I’ve been a cashier and had someone come in and this exact thing has happened. But I’ve been involved with Deaf culture, so I always assume they’re deaf, and I know to wait patiently until they make eye contact. Honesty, I only get annoyed when the person finally looks up and I realize they’re not deaf, they’re just ignoring me.

  • derbyliner

    Well-written article! I have been involved with the Deaf community for a LONG time & I’ve always said “I work with the “Hearing & Dumb”. Thanks for a great reminder for everyone!!

  • genchong

    I knew someone who is deaf, who used to wear a button on his lapel that said “I’m not deaf, I’m ignoring you.” 🙂

  • Betty w

    Have wondered as a lare deafened adult that previously was actually socially agressive in that I loved being out among people and meeting strangers etc ,speaking on street corners ,elevators, and really getting to know the cashiers at the stores . Deeply involved in community services , music, etc ,,, suddenly at age 50 this scenario changed. Worked for years following that throughout the area and country with national association for the deaf and hard of hearing but now very truthfully I confess I am sorry I am deaf as it is so dif ficult to be out with friends and despite their efforts to keep me posted on their conversations and activities I used to be involved with , i can not actually have any idea of what is really being said and seldom go to the grocery store as try as I might , it is a super challenge to engage the bagger in a conversation that makes them feel important and a necessary part of my day ! Instead of music i have become active in the art community and find understanding as feelings and beauty around us is exchanged through brush and color or form on canvas . Still , even as art has so enhanced my life for these much later days , meaning no offense to the deaf community , as i have been so grateful to have witnessed so many outstanding leaders and just plain like us folks among that culture …. i can not help but miss what i used to know as one who could strike up a conversation with all others met on lifes path . Realizing I should not be regretting that loss of hearing and the fact even my husband has long ago just used the shouting system even cupping his hands to yell louder if I dont understand , I am sorry I am deaf , ! Today may just be a bad day as again honestly , usually I cope fairly well and present a positive attitude and outlook but needed I guess to express for a moment ,it is difficult for me at times and even believe it is ok to grieve occasionally for that part of the me that used to be , but then KEEP ON KEEPING ON !

    • J. Parrish Lewis

      Betty, thank you for the open sharing of your experience. I can understand completely. I think we have to, as a community, understand that everyone has different feelings and they don’t need to line up. You have a right to grieve. You have the right to have your sad days or sad moments and not be judged for it. I hope moments of happiness become more frequent. I do see how much more difficult it is to become deaf later in life. It’s one reason I urge people to learn ASL now before they ever lose any hearing.

      I don’t feel, personally, that how we feel about our being deaf must be like a light switch of positive and negative feelings. It can be a dimmer switch. We should give ourselves permission to have our rough times when things feel difficult.

    • Julie Twining

      Betty W. I’m not deaf, but I have experienced a lot of loss in my life. Your grieving and that is not only ok, it’s necessary. so don’t feel guilty for your feelings. Also, a counselor to help you work through your grief can be a very positive thing.

    • Deb Baty

      Dearest Betty,
      I believe that part of what you’re feeling is due to you having been a hearing person prior to the loss of your hearing. I am a recently retired Occupational Therapist, who had to retire due to my health …cancer ….I had a terrible time mourning my retirement!!! I cried and cried for weeks! You see, I was raised in the OT offices at the VA, and it was “part of me”.
      I have my moments,but, I have moved on,as now I have to help my mother,who is 93 years young,nearly blind from macula degeneration,and glacoma. And she’s lost most of her hearing as well…my best advice is to work in the arts,but, at the same time…help someone to “express” themselves through the arts….blessings on you!

    • Bev

      I know exactly how you feel, Betty because you sound so much like me! I’ve always been a chatter and friendly with everyone and had a huge circle of friends and acquaintances – in the old days. I went to meetings and church, etc., etc. loved symphonies and the theater. All of that has left me – little by little – as my hearing left me in chunks so now in my 60’s I can not follow along at church, can not go to the theater, can not keep up in conversations in public, barely one-to-one in a totally quiet environment. Can’t do the jobs I’ve always done – admin. assistant and waiting tables and customer service. And I have not been able to fill my life up with good things. I don’t have husband or kids so I’ve become like a recluse – some days I’m almost afraid to go out – people get really pissed and rude sometimes when you’re not hearing them! It is a loss – and I’m very grateful for facebook and acquaintances here – I’m glad I don’t have worse problems!

  • Phil Patrick

    I enjoyed your post, and reading the different comments. If you don’t mind I am going to relate my experience as a HOH person. I am 76 years young, and my hearing has been declining over the years, to the point that I am Deaf in my right ear and wear a Hearing Aid in my left, so my world is in between. I can, with the HA, hear most sounds, but the greatest challenge is understand the spoken word. Many times out of frustration, I have said I would rather have excellent hearing or be profound Deaf. It is a point of frustration for my wife, as she must repeat everything she says to me. I become somewhat withdrawn from society, having dinner with friends, going to a movie or just watching TV. My wife and I took a signing class, (Signed English), thinking it might help us in noisy surroundings.

  • Sara

    Great post. As a family with a Deaf daughter, we assume others are deaf all the time. My older daughter who works in a fast food restaurant was handed a sheet a paper with the order and started to sign with the customer, but he looked confused and pointed to the phone in his ear. Intent to communicate is everything, no matter how one does it!

  • Lisa W.

    Thank you for this! I’m a teacher for students who are DHH and parent of an amazing young lady who has a severe-profound hearing loss. The situation with the police you described scares me so much as it could happen to any one of my students or even my daughter. Also, my daughter would be one to say, “Sorry” a LOT but now she is getting so much better at just advocating and telling the other person what she needs and what they need to do, which is awesome!

  • Candy

    I got hearing problem people thinks lam being rude they don’t think before they open their mouth l know how it feel l got friends who is dealt

  • LJ

    I became deaf over the course of about 3 months, 7 years ago. Not too long before that, I’d made a decision to finally go and learn ASL so I wound up becoming deaf as I was learning ASL and being taught by an amazing group of Deaf teachers who’ve become very good friends. Because of that, having proof right in front of me that d/Deaf is not less, it’s just different, I never had that urge to apologize for my deafness. I just don’t. I probably said 6 different times yesterday (ironically, while trying to meet with state vocational rehab people to try to get new hearing aids) “I didn’t understand you”, “please repeat that”, or “I’m deaf, can you please look at me” in the office. It really is so sad that people assume we’re being rude and ignoring others when we really just don’t know they’re talking to us.

  • Kay

    I can understand the worry over being polite, but there is something else to consider. Hearing people can be arrogant and they can be rude in their assumptions more than our attempts at being polite. You see, my husband is hearing and he states often enough that hearing people don’t always understand or hear each other because of the loud or busy world we live in. Too many distractions! On top of that, many of the hearing people are lazy in their speech (they mumble or talk too fast or too low). There are even those who hear just fine and have speech impediments! Imagine my shock at discovering this.

    Many are also too quick to fire into a temper over a seeming slight, in my own personal experience. It is the impatience of our generation that enters into these situations we deal with everyday. I have walked out in a parking lot and seen someone I recognized. When I call out to them, sometimes they hear me and sometimes they don’t. I always assume the wind might have snatched my voice away or my voice simply did not carry. Heck, maybe their ears are clogged from sinus. Maybe a very loud unmuffled car went by in the distance. I’m not upset by this — I move on. Hearing people, on the other hand, are quick to judge and be upset by it.

    Communication is a messy thing. It’s never simple or linear or clear, not for any group of people. Misunderstandings happen all the time. If they have this difficulty with each other, then why is the onus on us to do better in “not being rude”? Don’t get me wrong – I smile, I greet politely, I attempt to follow along and make sure I catch a line of questioning. I had to laugh at the part where you mentioned people being uncomfortable with intense stares. I try to balance that by staring more at my husband (who gives me cues and signs for me) than the other person, but when he isn’t around, I stare. I stare so hard!

    Other than this, I relate to this whole post! Thank you for writing it. It’s very eloquently stated. 🙂

  • Michelle Durbin

    Thank you for this post! And let me apologize as I have been one of those impatient cashiers and I don’t mean to be. I will try and be more considerate in the future. I do however want to give you a little insight as to why this happens. As a cashier, we are instructed to ask certain things to each and every customer and to do this as soon as they arrive… Greet! Ask if they found everything they were looking for… And sometimes they are store oriented, but are basic. Now imagine we ask this all day and 25% of our customers actually do ignore us while maybe 1 in 500 customers is actually deaf the rest are just jerks! We get frustrated too! So for the most part it isn’t your fault, it is the rest of the people who come through that make us feel we are beneath them. I personally feel bad when I assume I’m being ignored yet again to find out that the customer was genuinely deaf. One suggestion might be to actually make eye contact when you step up and signal in some simple way that you are unable to hear them speak… Just that simple act does help. I understand you get frustrated telling everybody but we can’t tell! But you have opened my eyes and I will be more considerate

  • Richard Lawson

    I’m not totally deaf but over the years I have lost a lot of my ability to understand what is being said. My wife asked me if I felt I was rude by not being an active part of the conversation. I think I try to take part but with background noise and soft spoken people it’s hard. I had to retire early due to my hearing loss, being in the medical field I didn’t want to make a mistake. My friends do enjoy my weird replies because I miss heard them. I like people as a whole and would feel bad if they thought I was ignoring them, but I don’t want to go around wearing a sign either. I continue to keep doing the best I can and smile a lot.

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