How deafness encourages intentional and thoughtful communication
“Blindness cuts us off from things; deafness cuts us off from people.” With all due respect to Helen Keller, and while recognizing our current vantage point of 2017, I disagree that this is necessarily true. Far from being solely a barrier to overcome, deafness can also be a unique resource for figuring out more varied ways to communicate and connect with other people. Indeed, when combined with the technologies and community resources of today’s world, deafness can offer a robust set of perspectives that can enhance the way we all express ourselves, imagine new possibilities and engage in human relationships.
As someone who was born deaf and who grew up using both sign language and English to communicate with deaf and hearing people, I have experienced the firsthand benefits of being able to communicate in more flexible ways, even while I also understand the litany of challenges and frustrations associated with hearing loss.
My aim is not to focus on these challenges, but to point out some ways that deafness, when properly supported and understood, can contribute to fresh strategies for communication and creativity. Other advocates have already described this concept, using the phrase “Deaf gain” – and although these opportunities to seize upon the generative potential of deafness can most strongly exist within the signing Deaf community, I believe they are also lessons for anyone.
How so, you ask? The sentiment that Helen Keller expressed over a century ago, about the innate social isolation of deafness, has persisted for so long that we can sometimes have a difficult time seeing around it to the complexities that lie beneath. Everyone’s path to and through deafness can look different – and inevitably will due to the varying circumstances that lead to hearing loss, different ages of onset and different personal and cultural contexts that shape one’s particular response to it.
My experience with two languages and communication modalities has had a positive influence on how I interact with the world, but every individual with hearing loss will have their own journey toward gaining the perspectives and skills that suit their own needs.
Deafness, by its nature, tends to teach a range of useful strategies for communication. This holds true regardless of particular individual background or experience. One cannot live with a hearing loss for very long before realizing that conventional auditory-spoken modes of communication aren’t always going to work. Instead, to get along with hearing loss, one can benefit from becoming multimodal. This can mean a number of things: sign language, cued speech, fingerspelling, writing and text-based communication, visual images, gesture, and also speaking and lipreading when possible and appropriate.
Creative multimodal communication
Many d/Deaf people I have met are astonishingly adept at sorting out alternative ways to express themselves and to understand others, more adept than hearing people sometimes are. They also learn to practice these strategies well, even in trying circumstances that might leave others stymied. If you don't believe me, just watch a few international deaf people figure out how to use gesture, improvised sign, and pen and paper to understand each other over prolonged periods of time. Such strategies for multimodal communication can also be useful to people without any degree of hearing loss, who might be more accustomed to relying on traditional auditory/verbal communication. As I like to argue, the more languages, communication modalities and options we have at our fingertips, the more all of us can stand to benefit in a range of situations.
Deafness, through its encouragement of sensory flexibility, can also foster alternative approaches to social and physical norms and also to creativity and problem-solving. To make this point, the Deaf community likes to highlight the ongoing developments of DeafSpace architectural principles, which make an environment more open and visually accessible, as well as Deaf innovations of experiencing phenomena such as music and poetry in more visual and tactile ways. Deafness can create license for us all to explore the world through a range of different senses.
However, creativity can also arise from a less ideal set of circumstances: the way our world is not created for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Although everyday lack of accessibility is something we can all work to improve, it also can act as a spur toward improvisation and resourcefulness. Figuring out how to see nonsigning friends’ faces at a dimly lit party, cobbling together written and visual materials to get the gist of a movie or performance that isn’t subtitled, communicating with hearing strangers who disregard my needs: although I would much rather not need to manage any of these situations, the reality is that I have had to. As we all try to make our world a more accessible one, we can learn how to be more ingenious – and also, with any luck, more sympathetic toward other people’s realities and more capable of devising creative solutions for different communication issues in our world.
Finally, deafness can be a litmus test for locating robust relationships, collective support and solidarity. In my experience, it tends to guide one toward the people who are willing to be flexible, accommodating, considerate, curious and community-minded. I’ll put this simply: taken with a deliberate perspective, a deaf lens on social interactions can provide a welcoming measure of clarity on who is most willing to engage, to understand and be understood. It can also guide one toward a sense of larger connectedness – even when not every interaction produces this result.
New opportunities for connectedness
Because deafness (and hearing loss) casts such intense emphasis on the vagaries of communication, it can produce a set of circumstances that actually encourages more thoughtful, intentional communication to arise. This is what I argue can encourage connectedness, given adequate support and understanding, rather than necessitating social isolation. Although individual strategies and experiences may vary, and although challenges to accessibility and inclusion still exist, we can still use deafness as an opportunity to engage with difference and try new ways of expression – and to invite others around us to do the same.