Monday, April 22, 2013

Monday Misunderstanding 2- I Don't Know Sign Language

Are you surprised my almost-6 year old knows more sign language than I do?

It's true.  During 2012, one of Claire's crazes was watching Signing Time DVDs on repeat, and sure enough, she grew quite skilled at signing various types of snack food and emotions.

I caught enough of the Silly Pizza Song (played OVER and OVER and OVER again) so that I could sign "apple" and "cheese."  Aside from some sloppy finger spelling, that's really the extent of my signing skills.  Not that I'm content with this; learning American Sign Language (ASL) is one of my lifetime goals.  I've found this is surprising to people; many assume I know it already.

The first time someone attempted to communicate with me via sign language was when Colin was a baby.   We were visiting the pediatrician's office, and in what still remains a mystery, someone decided to put a note in Colin's medical file.

It read something like, "MOM IS HEARING IMPAIRED!  SHE READS LIPS!"

I suspected something was off after the nurse spoke super-loud and slowly to me, exaggerating each and every word.  It was awkward.

When she left the room, I grabbed Colin's file, and sure enough-- there on Page 1 was evidence as to why the staff was suddenly acting so bizarre.


Granted, this was at a time when I fought to hide my hearing loss, so if anyone revealed it, I was immediately angered.  Sure-- the note spoke the truth, and I imagine whoever placed it there was only trying to make medical visits easier for my son and me.  Still, this was all done behind my back; no one asked for my input as to how I best communicate.

It made me feel judged, small, and violated.

I remember the doctor coming into the room.  At first we chatted for a good sixty seconds as we always had.  Then she opened Colin's file.

The pediatrician was in mid-sentence when that handwritten note caught her eye.  Now, remember:  I'm talking with her with no issue prior to the note discovery.  Still, when she saw that note, the whole energy of the room changed.  She looked nervous, she paused to think, and started hesitantly waving her fingers at me in what I assume was her best attempt at ASL.

"Um, what are you doing?  I don't know sign language," I said.

She looked embarrassed; I was embarrassed, and all because of the assumptions that come with a disability label.

The expectation that I know ASL has followed me ever since.

In one of my jobs, I work as a writing tutor at a community college.  Several years ago, ASL classes were introduced there, and to great fanfare.  The students LOVE it, and it's wonderful seeing the  campus developing a deeper appreciation and knowledge of the Deaf community.  In fact, there is an upcoming theatrical performance at the college- Children of a Lesser God- in which the performers are using both spoken English and ASL. 

A professor at the college recently approached me, figuring I must be super-excited to watch the sign language in action.  I do plan to attend the show, but again, I don't know much about Deaf culture.  I didn't grow up Deaf.

Several times I've disappointed students.   Faculty have referred them to me, indicating I can help with ASL practice.  What a waste of time this is for the student!

I don't know sign language.

Since getting my cochlear implant, the assumption I can sign is even more apparent.   

I was recently asked if I could serve as an interpreter for a funeral home.  As much as I would LOVE to do that, I can't.  I don't know how.

One of the funniest reactions I've had regarding my inability to sign came from a colleague I've known for years.  Recently we were out for drinks, when I left our table momentarily. She then made some indication to my husband about how I signed before my CI surgery.  I guess she was shocked when Jeff told her there was no ASL in the Fisher household.

Again, I've known this woman for awhile.  And while maybe I can be expressive, or talk with my hands, there is not a single time in my life I have attempted to communicate with someone using ASL (unless the middle finger counts).  It makes me laugh how people all the sudden think I communicated in sign language prior to my surgery.

Where were you guys for the last 31 years of my life? 

So today's Monday Misunderstanding: Not all hearing impaired people know ASL.  Not all cochlear implant recipients know ASL.

But I will tell you, seeing videos like this makes me all the more anxious to learn. 

Worth noting: Though this person totally resembles my brother-in-law Aaron, it's not him.  Nevertheless, I bet Aaron's theatrical abilities would serve him well in ASL.

Also worth noting: I've been trying for months to incorporate a Justin Timberlake song into one of my posts.  Thank you, Aaron-look alike for this incredible YouTube service. 


  1. This is so interesting, Pamela! I guess it's assumed (ass of u and me anyone?) that all hearing-impaired people MUST know sign language. I get why you'd be furious with the ped's office though, that is quite presumptuous of them.

  2. Yes, Alison: the ped's office. My first two years as a mom, doctor's visits were one of the top "on display" events for my hearing loss. There I was, often with a sick baby totally dependent on ME, and I couldn't always hear his name called in the waiting room, I would miss advice from the doctor, or I'd misreport something... And then when people attempted to sign or started yelling at me, I'd become anxious and my hearing would be 10x worse under the stressful circumstances. Happy to say, I've grown a lot since then (though I STILL don't know sign.) Thanks for reading!

  3. I'm careful not to disclose my hearing loss as deafness because the first question is often, "Do you sign?" I also find that when you mention assistance or accommodation for people with hearing loss, again, other assume an ASL interpreter is what you need. My latest mission at work is to educate people about what actually helps those with hearing loss, e.g. assistive listening systems, CART (live captioning).
    All that said, my husband and I took a beginner sign language class at the local high school. I loved it but am in no way fluent. I'd like to teach my family fingerspelling because if they could sometimes just indicate the first letter of a word I think that could help me.