I’m happy to welcome ASL Interpreter and author Kelly Brakenhoff. Today, Kelly shares valuable tips and advice about interaction with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
As an American Sign Language Interpreter with more than twenty years of experience, I’ve worked in college classrooms for fifteen different majors. I actually attend classes with the deaf students and overhear both the most inspiring and the most inane professors you could imagine. The academic world is the setting for my Cassandra Sato Mystery Series because it’s such a ripe environment for murder and mayhem. Today, I’d like to share tips and advice for anyone interacting with people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, and for writers who want to write about a character with a hearing difference.
1. USE the words “Deaf or Hard of Hearing” when referring to a person who was born deaf or hard of hearing or who lost their hearing later in life. Avoid using the words “Hearing Impaired” because calling someone impaired isn’t a positive description and can be offensive. My Deaf friends sometimes say, “I’m not hearing impaired. You are sign impaired.”
2. In your job, or when interacting on social media, consider whether your content is accessible to people with hearing differences. Caption your YouTube videos, please. Auto-captions are horribly inaccurate. Captions are very easy to add manually before you upload your videos and YouTube provides step by step directions on their help pages. An alternative is to provide a written transcript.
3. Not all deaf people can lipread. They do not have special visual superpowers because they can’t hear. Lipreading is hard and even the most skilled people catch an average of 30% of the conversation. Try turning off your TV volume and watching the news. How much do you understand what the announcer is saying without the volume?
4. People who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing are interested in more than just their ears. People who are born deaf don’t know anything different. They aren’t necessarily upset that they don’t hear music, birds, etc. They can drive. They have families. They can be doctors, lawyers, etc. Many of my friends say, “I can do anything except hear.”
5. Regarding technology: People who use hearing aids and cochlear implants are not cured. They use technology to maximize the benefit of what hearing they have left. Once the device’s batteries die or they remove the technology to go swimming, shower, or to sleep, they are still deaf or hard of hearing.
6. If you’ve met one deaf or hard of hearing person, you’ve met one deaf or hard of hearing person. Each person is an individual with different skills, needs, and communication styles. Most Deaf/Blind people can either see some or hear some. Helen Keller was very unique in that she didn’t see or hear at all. If you don’t know how they like to communicate, ask. Don’t be shy or afraid to approach them. Even fingerspelling your name and knowing how to sign “please” and “thank you” is appreciated.
7. Where can you learn American Sign Language and how hard is it to learn? Check out your local community college, or school continuing education program. Some churches with a large number of deaf members have classes or clubs and would welcome you. Learning ASL is just like learning any second or third language like Spanish or French. With practice you can learn everyday phrases for conversation, although it takes years of study to become fluent.
8. How can writers understand what it feels like to have a disability if they don’t personally experience that disability? For example, I’m short and left-handed. Neither of those are disabilities but thinking about it helps me write accurate characters. Could I imagine how it would feel to be turned down for a job because I’m short? Would I feel angry and frustrated because there’s nothing I can do about my height? As a left-handed person, do I understand what if feels like when the whole world is set up for other people and not for me? Yes, I do. Do people tease me or was I bullied as a child for being small? Yes. Use those feelings when you write characters who aren’t like you. Your feelings are real and universal, even if you experience them to a smaller degree. Amplify them for your story.
9. Should you use a sensitivity reader on your writing project? In my second book, I was worried that I’d gone too far by choosing controversial topics. I wrote strong dialogue for my Deaf characters, but I didn’t want them to come off like jerks. When I showed those sections to my Deaf friends, they overwhelmingly said, “Yes! This is exactly how we feel.” A friend gave me more stories to illustrate the point. One of those stories ended up in the book. I’m very grateful for their viewpoint and advice.
10. What’s the big thing I wish people understood about deafness? As a group, deaf and hard of hearing people are tired of always being the ones to bend to the majority of people who can hear. They feel like hearing people rarely bend to accommodate them. An example of how you can be more accommodating to people with differences is found in my children’s picture book, Never Mind. Duke the Deaf Dog doesn’t like it when people tell him “never mind” when he asks them to repeat something he missed. Maybe we could all be more patient instead of brushing aside people who have a hard time keeping up with the conversation.
KELLY BRAKENHOFF is an American Sign Language Interpreter whose motivation for learning ASL began in high school when she wanted to converse with her deaf friends. Her first novel, DEATH BY DISSERTATION, kicked off the Cassandra Sato Mystery Series, followed by DEAD WEEK. She also wrote NEVER MIND, first in a children’s picture book series featuring Duke the Deaf Dog. She serves on the Board of Editors for the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf publication, VIEWs. The mother of four young adults and two dogs, Kelly and her husband call Nebraska home.