Episode #2: Deaf Identity with Alex

Karen will appear like this.

Alex will appear like this (and is in British English).


Hello, and welcome to the Wish You Knew podcast. I'm your host Karen Bortvedt. Today for our first full episode, we have a very special guest. Her name is Alex, and if you checked out her bio on the website, you will see that she identifies as Deaf. Though, that is only one of her many identities, and her many skill sets. One of them seems to be languages. She mentions that she has learned 11 different languages in her life time. I tell you, I am someone who learns languages fairly easily but that number is IMPRESSIVE. There are not many people out there who have learned 11 different languages. Many of you may be wondering, “Why would you start an audio podcast with someone who is Deaf?” Well, this week is the International Week of the Deaf. That is a week that takes place once a year and the focus is for the Deaf community to celebrate being Deaf. Throughout the year as a person who is deaf, I have been told, you are always surrounded a lot of times by the hearing community and for that one week you just get to celebrate being Deaf. There are different activities that go on, around the world, different associations of the deaf will put on events. At those events it is about raising deaf awareness and also just providing fun activities for the Deaf community. When I lived in Cambodia, and worked in the Deaf community, that was one of our busiest weeks each year. We tried to have events every day, as well as a huge party on the weekend. So our Deaf community could just come together and celebrate and be in a space that was a completely deaf environment or deaf-friendly environment, where everyone was signing. So for that reason, I wanted this week to focus on somebody who identifies as Deaf. So, now, let's start talking with Alex.


Welcome, Alex!  Thanks so much for being willing to come on the podcast.  You'd said you were an introvert so I'm sure it's even more difficult to do something like this, as an introvert.  Your bio is very impressive!  I know we have a bunch of listeners who are fascinated by how you have done so many amazing things, as a deaf person.  For many of us hearing folks, the thought of losing our hearing is terrifying when really, it is just a different approach to life.  We are very, very glad to have you here to enlighten us.


First, you mention you have studied and used 11 different languages! WOAH! Which is more difficult for you, learning a new sign language or written language?


First I want to clarify that I am not claiming fluency in all of those! I have forgotten the sign language I used in Vietnam almost entirely as I was there less than a year quite some time ago and have not used it since. But while I was there, I was totally immersed in it. The rest I continue to use on occasion, at various levels. A couple (like French) I understand or read well but have very limited expressive command. As for which is more difficult, learning a signed or spoken language, it depends! In general, I pick up signed languages more quickly as they seem to have more in common with each other due to their visual nature than spoken languages have in common with each other. If you know one signed language, it is easier to learn others than someone who has never learned any sign language. BUT, as I have a good command of Spanish, I learned Italian fairly quickly as they are both Romance languages and have a lot in common. Were I to tackle, say, Japanese, it would be a whole different story.


You mention various sign languages, is there one universal sign language?  I know a lot of people have asked me that in the past.

No, there isn’t! It actually puzzles me why people would think that there would be. How in the world could a single language emerge from hundreds of countries and communities that have no contact with each other? If there is not one universal spoken language, why would there be a universal signed language? Anyway, more or less, each country has its own sign language. Some countries have more than one, and some sign languages are used in more than one country. There is something called “International Sign”, but it’s not called “International Sign LANGUAGE” for a reason. It’s not classified as a language, but as a kind of pidgin. It doesn’t have the regular rules that full languages have, and there are no native speakers. Yes, it’s possible to say that one “speaks” a sign language. It’s not used as a home language by anyone. International Sign (abbreviated as “IS”) developed among deaf people who travel, attend international conferences and sporting events, and otherwise have repeated interaction with other deaf people from different countries, and is used in those contexts. What we call “International Sign” is largely influenced by European sign languages and ASL (American Sign Language). There is a common core vocabulary of sorts but it is quite fluid, and changeable depending on the individuals who are using it. So a presentation given on stage in IS will likely be different from the IS used in conversation between two Europeans, and again different from that used between, say, someone from the U.S. and someone from Cambodia.


Are there accents in different sign languages?

Yes there are! I can’t explain it though. I can say that I can somehow always spot a native Greek, for example, even when they’re signing ASL. There has been very little linguistic research on accents in signed languages, and most of that has been on L2 learners’ accents (second language learners, or non-native signers). “Accent” means how someone produces or pronounces things, not which words or signs they use. Like, whether you say “tomayto” or “tomahto”, not whether you would say “soda” or “pop”. Sign languages have the same thing, that is people will produce signs differently in ways that give them away as non-native signers, or from a particular region. But sometimes when people say “accent”, they mean “dialect” or “variation”, so I’ll touch on that too. As in spoken languages, there is lexical variation within signed languages. Like how in U.S. language some people call a long sandwich a “hoagie”, “poorboy”, “sub”, and other terms, there are different signs for the same concept within sign languages too. In BSL (British Sign Language), SEVENTEEN different signs for the colour purple have been identified.


17 different ways to say the color purple. WOAH! It is my favorite color though so I support that. So, you have studied all these languages, can you lip read different languages?


I can, to an extent. Not very well in any of them! I avoid it as much as possible. Most of my life is spent around other signing people, whether at work, home, or socially, so I am not confronted with it that often, actually. Months may go by without me using my voice at all. Many deaf people won’t or don’t speak or attempt to read lips. For others, it’s their primary means of face-to-face communication. So… technically, Spanish is easier to lipread than English, as more of the sounds are frontal (visible). Only about a third of English is visible on the lips. I don’t know the percentage for Spanish, but it’s higher. Italian is similar. In fact, when I first arrived in Italy it looked like people were speaking Spanish to me!


Anyway, “lip reading” is really a misnomer. It’s not at all like reading, and it’s not just lips! Reading print is literally in black and white, no guesswork involved, unless the handwriting is really bad. Trying to understand what someone is saying just by watching them speak is mostly guesswork. You take that 30% or whatever that you can actually see and try to piece the rest together using your knowledge of the language, context, and other cues from facial expression and gestures. Add that much of what IS visible looks very similar (like pat, bat, and mat), you get a sort of mental gymnastics that is absolutely exhausting and is never perfect. They should call it “speech guessing” instead of “speechreading”. Also, some people are just easier to understand than others.

I have to say that I HATE it when someone asks “do you read lips?”. It’s really a trick question. Everyone, including all you listeners, can read lips to an extent. In fact, you all can probably do it as well or better than I can as you have spent your entire lives speaking and listening to English, a great advantage for lip reading over someone who has never heard at all! You just rarely have the need to, except in very noisy settings or talking through a window or telling a secret or something. So if you ask me if I want tea or coffee, sure, I will probably be able to lipread that, especially if you’re standing there with a kettle in your hand! Context is key! If you want to have a heart-to-heart chat about our hopes and dreams or about Kantian philosophy, then all bets are off. It’s just too exhausting, frustrating on both our parts, and why in the world would you want me to GUESS what your hopes and dreams are anyway?


Life is short! I am really interested in what you have to say and want to spend my energy connecting with you, not guessing at what you say and just nodding trying to act like I understand. Writing things down may take longer, but I’ll make a connection that way and can talk about Real Stuff. In the past, when the umpteenth person has asked me The Dreaded Question, I may or may not have been tempted beyond my power to resist to answer “You want to read lips? OK, I will if you will”, and proceed to talk to them orally with no voice. They inevitably panic, and say something like “oh no! Not me, just you!” I then tell them that that hardly seems fair, and ask them why they don’t want to lipread an entire conversation. “It’s too hard!”, they say.




Now, some deaf and hard-of-hearing people *are* proficient at lipreading/speech-guessing, don’t mind doing it, and may not even sign at all. For them it’s just how they talk with people. Most of them use their residual hearing with amplification (hearing aids or cochlear implants) in addition to watching the face. They put what they see and what they hear together. Remember that deaf people can hear sounds to varying degrees, it’s not all or nothing. Hearing devices aren’t useful for everyone. Most proficient speech readers that I know struggle much more if they’re not using their hearing devices, so the audio information is pretty important for them. And there *are* a few who do remarkably well just with the visual information alone. Good for them! They’re a rarity. Not everyone can be Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye.


So what can you say instead of “do you read lips?” I suppose I’d really like it if hearing people would ask me “how shall we communicate?” Because that’s what you really want to know. You want to know if you should speak to me or write, or use gestures or the manual alphabet you learned back in scouting, or what. The solution might actually be a combination of all of that, depending on the person, the situation, and the topic at hand. I’d really like it if hearing people took more responsibility for our communication instead of expecting deaf people to accommodate them by “reading lips”, which involves little to no extra effort on the hearing person’s part.


Oh, and I’ll take tea, please. Milk, no sugar.


In my mind this topic of language ties in with the idea of culture, as language is a huge part of culture.  Can you explain a little bit about Deaf culture?  What does that mean?


Oh my! Entire courses are taught on this. Even just defining “culture” is not as easy as you might think. You’re very right that language is a big part of culture, and so signed languages are a huge part of Deaf culture. I think it’s safe to say it’s the biggest, most salient part. Some even refer to Deaf people/culture/community as “signing peoples”. A Deafblind French man has proposed a flag to be used internationally by Deaf people, and the flag depicts a hand. Hands are popular images used in logos by Deaf organisations. No, not that slashed ear icon like you see in airports and at bank tellers, that usually indicates that an FM loop system is available for people to use with hearing aids.


Anyway, if “culture” itself is defined as “ideas, customs, values, and social behaviour of a particular people or society”, there is plenty more besides language that makes a culture. Certain behaviours are easily recognised parts of culture and after sign language are probably the most cited examples to explain Deaf culture. Things like attention-getting techniques contrast greatly to those used by hearing people. Since we obviously just can’t say someone’s name to get their attention, it’s perfectly acceptable (and expected!) to tap someone’s shoulder (or knee, if seated) to get their attention. If they are too far away to be touched, waving a hand is the next strategy. Banging on a table or stomping on the floor is another way if they can’t see the waving hand, so they can feel the vibrations and look up to see what’s happening. There’s even a way to hoot vocally, especially by a wall, in a way that many deaf people will hear and feel. As you might imagine, this is very very loud, and we tend to keep its use within Deaf space such as Deaf schools or at home. I should mention that this hooting is done among Deaf people ourselves. It would be rather offensive if a hearing person did this, unless maybe by a family member. So forget the hooting. But please DO tap!


Hearing people seem so afraid to touch and be touched! It seems hearing people in public rarely register my voice, meaning I will say “excuse me” behind them five or six times and they won’t hear me, or at least not register that I’m saying something to them. So of course then I gently tap them in a very polite manner. Half the time they jump out of their skins and look at me like I was assaulting them. But these same hearing people think nothing of actually SHOVING me from behind when I don’t hear THEM say “excuse me” on the street, on the stairs, the escalator, in shops, and pretty much anywhere in public space. Can someone please explain this? It’s something I want to understand about hearing people. Why are they so loathe to simply tap someone on the shoulder but have no qualms about shoving them to the ground?


So, after attention-getting techniques, equipment is often presented as artefacts of Deaf culture. In our museums there are old pagers, TTYs (teletypewriters / minicoms, used with the telephone), the ingenious handmade contraptions used to knock on doors. These days it’s usually some variation of flashing lights and/or vibrations that alert us to doorbells, fire alarms, incoming texts and video calls, etc. And we seem to have fewer “special” devices since things like computers and smart phones that the general public have as well provide most communication. We just use the smart phones to make video calls instead of voiced phone calls, and use Skype and FaceTime for the video feature only. This ability to see each other on video in real time over the internet has changed our lives. It’s the equivalent of the invention of the telephone for hearing people.


Although it’s been around for years now, I don’t think I’ll ever take it for granted. Heck, I don’t take email and instant messaging for granted. I reached adulthood before the internet came about, and I don’t think it will ever cease to be somewhat miraculous to me. I loved having pen-pals as a child, and the ability to communicate instantly with anyone in the world is what first wowed me the most about the internet.


Actually, I’ll tell you a story. I was one of the first people in the world to communicate via remote video in sign language. It was 1989, at Epcot Center in Florida. My friends and I were starting to leave the park after a long day, and walking through one of the pavilions, I saw a table set up with a television, and someone sitting in front of it signing. I got closer, and saw that someone on the TV screen was signing, too. The moment I realised they could SEE EACH OTHER and were talking to each other, everything changed. I mean, everything.


This was 1989, right? Forget hover boards, this just got real. Turns out the man on the TV was in Singapore, and they were conducting a remote experimental video link. I got to chat with him for a few minutes. His name was David. For all I know, we may have been the first deaf people to have an international conversation in sign language via video.


Institutions and organisations are a big part of any culture. Deaf schools, deaf clubs, deaf associations are cornerstones of the community. As most deaf people come from hearing families, many of whom do not sign or sign poorly, the deaf school is a second home to many, or even a primary home. In the past, students who travelled far to the residential state school would only go home for summer vacation and Christmas. Nowadays many students go home at weekends or at least once a month. However, many deaf schools have been closing as deaf students become increasingly mainstreamed in education, attending public schools. While the perspective of the general public is that this is a good thing, a victory for “inclusion” (which is a terribly loaded word), deaf people mourn the loss and fear a future without the cultural and spiritual home of the deaf school. It’s a place where deaf kids can communicate with *everyone* around them, not just an interpreter assigned to them. Their classmates and many teachers and administrators are also deaf, so role models abound. Some deaf kids in mainstream education have actually thought that when they grow up they’ll be hearing, because they have *never* met a deaf adult in their lives. Can you imagine? At deaf school they can easily participate in sports, drama, dance, clubs, student government… everyone signs.


The love of the deaf school does not stop at graduation. Alumni are for life, and the term “alma mater” (meaning “nourishing mother” in Latin) is spot on. Introductions in the Deaf world invariably include where one went to school. Homecoming weekends are extremely popular events, with multiple generations mingling. This doesn’t stop at high school. In the US, besides Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, the only university in the world specifically for Deaf students, there is the rival National Technical Institute for the Deaf, part of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. There are other concentrations of deaf college students in various other higher education programs as well.


I mentioned deaf clubs and associations. The deaf club has had its heyday and many have closed. In the past, before cellphones and pagers and WhatsApp, Deaf people had to make plans in advance to meet up and keep them! It was easy to just show up at the deaf club every weekend and catch up with everyone, signing away late into the night after a long week of perhaps being the only deaf person in your workplace and hardly talking with anyone. With the advent of modern communication technologies, deaf people can be in touch with everyone and each other remotely as easily as hearing people, and the deaf club is a dying breed, those that survive largely attended by older folks. Associations are still very much with us, though. In the U.S. there’s the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), state associations, professional associations, all kinds.

Common values are an important part of culture. Deaf people are a collective lot, strong believers in the village. This probably has its roots in the deaf school, as explained above. Sharing of information is a big part of this, traditionally achieved by “word of mouth” via the deaf club. Now we have vlogs and facebook! There’s the old joke that the fastest ways to spread news are: telephone, telegraph, and tell-a-deaf.


There is loads more to say about Deaf culture, but I think I’ll finish by mentioning name signs. Or “sign names”, they’re called both. Basically, people have personal sign names. This doesn’t mean that there’s a sign for “Bob” and one for “Alice”. I mean individuals have a sign name that people use to refer to them. Two people named Mel will have different sign names. In many countries the sign name depicts some physical or personality aspect of the individual, but there are also arbitrary sign names which are used in the ASL community. For example, someone named Alphonsus might have the sign name of the manual letter A at the shoulder, or on the back of the hand, or on one other locations that are used for arbitrary name signs. Otherwise, a sign might indicate a mole he might have on his face, or an unusual chin structure, or something. The latter type of name sign is more common internationally.


A name sign might be related to the meaning of one’s name. I know someone with the surname Fischer whose sign name is “fish”. I also realise now that this is a difficult thing to explain on a podcast so I won’t go into it further, but just know that people have names in sign language and it’s not necessarily related to one’s spoken orwritten name. And, a sign name isn’t something that you have make up for yourself, it’s usually given to you by deaf people.


You did a great job of summarizing an entire course into just a few minutes. In talking about deaf culture is that something that is universal?

Some people might think so, and there are some elements of deaf culture that are (such as getting people’s attention, the value of signed languages, etc.) but it would be a fallacy to claim one global deaf culture. The academic field of Deaf Studies has been heavily skewed towards western / white communities and is now widening its scope. Remember that deaf people don’t live in a bubble either, we are also part of the wider national culture, and of our various other subcultures. So while we love meeting other deaf people wherever we go, it’s not always necessarily seamless and without any cultural awkwardness. Sign names, for example. While all deaf communities that I know of use sign names, they have different forms and norms of assigning them.


Today, when we have been speaking we have been using the word deaf alot, I know for some people, they don't know what is the appropriate language.  We hearing folks may wonder can we say deaf?  Or is it hearing impaired?  We have heard things like deaf mute or deaf-dumb.  What is ok and not ok to use?


You can say deaf! That’s how we in the deaf community self-identify, and how we prefer to be called. Some people who have a certain degree of useful residual hearing, maybe enough to talk on the phone, may identify as “hard-of-hearing”. Others who have a similar hearing level or even more still identify as “deaf”, especially if they sign. For us, “deaf” refers to the culture as we talked about just now. It’s our community, not where the lines fall on an audiogram.


Deaf and hard-of-hearing” is often used to be inclusive. I’m afraid the term “hearing impaired”, while used by some people to self-identify, is despised by the deaf community and is actually quite offensive to us. And to think that it is considered a “politically correct” term! Far from it. It certainly did not arise from the deaf community! We don’t consider ourselves impaired. There’s nothing wrong with hearing differently, or not at all. Hearing isn’t that important to most of us, certainly not a “major life activity”.  The “H.I.” hearing impaired term is very negative, implying that we’re broken, need fixing, and says what we aren’t (hearing) instead of what we are (deaf).


Deaf and dumb” and “deaf mute” are outdated and erroneous terms. Deaf people *can* speak, whether in the wider sense of using language (including sign languages) or in the oral, vocal sense. Just because you have difficulty understanding us doesn’t mean we can’t speak. While most Westerners understand that deaf people speak differently because they don’t hear speech enough to replicate it, in some cultures (such as in Cambodia) awareness is so lacking that many in the general public think that deaf people are physically unable to vocalise, due to lack of a tongue or a uvula or who knows what anatomy. Yes, I said uvula. That’s the thing that hangs down in the back of your throat. There are parts of the world where it is widely thought that deaf people don’t have that and so can’t speak. They don’t even realise that deaf people can’t hear! Once in Cambodia a waitress passing by our table heard me laugh and immediately accused me of not being deaf after all! Which of course caused me to laugh again, further confirming her “diagnosis”.


That said, there *are* some deaf people who are reclaiming the term “deaf mute” in order to emphasise their identity as people who use signed language, not spoken language. This is not widespread, though, and you shouldn’t use the term unless a deaf person has specifically told you that they identify as deaf mute and that you should refer to them as being deaf mute as well.


You didn’t mention the term “hearing loss”, but I’d like to bring it up as well. While some deaf and hard-of-hearing people have lost their hearing (that is, they used to hear more and now they don’t), many deaf and hard-of-hearing people were born that way and so have never experienced a loss of hearing at all. How can you “lose” what you never had? Besides, “hearing loss” sounds so negative and tragic. For many of us it’s not a loss in any sense of the word, not only have we never had it but it’s just not a value. “Hearing level” is much more a neutral term and one that I use on the rare occasion that it comes up. Culturally sensitive audiologists will talk about one’s hearing “level”, not hearing “loss”.


By the way, it’s not considered an appropriate topic of conversation. We certainly don’t sit around talking about our hearing levels! Yet one of the first questions that hearing people often ask a deaf person is “how much can you hear?” I get it that they’re probably just trying to figure out how to communicate, but to deaf people the question seems an odd one at best, and actually rather personal and nosy. Maybe comparable to asking how much someone weighs.


Misuse of language like this can probably be pretty hurtful.  What are other things us hearing folks do that are rude or hurtful (hopefully we are doing them unintentionally)?


Well, saying “hearing impaired” is a major one, but we’ve talked about that. The other word at the top of the list is actually …“sorry”! Any deaf person would know what I mean. At any random encounter with a hearing stranger in public, they say something to you and are awaiting a response, when you let them know you’re deaf, 99.9% of the time they will say…




Often followed by turning on their heel and running away. I mean, what? What are you sorry about? Are they sorry we’re deaf? Don’t be, we’ve talked about that. Are they sorry there was a communication glitch? Are they sorry they picked me of alllll the people in the room to talk to? Sorry they don’t sign? Sorry they don’t know how to respond to diversity? I want to know. This is something else I wish I knew about hearing people. Can you do a podcast about that?


Another thing involves interpreters. Hearing non-signers looooooove sign language interpreters. It’s almost guaranteed that at any event where there is an interpreter that at least one hearing person will go up to them afterward and gush about how beautiful/amazing/clear their interpreting was, and how they could really understand so much even though they don’t know any sign language, and how much like dancing it is, etc. etc. ad nauseam. How long did it take them to learn, can they rap like that lady on YouTube, is sign language universal, so how do you say (insert expletive of choice)… all while the deaf person or persons are standing right there. Rarely will those hearing people even think to approach a deaf person, even with an interpreter right there at their disposal! Nota bene: this annoys any interpreter worth their salt as well, and they will usually make attempts to direct such comments and questions to any deaf people nearby. Sadly, even those hearing people who will actually approach a deaf person will often limit their comments and questions to things related to sign language or about being deaf. This happens even in professional contexts. It makes me feel like just a deaf token with my only purpose being to educate hearing people. I get it that they may feel awkward approaching a stranger, but “so were you born that way?” is hardly an appropriate icebreaker in anyone’s book.


Another thing that hearing people do that baffles me is come up to me and just start signing the ABCs. Not even spelling “hi” or telling me their name, just A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P-Q-R-S-T-U-V-W-X-Y-Z. I just spelled the whole thing out so you can FEEL how utterly ridiculous it is to sit there waiting for someone to finish getting through reciting the alphabet. Usually very slowly, with errors and false starts and starting over and expecting correction. At least when someone speaks only a little English they will come up and say “Hi, how are you?” or “What’s your name?” or “you're very nice”. You know, an actual friendly greeting. Certainly not recite the alphabet to you.


It seems a running theme is of hearing people seeing deaf people as “just” deaf. I know this happens with other differences, including those of race and disability, but I think it’s more pronounced with deaf people due to the communication issues.


It is always good for us to know what we can do to be more respectful of one another.  I want to go in a different direction now.  We had listeners with all kinds of random logistics type questions.  For many people, and a number of our listeners, they have never met a deaf person so they just have no idea what you can and can't do as someone who is deaf.  


One person asked, can you drive?

What, someone really asked this?

Yes! It puzzles me that some people think being deaf would be a problem with driving. I mean, how many hearing people blare the radios? Driving is 100% visual. “But what about sirens?” you say. As far as I know, anything on the road that has a siren also has flashing lights. Actually, statistics show that deaf drivers have safer driving records than the general public.


Some asked, do you know how to drive a manual? If so, they are wondering how you know when to shift gears?


I actually prefer standard shift. I like to be in control. I learned to drive on a 1971 Volkswagen van, stick shift, four on the floor. And until this question came up, I don't think I had ever consciously realised that hearing people depend on their hearing to know when to shift gears. You feel when to shift, obviously! Vibrations!


Someone else asked, “How do you get up in the morning?  Most of us depend on a blaring alarm.

I’m so sorry. You have to wake up to a blaring alarm clock. That seems terrible.


Heh, I’m such a natural early bird that I don’t even own an alarm clock. There are alarm clocks with a vibrating attachment to put under the mattress that will shake your bed and half the house for good measure, or make a light flash. I truly despise alarms. Lots of deaf people and hearing people use them, though, as you said. I haven’t since the early 90s because I just wake up plenty early on my own. On the rare occasions when I need insurance, like for an early flight or train, these days I’ll put my phone under my pillow and set a vibrating alarm. That works for me. Yes, I know you shouldn’t sleep with your brain so close to a cell phone, but it’s really only very occasionally. An old-fashioned trick that I’ve used as well is to just drink a massive glass of water at bed time. Guaranteed to wake after you a few hours.

When my cat was young, she was also an excellent alarm. Being an early bird myself, I didn’t mind her requests for breakfast at dawn. Some deaf people have service dogs trained to alert them to sounds, including alarms. So they may have a conventional (audio) alarm clock, and leave it to their dog to wake them up. Incidentally, my cat does alert me to sounds at home. She’s so clingy that she’s always at my side (if not on top of me), and is so curious that she will respond to sounds and lead me to their source. Better than a doorbell! Except for when she’s taking a nap.


So, when you're napping, like your cat, when you dream, are people around you speaking or signing?  If they are speaking can you hear and understand them?


I have dreamt in all the languages I know (spoken and signed), but usually dream in no language at all. Like telepathy. I’ve had dreams where people were speaking and I couldn’t understand them (like in real life), but also when I could understand every word somehow (I don’t know if you’d call it “hearing”, but it sure wasn’t speechreading!) and even speak back fluently. In French. Which I can read but don’t speak or even hardly write, and I don’t know the rules of pronunciation. But in that dream I was speaking perfect, fluent French. C’est vrai!


Dreaming in a new language is a milestone in language learning. It’s gotten into your brain enough to appear in your subconscious.


One person writes, if you are alone in the house, do you get that "hairs stand up on the back of your neck feeling like your are being watched?  For you, what triggers it?  For her it is associated with sound.


No, I have never had that feeling. Until this question now, that is. And I’m home, alone. Great, thanks!

Bumps and thumps do that to me. I suppose they are usually from neighbouring flats or houses on the row. Once when I was staying alone house-sitting for friends, I kept feeling this repeating thump. I started to get scared, as it was a detached house (no neighbouring houses on either wall), and texted my friend. It turned out that a thunderstorm had suddenly broken! The curtains were closed and I didn’t see it. Now, I grew up in Florida and know thunderstorms. Guess the unfamiliar surroundings just threw me off.


We have talked about some of your other senses through this interview, do you feel any of your other senses are heightened because you are deaf?


Research has shown that many deaf people have better peripheral vision than hearing people. I know I often feel vibrations that hearing people say they can’t feel. I think they are just distracted by what they hear. Sound IS vibration, after all. It just makes sense that with less distraction you notice things more. I know that I feel vibrations better if I’m not wearing hearing aids.


Someone asked, “if you could be hearing for one day, would you want to? And, what would you want to hear?”

If it were just for a day, I suppose I’d give it a go. I could put up with most anything for a day. To be boring and scientific, if that were to actually happen somehow, my brain wouldn’t know what to do with all that new, foreign input and it probably wouldn’t be a very pleasant experience. If part of this hypothetical miracle would be that my brain COULD process and pleasantly interpret said input as someone who had been hearing their whole life, then bring on the ocean and the birds and the Beethoven and the Bohemian Rhapsody and all the cliches. But I’d rather have wings for a day. That would be uber cool. Or even one of those lithe runner’s bodies. I’ve always sucked at running, it would be amazing to complete a marathon. Or be a cat! I’d love to spend a day inside my cat’s head. Yeah, don’t think I’d waste a “one day” scenario on hearing.


How do you see being deaf as a super power?  When has it gotten you out of awkward situations?


We are totally awesome communicators. Forget about lip reading, we can travel anywhere and feel at home, connect with anyone who is open to it, on our terms. Because even in our home towns we have to teach people how to communicate with us every day. Every. Single. Day. Every single day we talk with people who don’t know our language. So we don’t bat an eye when confronted with someone with whom we may share no common language at all! My research in recent years has actually been on that very super power. We’ve studied how deaf signers from different countries communicate when they first meet each other, sharing no common language, signed or otherwise, not even English. And how that communication evolves over time, with daily contact. I’m not talking about International Sign. We were careful to select participants who had no knowledge of I.S. and no significant experience travelling. So when you bring together an Indonesian, a Jordanian, a Japanese, and a Brit, all deaf and fluent in their respective national sign languages, magic happens. It’s probably much how International Sign started, many years ago. In a way, we turn back the clock to see how it may have been created. They learn some of each other’s sign languages, but sophisticated gestures are used from the start, and novel signs are created within the group. The local sign language takes a leading role as participants also interact with deaf people in the host community. I mean, from the very first minute they meet (which we document, of course), they talk. And not just about the weather. Can you imagine how it would go if four hearing people who had no common language were sat in front of a camera and told to talk to each other? You could hear the crickets!

So, I don’t know about “awkward situations” (except maybe the occasional speeding ticket that I got off with just a warning for), but I am sure that my deaf powers have opened many doors. I was the first person in my family (all hearing) to have a passport. I don’t understand why some hearing people are so amazed that deaf people travel alone. I’ve seen so many hearing people who freeze when confronted with someone who doesn’t speak English! (or whatever their native tongue is) They don’t even know how to ask where the toilet is. Some apparently don’t even know how to count on their fingers. Also, I think it’s difficult for many hearing people to make friends whilst travelling. Deafies, wherever we go, find others and have an instant contact person / new friend. Yes, I said “deafies”. We sometimes call ourselves that. You can’t use that word though. It’s like the hooting. In-group only. Sorry. :-)


Thank you SO MUCH for being willing to share all of your wisdom with us today.  Before we sign off, I just have two final questions.  A number of hearing listeners asked, what can we as hearing folks do to make the world better for deaf folks? Or, some version of that question, they all had different ways of stating it.  Maybe the same answer, what are three things you wish we knew?


How to make the world better? Here are a few ideas:
Learn a sign language! It’s always great to find that someone signs, even if a little. Just yesterday the staff person at the public library desk knew some BSL and was able to help me that way. I always ask someone first if they sign before breaking out the pen and paper. Most of the time the answer is “no”, but sometimes I get a nice surprise!


Watch deaf presenters and artists on YouTube. Storytellers, poets, song-signers. Like/subscribe/promote them, not hearing people signing songs. Promote #deaftalent .

While learning that sign language, do not post videos of yourself on YouTube signing songs. Just don’t.


Learn another sign language if you have the opportunity! When you travel, learn something about the deaf community of that place.


Call the media out when they use offensive terms for deaf people or spread misconceptions. “Deaf” and “hard-of-hearing” are NOT interchangeable terms, they mean different things. “Non-hearing” and “hearing impaired” are just not acceptable.


If you post videos, CAPTION THEM, with plain text transcripts to boot (because captions are not accessible to many deafblind people).


Seriously, caption your videos. If you see an uncaptioned video in the media, ask why it isn’t captioned and when they will be added. Deaf people do this all. The. Time. And it’s tiring. Be an ally.


Three things I wish you knew:

1. Deaf people in general are quite happy being deaf and wouldn’t have it any other way. I no more grieve not hearing than I grieve my lack of a prostate, or of a third arm. Which is, not at all. I’ve never had one, by the way. It would be really weird if I did have one. But I can understand how someone else would be upset if they lost theirs.


2. About interpreters: Most “sign language interpreters” are also spoken language interpreters. By definition, interpreting happens between at least two languages. In this context, it is usually between a signed and a spoken language. In the U.S., most typically between ASL and English. Though it is also often between ASL and Spanish. There are some interpreters (who are often deaf themselves) who work between different signed languages, such as ASL and LSM (Mexican Sign Language), or ASL and LSQ ([Québécoise] sign language in Canada). I've done a lot of this myself between signed languages. Deaf interpreters also often interpret between a visual sign language and tactile sign language with deafblind people. I think that’s a whole other podcast, though. Oh, and interpreters are not “for deaf people” or “for the deaf”, regardless of the name of the national professional registry for ASL interpreters in the US. Deaf people alone don’t need interpreters, it’s most often only with hearing people that interpretation becomes necessary. Then the hearing people need interpreters as much as the deaf people! Again, by definition, interpreting happens between at least two languages. So anyone speaking while an interpreter is present is using the interpreter. Anyone listening to what the interpreter is saying is using the interpreter. The interpreter is for everyone in the room, not just for the deaf person or people. It makes sense, of course, it’s just that most people don’t think it through.


3. There are certified deaf lifeguards! I was one myself for several years. “But you can’t hear if a drowning person is calling for help!”, you say? Anyone who has been through lifeguard training knows that a person who is drowning is physically incapable of calling out, or waving, or doing anything besides trying to breathe. It’s called the “instinctive drowning response” and includes certain postures. People have drowned just a few feet away from other people (hearing people!) who had no idea they were even struggling. Like driving, lifeguarding requires visual alertness and attentiveness in which deaf people may actually have an advantage.  Besides, lifeguarding is largely preventive. I only had occasion once to pull someone out of the water who was struggling, and this was from a riptide at the beach when I wasn’t even on duty.

Oh, and deaf people can dance, too.


Karen, thank YOU for this opportunity to chat with you and all your listeners about this. I’m proud to have a podcast under my belt now! THANKS!



A huge thank you to Alex for being our first guest on the Wish You Knew Podcast. I hope that you have also been able learned something new about someone who holds an identity that you maybe did not previously understand. Thank you so much listening. And, you will find in the show notes all kinds of things, some of them which Alex referenced. I will put up some with that hashtag deaf talent, which she referenced that hashtag. So, Deaf people that are involved in music and the arts and have put things up on YouTube. I have a few that are my favorite to follow. So, I'll put those in the show notes. As always if you have any questions or comments, please send them our way. Until next time, remember people are people are people. Keep listening. Keeping learning. Keep loving. Have a great week!