When a Deaf Time-Out is Necessary

A few days ago, I came across this vlog by Mhairi Brown via the AI-Media Facebook page, about the idea of “deaf time.” Now, I’ve just written a seminar paper for grad school on some other historical applications of how deafness can relate to different cultural frames of time and temporality (a la Alison Kafer etc etc) – but Brown’s main point in her vlog is more contemporary, and more personally relevant, than this. It made me nod my head in recognition, and was rather timely to boot. (Pun intended.)

In short, Brown points out, deaf people need to take our own “deaf time” out from the hearing world in order to preserve ourselves and to preserve our energy to keep going. Deaf time might look like any other form of personal quiet time, it might look like time in silence with hearing aids and cochlear implants out, it might look like time away from lipreading and talking and normative modes of conversation. Regardless of what shape or form one’s personal deaf time takes, it’s necessary. Let's be honest, the hearing world is an exhausting place, and what might come easily to hearing people (conversation, keeping track of what’s going on, environmental or situational awareness) can quickly wear on deaf people. Not to mention the ongoing personal load of advocating for oneself and seeking to enable one’s own access all the time, I would add. We may make it look easy, because we’ve become good at it, but these things require constant energy and constant work, and also constant vigilance about our own boundaries and what we feel is realistic for us to do, on a particular day.

This very idea of “deaf time” is a lesson I had to fight hard to learn in high school and college – particularly during my undergraduate years when I was living full-time in the hearing world for the first time, without recourse to my signing home/family environment, where communication isn’t really a struggle. I remember asking myself during those years: Why do I feel so exhausted all the time? Why do I get home from a day with hearing people and just want to sit in silence? What's wrong with me? Is this normal? Friends, time in the hearing world is indeed exhausting. Everyone needs a time out for themselves every once in a while, no matter who they are, but for me recognizing when I need a bit of “deaf time” (as opposed to just introvert time or writing time, or what have you) has been crucial to helping me keep going. Deaf time, for me, is simply time away from worrying about everyday communicative struggles or logistics.

I realized when I watched the above vlog that, in truth, I’ve spent the last two weeks taking an extended bit of “deaf time” for myself as I enjoy being home over the holidays. I feel fortunate that I belong to a family where I can do this. I return home and recognize how nice it is that I never have to worry about communication while I am in this house. I have no shortage of great things I love about my family, and I could go on about those things, but foremost is how my parents and sister have always prioritized communication in our home environment and our family dynamic. Inclusiveness is second nature to them by now, in a way it isn’t with very many other hearing people. I can let my guard down, I can relax into not having to worry about how well I will understand what’s being said, I don’t need to fret about missing something or being left uncomfortably in the dark. If it’s the four of us, if we are together chatting, I know I will understand what is going on – and if I don’t, I don’t feel at all bad about interrupting, holding everything up, and loudly insisting that they inform me, in a way I never quite do with other people, except for maybe a very rare few close friends. Many deaf people with non-signing hearing families, I realize, do not have this luxury of having a “time out” with family – which I feel is one of the most unfortunate things, based on my own understanding of what family means. The way my family creates a space for me to take time out from the rest of the hearing world is something I will always cherish about them. Their communication habits and their consciousness are things I no longer take for granted.

When I take my own “deaf time” out at home, too, I find I can relax about my daily routine in a way I usually can’t elsewhere. I’m on vacation! That means there will be no last-minute meetings to figure out, no ASL interpreter requests to make, no back-and-forth emails to the disability office, no worrying about whether I have accessibility arrangements for me wherever I go. We don’t go on very many outings where accessibility is an issue, and if we do – well, family is there to help, and I feel assured it will all work out. I don’t worry about my social life or my social energy when I’m having my personal deaf time in New Mexico, either. There are few pressures or expectations, so I can choose whom I see and spend time with, which these days are mostly other people who sign or who communicate well. I cannot say how nice it feels to go for two weeks and be able to forget about whether or not I’ve sent that email to the disability office, whether or not I have interpreters. It doesn’t matter, when I am here, and so I settle more into feeling like myself rather than worrying about how Rachel the Deaf Person is going to function in that situation. Here, on vacation and at home, I am simply me. I read, write, think about other things, and this in itself feels recharging.

I’ve realized, since my undergraduate years, that the reason I spent so much time at home over college breaks and vacations was because I needed this deaf time, this time out with family and beautiful landscape in a place that let me opt out from everyday hearing-world pressures that wore me thin. Now I have a vocabulary for this recharge time, in a way I didn’t before, and I can let myself get on with the things I need rather than wondering why my personal needs are different than other people’s might be. Time away and a time out can be necessary for anyone, once again, but for me it also serves a particular purpose. Extended time away, in addition to everyday time-outs either by myself or with certain close friends and other signing people, helps me to fill a gap. It gives me the food I need to keep going in the world I live in. It tells me that I am okay, if I find certain ways to feel like me, rather than trying to fit standard molds of hearing behavior all the time.

On that note, here’s to this bit of vacation, and here’s to jumping back into the usual grind in 2017! Here’s to doing the lipreading/interpreting arrangements/socialization/[fill in the blank] game all over again, and to figuring out new strategies to do it better to live the lives we want. Finally, other deaf friends and readers, here’s hoping you had your nice bit of deaf time away over the holidays, too.