To Speak or Not to Speak?: Part I

My entire life, I’ve experienced a constant question and a constant divide: do I speak, or do I sign?

My answer has always been: both.

But then further questions arise. When to speak, and when to sign? With whom? For what purpose, and to what audience? What values do these decisions reflect? What impact do all these communicative choices have, on me and on others and on the broader world? For they do have an impact; the way we communicate shapes who we are or aspire to be. They also shape our communal ideas about the possibilities in the world, about who is allowed to inhabit it and how.

Yes, I am one of those deaf people who speaks. I’m often told I speak well, very well, remarkably well, how did I learn how to do that? (This can come across as patronizing. Or I’m told, by unknowing but otherwise well-meaning people, that my voice sounds a little different, why is that or where am I from? There’s no way to win, to pass, to blend in – if that is even the goal to begin with, which I truly don’t believe it is or should be.) Speaking, for me, wasn’t a personal decision, even if years of personal commitment (aka speech therapy) figured into my speech development. I grew up in a hearing family. I was always immersed in a hearing world. Speech therapy was a decision my parents made for me from the beginning of my life, even if I also used and communicated in sign. I did see and have exposure to other d/Deaf people, but it always felt natural that the world around me was speaking and hearing. Did I want to connect with other people? Yes. So, what was the way I could do that? Talk. Back then, that seemed obvious, if frustrating and not fully accessible to me. It’s what my family did, even if they were also wonderfully supportive about sign. It’s what everyone else seemed to do, “everyone else” being the larger hearing world I lived in. I used sign when I could, still feel most comfortable in it or in sign-supported speech, but so few people knew ASL, so few people were willing to learn and come over to my little slice of the world.

So, yes, I am proud of being able to speak well – even if it’s often a bit of an uneasy kind of pride, a voice that asks, Well, what if I didn’t? or Why does this one thing alone distinguish me as more successful, more normative, more approachable in the hearing world? It really shouldn’t. And, in recent years, I’ve reflected more and more on how speaking well, as a deaf person, sometimes sets me up not only for success but sometimes for a certain kind of communication failure, a failure that doesn’t occur with signing.

Let me explain. Most of it (aside from the question of Deaf representation or communicative difference/pride, which is also important) comes down to the very simple fact that I can speak far, far better than I can or ever will hear. Meaning that, despite the help that lipreading can give, I often express myself more clearly than I can actually understand. So, the following scenario arises:

Hearing Person meets me, maybe gets the usual introduction and disclaimer that I am deaf and reading her lips. She says okay, sure, no problem. We talk. I am very comfortable in spoken English – I’d really say that, aside from annoying “silent reading words” (aka words that I know perfectly well and use all the time in writing but that I cannot pronounce for the life of me), I am just as comfortable expressing myself in spoken English as in ASL. Speaking feels natural to me at this point. It feels good. Less natural: trying to grasp words that are spoken aloud versus signed. I can do it, in certain contexts and with certain people, but my new Hearing Person companion is very likely to underestimate how much I might miss. She’s likely to assume I understood everything she said, because she understood everything I said. She can’t see into my mind. I can’t see into hers either, to interpret what she says. Overtly, to her, nothing seems “wrong” with me. From her perspective, the conversation seems to be going well – and I, like many other deaf and hard-of-hearing people, have unfortunately become very good at smoothing things over even when I do not understand perfectly, or at all. So, unless I say something or interrupt or make it obvious that I didn’t understand what just happened, Hearing Person is likely to assume that I am fine. Even if I am not.

Hence the many experiences I’ve had when I eventually confess to a hearing companion, “You know, I didn’t get very much of that,” or “That conversation was lost on me,” and Hearing Companion says, “Oh! You seemed so natural,” or “I’m sorry, you seemed like you were doing all right.”

The reason I seemed like I was fine? I can talk. Talking in our culture is equated with hearing. Less familiar is the idea of being able to speak well but not hear.

This speaking-equals-hearing assumption is not news to anyone who is deaf. I’ve discussed this many times with other deaf friends and acquaintances. Speaking can get us in trouble. I’ve had hearing people ask me, “But you can lipread, and you speak just fine. Why do you need an interpreter?” Or: “You can come over for this large group dinner, right? No one signs, but you seem really comfortable talking.” If I only signed and did not speak, the stakes would be clearer to these folks. Hearing Person companion would likely be more aware that she needed to sign, needed to be clear – because it would be obvious that, bingo, ASL was the way I needed to communicate. (This is why several deaf people I’ve met have answered the common “Can you lipread?” question with a blunt, “No.” They just don’t want to deal with it. I don’t blame them.) Signing makes it obvious that the hearing world needs to adapt to a different way of communication, comprehension, and self-expression. Speaking, because it’s so normative, does not.

This is a large reason why I’ve struggled with my speaking deaf person identity – if you will – in recent years. I’ve seen more and more how speaking can fail me, how it leaves me stranded or in the dark or having horribly misunderstood something, and how people genuinely can make more of an effort to sign, to meet me halfway, if they think that signing is their only option to talk with me.

So far, I speak because I like it. My family teases me about how I enjoy the sound and the feel of my own voice. (They, alas, are right. Touché.) I enjoy small conversations with hearing people, in decent circumstances, where I can talk and lipread and ask for clarification where I need to. I have many hearing friends who do not sign (as well as a few who do!), and talking to my non-signing friends allows me to get around the communication barrier we might otherwise experience. Speaking just makes things easier sometimes – I can get away without an interpreter in some contexts, for instance, or can handle off-the-cuff interactions (with strangers in public places, say) without needing to stop and turn everything into an ASL education moment. Not that more ASL education moments would be a bad thing, honestly, were it not for the energy it takes to deal with them. I don’t want to let go of speaking, of this core part of who I am. But speaking is sometimes less than faithful to my deaf side, my signing side, which is important too. Speaking tends to deny, negate, or even demote that part of myself.

Speak or sign? The answer, then, is still both. I’m navigating when to do each, though. There are compromises either way, and also no perfect answer – I had to give up on perfection in communication a long time ago. Still, I’m aware of how my own communication choices shape the world I live in, and also the world beyond myself. There are some situations where decisions in my speak vs. sign debacle become crystal clear, some situations when they’re more murky and could go either way, and some situations where the jury is still out and I’m still figuring all this out. But more on that next time, when I return to this topic. Signing off, pun heavily intended.