Deaf Wannabe


We were sitting right here in this living room, talking about Deaf things. Michelle said the new superintendent at the school for the Deaf is hearing, but he signs like he’s Deaf. And the chief executive officer, she said, is Deaf, but she signs like she’s hearing. RIGHT-RIGHT, said Marlene with a disapproving scowl, a sign that means “how typical and how wrong.” Then Janice signed some untranslatable pun which really tickled our philtrums and we burst out laughing, shaking our heads at the truth of it. And then, as it has a way of doing, the conversation turned to cochlear implants.

Janice said the CEO has a cochlear implant, and Marlene said it’s rampant discrimination, that’s what it is, the way ASL Deaf are consistently brushed aside and passed over in favor of oral Deaf. TALK-CAN JOB OFFER-YOU, she said. And Michelle said that Stan, the hiring manager at the Commission for the Deaf, had asked her at the beginning of her job interview if she preferred to talk or to sign. The question was offensive and discriminatory, she said. ME DEAF SIGN-ASL, she replied to Stan. She didn’t get the job. And Janice said that Stan has a cochlear implant. And Marlene said she wouldn’t be surprised if one day one of the 90+ percent of Deaf kids getting implanted as young children goes postal as an adult and shoots up an entire audiology department. And we nodded in agreement, then shook our heads at the truth of it.

And then Marlene said something that threw me. She said if there were a way for her to be hearing, if the cochlear implants really did make you hearing–which they don’t, they definitely don’t–she would choose being hearing in a heartbeat. And I said W-H-A-T? And she said, DEAF HARD. And I gazed deep into her peerless eyes. And she said YOU NOT-UNDERSTAND YOU HEARING. She went on to say she loved ASL and she loved the Deaf community but bottom line, it’s hard being Deaf. It’s a hell of a lot easier being hearing. And Janice and Michelle both said, NEXT, which basically means “I second that.” Or a more apposite translation might be: “Hear, hear.”

And I was totally thrown because, here I’d been learning ASL and hanging out with Deaf people all these years, and I’d always been taught that Deaf people are a linguistic and cultural minority, that it’s all about Deafhood–not deafness–and that audism (which Merriam-Webster added to the dictionary just a couple of years ago) is the prejudicial belief that it’s fundamentally better and more desirable to be hearing than to be Deaf, a notion that Deaf people have always told me they reject because it’s ethnocentric and false. And here was Marlene telling me she’d rather be hearing than Deaf. And Michelle and Janice were saying “hear, hear.”

And being the sole member of the hearing debate team in the room–in the house, actually, which is a Deaf house–I raised my hand and said, EXCUSE-ME, WHAT ABOUT DEAFHOOD? WHAT ABOUT DEAF-POWER?  That’s when they lit into me and said that hearing people who learn how to sign and then go sounding off about the beauty and legitimacy of ASL and Deaf culture, well, it smacks of cultural appropriation. YOU THINK YOU UNDERSTAND DEAF YOU NOT! said Marlene. YOU DEAF NOT! said Michelle. Janice just smiled at me knowingly, and her laughing eyes were saying RIGHT-RIGHT (“how typical, how wrong”). And then they gave me a good talking to. They said I was just an amateur, a visitor, a tourist admiring the trappings of being Deaf, sampling the language, the culture, the humor, the visual vernacular and virtuosity, but at the end of the day I didn’t live it. At the end of the day I went home to being hearing, they said.

But my home is with you, I wanted to say to Marlene, who, I neglected to mention, is my wife.

She and Michelle, her twin sister, are Deaf. And so are their two older sisters, their niece and nephew, and one of their aunts. And so is my brother-in-law Rob and my brother-in-law Phil. There are also a few Deaf exes in the mix. So you see, I have married into a rather large extended Deaf family. And in the Deaf world, Deaf families are a kind of aristocracy. Where Deaf is the currency.

Nevertheless, Marlene’s hearing family members still outnumber the Deaf family members because it’s a large family. But at the family gatherings I always hang out with the Deaf contingent, even though I’m hearing. Because the Deaf family members are funnier, and more fun, and they seem to have more experience with the happy varieties of their subject matter. So I’m kind of an honorary Deaf member because I married in. I’ve been granted a seat at the table. And by now I have a handle on the language. And a small window onto the Deaf experience.

But here was my wife saying to me: YOU THINK YOU UNDERSTAND DEAF YOU NOT! Of course, I would never claim to know what it’s like being Deaf. For example, I don’t know what it’s like for her when I’m not with her–because I’m never with her when she’s alone, obviously–when she’s out in the world on her own, being Deaf. I don’t see her then. I don’t see her having to point to her ears and gesture that she’s Deaf, which she often has to do when people out in the world approach her or greet her or speak to her. I don’t see her getting angry looks from people who said something to her and when she didn’t respond they thought she was being rude; I don’t see her not hearing the PA system on the subway platform, or on the train, or in the store, or everywhere else in the world where the language is not her language and the modality is not her modality.

Up until that conversation in our living room, I’d have said that Deaf people are no more “hearing-impaired” than people who speak Farsi, Finnish, Czech or Vietnamese are “English-impaired.” That’s how ridiculous and wrong it seemed to me when I heard hearing people refer to Deaf people as “hearing-impaired,” identifying them by what they lack, by what they’re not, as opposed to what they have and what they are. And I still feel that way. Of course I do. How else could I love a Deaf woman and make a home with her as equals? But here’s what I now get that maybe I didn’t get before: I think if you asked any monolingual speaker of Farsi, Finnish, Czech or Vietnamese if they wished they could speak and understand English–the biggest bully on the world’s linguistic playground–they would probably say yes. They would probably agree that out there in the world, where English is the lingua franca, life is in many ways easier for a speaker of English.

Of course, it’s not the perfect analogy, because native speakers of other spoken languages can–or can at least try–to learn English. But Deaf people can’t try to become hearing (even though that’s what the so-called experts in the field of Deafness have wanted them to do for the last 200 years). Deaf people don’t hear. It’s not that they can’t hear. It’s that (it’s worth repeating) they don’t hear. So it’s not about ability. Or inability. Or even disability, one might argue. I thought of arguing that now, in our living room, but I knew I would probably get an earful from my lovely Deaf wife and her twin Deaf sister and their acerbic Deaf sidekick. It was three against one. Three Deaf ASL virtuosos against one amateur Deaf wannabe, who had somehow found himself on the wrong side of the argument, and on the far side of the living room. So I inched my chair a little closer to Marlene. And gave her my hand. And held my tongue.


Paul Hostovsky makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter. His poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net Awards, the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. His newest book of poems is Pitching for the Apostates (forthcoming, Kelsay Books). To read more, visit his website at

From Mario Loprete (Catanzaro 1968, Graduate of Accademia of Belle Arti, Catanzaro, ITALY): Painting for me is my first love. An important, pure love. Creating a painting, starting from the spasmodic research of a concept with which I want to transmit my message. . . this is the foundation of painting for me. The sculpture is my lover.