My A to Z theme concerns the joys and challenges of being the hearing mother of my Deaf son, Alex.
Though Sign Languages are as different as spoken languages worldwide, one thing is consistent; they all rely heavily on body language and facial expression. I’ll never forget the first time I was shown the sign for “not yet.” I actually laughed at my teacher, thinking he was joking. There was a mortifying moment. “Not yet” is exactly the same hand-sign as “late,” only with the tongue stuck out. (For a visual: http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/n/not-yet.htm ) Anyway, by the time my son Alex started to learn American Sign Language I pretty much had my own face and body under control. Unless I’m angry, which is another story altogether. But when we go out in public, the results of people doing things without realizing it can range from amusing back to mortifying. For me. Alex has a blast.
For instance, almost any time I take him out, someone speaks to him. He’s a very engaging little boy. He smiles at people all the time. Invariably they ask him questions, and when they do, they smile back and usually nod their heads because they’re asking a positive question that they want him to agree to:
“Are you looking forward to going back to school?”
“Do you like Spiderman?” (Because he’s always either holding or wearing something to do with Spiderman.)
Alex sees them nod and smile and he nods back. He doesn’t need to hear the question. Which always puts me in the awkward position of having to decide whether or not to tell them he’s Deaf. Unless they ask him another question to which he would have to answer, for instance, “How old are you?” I don’t tell them. Why not, you ask?
People are embarrassed when they get caught talking to a Deaf person. It’s like they feel like they’ve suddenly made a fool of themselves simply by being friendly. When there comes a point at which I have to explain that the reason he’s not talking to them is he’s deaf, they either:
a) say, “Oh,” and walk away, pretending they didn’t speak to us in the first place;
b) say, “But he can lip-read, right?” because obviously he knew what they asked him. He answered the way they wanted him to! (I then say, “Yes, a little,” to ease their minds);
or c) whisper to me, “I’m sorry.” Depending on how I’m feeling on that particular day, I’ll either, say, “That’s okay, he’s just happy to interact,” or, “That’s okay,” and think to myself, Don’t feel guilty about it. It’s not your fault.
I sometimes wonder if, on some level, people know he has a good idea of what they’re thinking. Much of our body language is unconscious. We know we’re doing it, but we don’t always know when, or whether or not we’re controlling it well. And if that doesn’t make you feel self-conscious around a Deaf person, I don’t know what will.
Alex’s ability to read expressions gets embarrassing when he laughs at people. And he does, loudly and with great delight. Take, for instance, a scenario in which you’re out for dinner with someone you’re trying to impress, and you put something in your mouth that you discover you don’t like. You’re turning green at the gills but you’re trying to downplay it, so you grin and bear it while you continue to chew and swallow the offending piece of food. Meanwhile, at the next table, there’s a kid absolutely killing himself with laughter at the subtle expression you’re trying to cover up, while his mother, red in the face, attempts not to giggle at her offspring’s reaction.
All I can really do is try to distract him. I can’t say to the person, “He’s Deaf, and you look like you just put a live bug in your mouth.” It’s amazing how quickly people cease to be charmed by him in these situations. And they happen all the time. Of course I try to explain to Alex that it’s rude to laugh at people, but first, my vocabulary isn’t fantastic in Sign, so when he asks why, I’m at a loss. And second, how can I explain to him that he needs to suppress this wonderful ability to read subtleties that goes flying over the heads of most of the population? So I take it case-by-case and do my best to make everyone happy.
To meet Alex, click here.