Sunday, October 10, 2010

Don’t Let Them Touch You With Their Sign Language

My new office has TVs that run all day on mute, with closed captioning on. The words constantly flashing on screens have a strange effect on me. They’re distracting, purely on a visual basis, but I also find myself thinking, “Wow, someone actually had to write all this shit down.” Take Keeping Up With the Kardashians, for example. The show isn’t scripted, at least in the literal sense, but someone after the fact has to sit there and write down everything those apes say. And, of course, after every season the bosses at the E! Network or wherever must train a new person to do the job because because the previous person has invariably killed himself or herself after transcribing a season’s worth of soulless, vapid dialogue.

The subtitles also make me think about deaf people more often than I did previously. I’m in the process of making a list of the closed captioning stage directions that would be the least helpful to people who can’t hear. So far, the contenders are “[Speaking in a cartoonish, high-pitched voice],” which just seems mean to deaf people, and “[Audience claps along in rhythm with the music],” which could at least help someone who has never heard music to understand why everyone keeps touching their hands together hands together at the same time, I suppose.

Speaking of deaf people (which, yes, seems like the segue into a mean-spirited one-liner, but it’s not), just this week I remembered that I didn’t really understand what deafness was when I was very young. I had never seen anyone with a hearing aid or anything like that until I went to a wedding somewhere down south. (San Luis? Santa Barbara?) My grandmother came with us to the wedding and, there, she ran into a friend who had just gotten a hearing aid. The friend told her all about it — in a rather loud voice, I remember — and I had to ask my mom later why the plastic plug in this lady’s ear made her hear better. I couldn’t have been more than five, I don’t think, and I can’t explain how i came to this conclusion, but when my mom told me that people who can’t hear are called “deaf,” I assumed that this term also referred to a similar-sounding thing that I hadn’t yet had explained to me: death. Yes, I thought that being deaf meant being death — or possibly being Death, in the personified sense.

A valid question at this point: “Why the hell?” Again, I’m not sure how I fused these two concepts, exactly, but I was certain that I had it figured out. In a way, it makes sense: My mom had told me that my grandmother’s friend had at one point been able to hear, but as she got older she had completely lost her ability to do so. Similarly, when people get older, they also die. I knew that much about death, even if I don’t think I understand how dying was related to death. (When you die, do you become death? Does death take you somewhere?) Also, I watched a lot of TV as a kid, and I’m pretty sure I’d seen the Grim Reaper at some point in a show or a movie, so I knew that death could be a person, even if I couldn’t figure out why my grandmother’s friend wasn’t wearing a black robe and carrying a sickle. (Grown-up me logic takes over: She probably didn’t want to wear her work clothes to the wedding.) Finally, I feel like I mistook one word for the other because my parents might have avoided speaking the word “death” around me, just because I wouldn’t have been able to understand the concept at that age. Really, look how badly I got screwed up on “deaf.”

Time passed, and I didn’t see any more deaf people — black robes or no black robes — until one day I was at a grocery store with my friend and his mom. We’re walking down the aisle and we pass an old man who has a device strapped the back of his ear. It looked enough like the one that the lady at the wedding had that I made the obvious conclusion, “Oh it’s another death.” I distinctly remembering telling my friend, “Matt, don’t let him touch you.” (I don’t know if the old man heard me. However, it’s for all the right reasons that I say now that I hope he didn’t have a very good hearing aid.) Matt’s mom said nothing about the remark until we got to the car, when she asked me why I said that. I eagerly explained that the people who have those things on their ears are death, and if they touch you you become death too. (Apparently at this point I had been introduced to the concept that the Grim Reaper can kill people by touching them with his bony hand. TV? Movies? Why should I have known that?) Sitting in the back seat, I couldn’t whatever expression my friend’s mom made, and I’m glad for that, but she did explain to me that that I had fundamentally misunderstood the concept of deafness. And then she demonstrated the difference between the “f” sound and the “th” sound. That afternoon, after my mother drove me home, she clarified a little more that the hard-of-hearing are in, in fact, deadly to the touch and then explained what I imagine was a rather edited version of what it means to be deaf, to be dead and to be Death. I felt embarrassed but moreso relieved that deaf people were not necessarily a threat to my life.

The story never got back to my classmates, so I suppose it’s good that I got straightened out the way I did, because a year or two later my class had guest speakers visit: a lady and her deaf sister, who together explained how sign language worked. I’m just happy I didn’t end up making them seriously regret trying to broaden some children’s minds.

[ sighs, having been overcome with embarrassment ]


  1. Anonymous2:01 AM

    I'm told that a lot of deaf people actually enjoy music -- if it's heavy on bass and drums so they can feel the rhythm. Chamber music is a no-go I guess. But anyway, someone with that experience shouldn't have any trouble understanding people clapping to music.

    And on the topic of deaf people and sign language, have a little Adam Hills:

  2. Evelyn Glennie: deaf musician (a percussionist, in fact)

    There's also documentary about/featuring her called "Touch the Sound."