Crowd control

Ronald Mitchell

Copyright 2005

Hearing people often initiate a conversation with "Can you lip-read?" or "Do you sign?" Either question seems to bring a visceral reaction from some late deafened individuals. I guess they are offended by the implication that they should be able to do the one or the other to fit the hearing person's preconception of deafness. I am frequently asked both questions particularly in a large gatherings and I welcome them equally. I take it as an indication that the hearing person at least realizes some accommodation is needed and is open to setting up an optimum mode of interaction. My stock response to the first question is, "Yes, but you may need to repeat and even write some things down." Even before I can respond to the second question, the hearing person will likely apologize for not having good sign language. My response (vocally and with sign) is, "No problem, let's get you some practice."

So I'm off to a good start with that hearing person. My big problem and I suspect the real problem for most of us begins when another hearing person, or three or four or five, gets involved in the conversation. If the mode is lip-reading, they'll forget to face me and enunciate clearly, I won't know who is talking next, and a request to repeat is likely to get the dreaded, "Never mind, it isn't important." If I start off signing with one person, it's unlikely others joining in will know sign, the signer will speak to the other hearing persons without signing and probably forget about signing to me. The pits.

I have developed several strategies for dealing with this problem, some of which I will generously share with the SayWhatClub. The first approach requires that I come armed with my trusty AK-47 and a couple of extra ammo clips. I set the rules firmly: "Listen up people! All of you must face me and stay out of the light, speak at a normal rate and enunciate clearly, only one may speak at a time and you must raise your hand until I recognize you, also, be sure to pause after each sentence in case I have to ask for a repetition." Of course this approach can lead to killing the conversation, or even the participants, but so what? The world is overcrowded with talkative hearing people.

Another excellent strategy is to dominate the conversation. I will ask questions that require a response directed at me, I will make provocative statements bound to lead the conversation onto my theme. I will argue every point. If another participant gets off topic or is not understandable, I won't hesitate to interrupt her or him in mid-sentence. If necessary, I will go to Full Socratic Mode: a continual barrage of questions requiring little more than yes/no answers. I have to warn you that this strategy works only with one of two preconditions: you must be rich, famous and beautiful, or you must be the boss.

Another approach that sometimes works for me is to use my hearing wife as an oral/signing interpreter. Unfortunately, Helen has a life of her own. At any given party her red head will be bobbing in the distance just when some bearded individual is bellowing in my ear.

Finally, my favored solution: hire an interpreter. This is what I did for my son's wedding recently. I had a capable young lady interpreting into ASL during the rehearsal on Friday and through the ceremony and reception on Saturday. At the reception she was at my elbow for five hours during which time I was in just about continuous one-on-one and group conversations, often with people whom I had just met. In many cases, I was talking to relatives and old friends in a purely oral mode so that the interpreter was signing to the air. However, her help was invaluable when conversing with unfamiliar people, when people were speaking at a distance or making speeches or talking while looking in different directions. One other neat thing about having an interpreter, I can keep up with a conversation with only a corner of my eye on the terp and most of my attention on something else. Like refilling my wine glass or bussing a passing bridesmaid.

Well, I'm sure you folks in the SayWhatClub have your own ingenious solutions to the communication problem, oral and otherwise. Some of you probably lug around portable fm loops; others may engage court stenographers with captioning equipment and a video display on a wheeled cart. Some may prefer an Uzi or a shotgun to an AK-47. I encourage you to put aside any rancor about oral vs. ASL approaches and share your solutions as I have.


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