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First Person

Unless you've lived with a deaf person, you can't relate to my experiences, limitations or desires, Sophie Narod writes

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I am not your "deaf friend." And I don't want to be.

I'm not interested in your friends, or your parents' friends, who are deaf. If you tell me that one of your parents is deaf, I'd be happy to talk about that because I know that you'd have your own experience in what it is like to live with a deaf person. I can relate to that because my mother is deaf and that's something you and I would have in common. But if you just know "someone" who is deaf, that does not mean you know a thing about me.

When it comes to questions, the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate is even hard for me to discern. I guess it depends on how well we know each other, and whether or not we're friends, colleagues, or strangers. Here's what I can tell you in advance: I appreciate questions about how I manage to tackle daily tasks such as the telephone, public transportation and other things you may not realize are difficult for me. But please don't ask me personal questions.

Right before I graduated from high school, I asked my principal if she could supply me with two transcripts for my coming graduation ceremony because I wanted my mother and grandmother to be able to follow the speeches and awards as they were presented. My principal smiled confidently and told me that everything had already been taken care of, and that a sign language interpreter had already been hired for our benefit.

"Oh, that's so nice of you," I responded, "except that … we don't sign."

Many hearing people seem to have difficulty understanding that deaf people aren't born knowing how to sign, and that they, as natural human beings, must acquire language the same way that any other human acquires language. I was spoken to in English by my parents from birth, and I was instructed in English at school. English is my mother tongue. I never learned sign language in a family or institutional setting, so please don't act so surprised when I tell you I don't sign.

I had been going to this school for six years; my teachers knew me and my family very well. And yet, they still chose to assume what we, as deaf people, would need, rather than to ask. We were all embarrassed.

One of the most frustrating things you can ask me is: But wouldn't it be easier for you to sign? First of all, I resent your insinuation that I struggle to communicate. Understand that I am not obligated to learn how to sign; those who sign sometimes do so because they want to, not just because they must. And if I did choose to sign rather than speak, we'd have to use an interpreter, and no, I don't think that would be easier.

So, you watch the series Switched at Birth? Sure, I'm impressed that there's a TV show about a deaf young woman, but I don't watch it because I think the storylines are shallow, the acting is dramatic and the script is cheesy. No, I've never been to the restaurant where all the waiters are deaf. And no, I don't want to work there. I also don't want to develop an app that will make deaf lives easier, and I don't want to be a counsellor for deaf youth or a tour guide for deaf travellers. Please don't tag me in your Facebook videos of the latest singing sensation from America's Got Talent because she's deaf. Just because our disabilities are similar does not mean that we are kindred spirits.

Please don't physically exaggerate your speech for my benefit. A little bit of enunciation is great but that's all that's needed, otherwise you just look ridiculous. You also don't need to speak louder; I can hear you just fine. It's understanding you that's the hard part. I'll let you know what I need from you in order to better understand.

I don't want to hear that there are a lot out of jobs out there for a deaf person. I am sure you're right, but you have no idea, in a phone-interview culture, how damn hard it is to get one of those jobs. I am forced to admit my greatest insecurity before I am even interviewed.

It bothers me when you invite me to a party and tell your guests that I'm deaf before I arrive. You think you're making it easier for me but I can tell as soon as I walk in the room, since some people – out of fear that they might offend – will ignore me completely. I ask that you give me the opportunity to introduce myself to others without giving them a "summary" of my abilities first.

My hearing loss is only one part of me, but it's an important part of me and it's not something I hide because I am proud of myself and my accomplishments. But don't assume that just because I seem to get by so well on most days that I don't have depressive episodes. In the middle of the night, I often lie in bed and replay the day's successful interactions before I force myself to admit that I probably missed something said and embarrassed myself. All this means is: Even though I seem "okay," that doesn't mean my life isn't difficult.

Lastly, don't assume that this essay represents the desires of all deaf people. It speaks only for me. I know that I've laid out a lot of requests, but I'm in an awkward position. I ask society to treat me differently – especially in airports or during oral exams – because otherwise I would miss my flights or fail my classes. But when it comes to us, just ask me how I wish to be treated, and I'll tell you. All you have to do is listen.

Sophie Narod lives in Toronto.